Journalism on the Map: A Case for Location-Aware Storytelling

By Clark, Krissy | Nieman Reports, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Journalism on the Map: A Case for Location-Aware Storytelling


Clark, Krissy, Nieman Reports


"To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul."

--Philosopher Simone Weil

Once upon a time I had a vision in the Utah desert and saw the future of journalism. (At least, part of its future.) The vision came while I was deliriously hot, driving west of Salt Lake City across a vast stretch of land where almost nobody lives. But there was this house off in the distance. What was it doing there? I couldn't stop wondering. Who lived in it? Why? It was a familiar feeling, one that fuels my journalism--a deep curiosity about a place and the people who inhabit it.

In my delirium, I had the strange urge to click on the house as a person might click on a hyperlink. I wanted to find out more about the house, its inhabitants, and the desert surrounding it. This urge was delusional, of course. The landscape is not made of hyperlinks; we can't click on things we see in the world to learn more about them.

At least, six years ago, when I had this vision, we couldn't.

Before I go any further, let me back up. This drive through Utah was not the first road trip to shape my vision of journalism. I became a journalist via road trips. In the late 1980's, my father and I took a series of drives on weekends, together in his beat-up brown Mercedes. I was young and curious; he was old and sick with the emphysema that would later kill him when I was in high school. We drove because he had things to show me, most of all the land surrounding the San Francisco Bay, where our family has lived since 1848. I was navigator, squinting over maps, fingering shorelines, and tracing roads. As I looked out the window, my dad told stories of what we saw.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Down that road, in the little town of Birds Landing, were the ruins of my great-great-grandfather's store, which supplied gold-seeking forty-niners. (Now the building sits in the shadow of an industrial wind farm.) Up that hill, on Vallejo Street in San Francisco, was where my dad and his mother before him grew up. (My great-grandparents moved into the house after their original house was damaged in the 1906 earthquake.) Past that tollbooth--see it through the fog?--was the place where as teenagers, my dad and his best friend climbed up the base of the Golden Gate Bridge (or so they told us) while it was under construction.

It was on these trips that I first fell in love with a place and its people, and I understood that a landscape is made of stories over time, layer upon layer, like geologic strata.

A year after graduating from college, I saved up for a bicycle ride across America with my best friend. We pedaled from California to Massachusetts and camped in the yards of people we met along the way. We had breakfast with roughnecks living large off the gas boom in Wyoming. The noise and lights from their rigs kept the town up at night. We stayed with a family who raised hogs in Minnesota but struggled to compete with corporate farms. We rode through an impoverished Indian reservation and met locals who hoped a casino might help. We hit the Atlantic Ocean, and I didn't want to stop.

But I had figured out that what I liked doing--meeting people, asking them questions, learning about the joys and frustrations of the places they lived--had something to do with journalism. Since then, over the course of my career I have let these instincts and values guide me. I have been a student of how land shapes people and how people shape the land. I've learned to ask simple questions that often lead to surprising answers--and interesting stories. Why did San Francisco become the gay-friendliest city? What happens to a cow town when the cows are all gone? What drives a city to court a nuclear bomb factory? What is it like to live in the foreclosure capital of the U.S.?

Mapping the Journey

There is another thing all those road trips taught me. Maps are powerful tools. …

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