Forced outside the box – once again

Of the many surprises that awaited us on our arrival at Stanford, none was more refreshing than the announcement during Orientation Week that we were not expected to feel beholden to the projects we’d proposed as part of our Stanford application. In fact, we were told we were expected to explore new ideas, to find new projects to work on, to collaborate. 

This surprised me. After all, the requirement to propose a journalism project as part of the fellowship application had been the most important change the Knight Fellowships had instituted as part of its refocus on innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership. But the folks running the program knew better. Stanford is about innovation and entrepreneurship, and Knight Fellows were expected to work in that spirit. 

Thank you very much for telling us now. All those days and nights losing sleep over producing the most brilliant idea to win one of the most prestigious journalism fellowships in the country had apparently been for naught, right? 

Well, not really. 

The proposal requirement does have value. It forces you to think outside the box and to refine your ideas. 

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Masood Farivar reporting in Afghanistan.

But we were at Stanford, in the heart of Silicon Valley, and it was only fitting for the Knight Fellowships to encourage us to embrace new ideas. To use a double cliché, I felt like the creative equivalent of the proverbial kid in a candy store. 

I was psyched. It wasn’t as though my proposal to create a virtual community of radio journalists and a content sharing platform for local radio stations in Afghanistan had been for application purposes only. 

But after talking to several former Knight Fellows who were also radio industry veterans, I concluded that my project faced a major technological challenge unique to Afghanistan – insufficient broadband capacity – and that until Afghanistan acquired widely accessible high speed internet it would be difficult to implement the project. 

Like other fellows, I started meeting with and talking to everyone and anyone who could give me an idea. The project that I ended up spending much of my fellowship year on grew out of a conversation with Sahar Ghazi, a Pakistani American journalist who had spent the previous year as a Knight Fellow. 

Sahar had recently launched Hosh Media, her Knight project linking young Pakistani bloggers to her native country’s mainstream media. Like many entrepreneurs, she produced much of the content herself and wanted to talk to me about a story on Afghanistan. But when I talked about Afghan views of Pakistan, our conversation turned to the sensationalist way in which the media on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border cover events on the ground. 

I put two and two together and realized that I may have found a new idea to pursue. Sahar agreed. Her feedback was important; though I had thought about the sensationalizing of news by both countries, I had never talked to a Pakistani journalist about it. Her feedback encouraged me to talk to others. 

The challenge was the poor quality of local reporting that had exacerbated tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The solution: A web-based platform that would be the barter of high quality stories offering rich local perspectives between Afghan and Pakistani media outlets. 

But wait. Why would Pakistani and Afghan media outlets be interested in subscribing to the service? 

It was a question that would inevitably arise in almost every conversation and email exchange I had about my project: How do you get people to change their old ways of doing things? 

I was under no illusion that I faced a daunting task. The solution: Start small. Test the idea. Get feedback. At Sahar’s suggestion, I decided to prototype the project on Tumblr, the blogging platform. The result, initially called the AfPak Report, was part blogging platform, part news aggregator, and part discussion forum. Kind of a Huffington Post – minus the gossip. The aim is to spark a debate about the present quality of cross-border reporting and the need for a new type of journalism that serves the public interest. 

It was and in a place like Stanford, the heart of Silicon Valley, it was only fitting to adopt an intellectually open attitude.