National Geographic Magazine August Cover 2012What started as just another photographic assignment has turned into a life-altering mission, ultimately blazing a path that blends a new and risky publishing approach with content that is difficult to convey through traditional formats. This story reminds me that publishing isn’t always pretty, or about beauty shots, food styling, or the awesome photo alone. Publishing is meant to tell a story, to captivate, to educate, challenge, take risks, and initiate change. It reminds me why, many years ago, I knew I needed to be involved in publishing in some way.

This is no ordinary story, and it involves what is certainly not an ordinary approach to publishing content. It’s that combination of the story and the approach to telling it that makes it notable and made me want to share it with you.

Photographer Aaron Huey‘s focus on poverty has entrenched him in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. But it is his work within the U.S., photographing and living with the Oglala Lakota people of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, that really moved him to push his anti-poverty efforts further, including taking his message to a TEDx conference. National Geographic has teamed with Huey to help give his work greater visibility through a visually rich, embeddable storytelling platform called Cowbird, where he has created The Pine Ridge Community Storytelling Project.

Using Cowbird, along with school and library computers, the people of Pine Ridge are able to post pictures, and write about their experiences and feelings and immediately upload the content for viewing on the project website.

What’s unique about Cowbird and its approach is that it allows the stories that are limited by Huey’s lens or a journalist’s words to be told without constraint, direct from the storyteller, and undiluted. “National Geographic is incredibly brave in letting me do this with them,” Huey says. “We are streaming completely unedited content—there’s no filtering system of any kind.”

As described on the Cowbird website: “Cowbird is a small community of storytellers, focused on a deeper, longer-lasting, more personal kind of storytelling than you’re likely to find anywhere else on the Web.” Huey, in his work as a Stanford Fellow, was considering building his own grid-based storytelling system when he discovered Cowbird and its founder, Jonathan Harris, whom Huey describes as a “genius.” Together, they worked on the concept that became the Pine Ridge project hosted by National Geographic.

Huey was pulled into the story of the Lakota over several visits to photograph them. As the people of the indigenous nation began to develop trust in him, they shared stories of their people’s history and unbelievable tales about their own lives. The media typically came to the reservation to capture images that sensationalized its poverty, crime, and violence, but the Lakota wanted to take Huey beyond the stereotypes. The people he’d come to know challenged him to let them tell their own stories and to shine a light on their history and culture.

During this intensely emotional experience, Huey began to shift his role from that of photojournalist to advocate. It started when he received letters from schoolchildren within the reservation, asking him to do more. (Read more at About the Project.)

A great obstacle in the process was finding a way to give a digital voice to a community that had little to no computer resources or skills. Through his own personal investment, and support from ongoing grants, Huey has been able to bring resources to the community to help them tell their stories. He has been fortunate to have support from the Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University and a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

For years, Huey worked to find a way to bring his mission to fruition, but it was the unrelenting support from National Geographic, combined with Cowbird, that finally provided him with a forum to make it a reality. “National Geographic asked me what I would need to take this all the way—how I could really finish it and do it right. They asked me what story I really wanted to tell. I’ve had unending support from the start.”

Chris Johns, Editor in Chief of National Geographic magazine, adds, “The impetus of our covering Pine Ridge began when Sarah Leen, a photo editor here, showed me Aaron’s pictures.  I was captivated by the power of his photography and his remarkable access.  He obviously had the trust of the Lakota people.  I know how difficult it is to gain that trust and how important it is for the people on the reservation to have a voice.  Aaron’s work offered fresh perspective and an intimate visual portrait of the place.  When he shared his idea of launching a storytelling platform with the article, I saw it as an exciting opportunity to take that traditional journalistic coverage one step further and experiment with how National Geographic magazine could contribute to a deeper—and perhaps “truer”—understanding of the place and people.  I am extremely proud of the final story and of how our cowbird collaboration enriches the reporting by sharing the community’s own stories, memories, and thoughts about life on the reservation.”

So, what’s unique and noteworthy about this project, beyond the moving and significant subject matter? Once again, National Geographic is pushing the boundaries of what publishing is, and the packaging around how it’s delivered. They’ve recognized that content delivery needs to span different media formats and tell a complete story utilizing the individual strengths of all of the available platforms combined—it’s not just about delivering a message through a single platform. And it’s about taking risks and being willing to experiment with new formats to tell a story well.

I’m honored to be in a position to see pivotal works of this caliber, and to share their success as a lesson in new approaches to publishing.

Posted by: Margot Knorr Mancini

A thought leader in the publishing industry, Margot Knorr Mancini has helped numerous publishers redefine their missions to become nimble content generators with the ability to repurpose content easily and efficiently. As Founder & CEO of Technology for Publishing, her analytical mind allows her to remain a step ahead of the industry, recognizing early trends and developing pivotal best practices.