From the shores of Vancouver to the back roads of Liberia, reporter Travis Lupick has been there, done that, and filed it before dawn. Starting as a 15-year-old schoolboy hucking newsprint at his uncle’s alt-weekly, he worked his way up to Web editor and then took his talent overseas to some of the liveliest areas on the planet: Bangkok, Bhutan, Malawi, and Monrovia.
While still contributing to that same alt-weekly, The Georgia Straight, he freelances for Al Jazeera, The Toronto Star, and Africa Report, among others. At this precise moment, he’s based in Monrovia, Liberia.
“I never did pursue an actual degree in journalism,” he said. “I felt like there was never time.”
During his travels, the freelance reporter found time to compile a list of journalists on Twitter, which inspired our own roundup. He uses Twitter in his own work as well, posting as @tlupick. He currently has more than 2,000 followers.
We spoke with Lupick via email about his list and online journalism in general. Having moved from the most Facebooked city in the world to a place where fewer than 5 percent of the population is even online, he’s in a unique position to give some perspective on social media, print journalism, and the sometimes all-too-real world.
Daily Dot: How did you get into journalism, and how did you end up in Liberia?
I grew up with newspapers. My uncle owns an alt-weekly in Vancouver (The Georgia Straight), and I was loading trucks there when I was 13. Then it was internships during summers away from McGill University, where I did a degree in political science. After school, the Straight took me on as a staff writer. From those earlier years, I owe almost everything I know about journalism to Charlie Smith, the editor of the Straight, and still a close friend. Smith mentored me and, with my uncle, Dan McLeod, encouraged me to pursue my interests in international events, which contributed to how I found myself on the west coast of Africa today.
DD: How has journalism changed since you entered it?
Immensely. But everybody knows that. Overall, I think that the media's move to the Internet is a positive one. Increasing access and democratizing the control of information and all of that. But publishers continue to struggle with its negative effects. I spent four or five years as the managing editor for the Georgia Straight's website. That position saw me move from writing for a weekly publication to helping manage an outlet that ran not on days, hours, or even minutes, but seconds. With websites, you're racing your competitors to get to the top of Google results, and those races have definitive winners. We're of course talking about hits. And because advertisers and sales reps haven't figured out that there are measurements beyond simple pageviews, too often, it's a race to the bottom. Speed and quantity over accuracy and quality. I'm not saying that that's all that we were doing at the Straight; I'm saying that generally speaking, it is an unfortunate consequence of the media's overall move online, and one that we have yet to correct.
And then came along Twitter, which amplified all of that exponentially.
DD: Can you think of a social media interaction that ended in disaster?
No. We're talking about Twitter. You get 140 characters and thoughts are whipped into text that's then immortalized by Google cache in a matter of seconds. You can't attribute such great importance to such an immediate medium. "Twitter, the death of the second thought," I believe I once wrote. Reactions come fast and people make mistakes. Take it all with a grain of salt.
DD: Can you think of one social media interaction that was particularly fruitful?
Yes, the couple of articles in which I was featured by Journalism.co.uk. My participation in those articles can be traced back to conversations on Twitter. But beyond that, you have to understand that I've spent the last two years working in some of the least-developed countries on Earth—Bhutan, Malawi, Liberia—and so how I've been using Twitter is very different from how people in North America or Europe use the social network service.
For me, Twitter has been more of a tool for collecting and broadcasting information at an international level. At a community or even at a national level, it remains relatively useless for communication within countries with very low rates of Internet penetration. At least until something blows up and the international press arrive.
DD: You’ve written about the dangers faced by young and inexperienced freelancers and citizen journalists in conflict zones. Tell us more about the effects of social media on journalism.
Journalists, editors, photographers, whatever... They do work for which they should be paid. I'm not about to start quoting Ayn Rand. But I do believe that something of value should be worthy of monetary compensation. Social media seems to be pushing us towards a situation where the basic fundamentals of that notion are ignored. And I don't believe that this is as democratic a process as general discourse suggests. Is the playing field really being leveled?
I'll argue that social media vastly favours the privileged. People who can afford iPhones and data plans while giving away a quality photograph for 50 bucks, or, more often, for nothing. Only relatively wealthy individuals can operate that way. So is social media truly leading us in the direction where everybody has an equal voice? Or will the long-term consequences of such a dynamic take us somewhere less ideal, where news is fueled by the contributions of citizen journalists, but only with images and perceptions provided by the wealthy.
DD: What social media tools and platforms do you use to do your job?
I'm based out of Monrovia, Liberia. I use Twitter, but it's a pretty miserable user experience. I run Opera on my Blackberry, when it will load. And when I can, I keep a close eye on specific journalists who are of interest to me. And I make sure I check in with the BBC's homepage and Al Jazeera several times a day. But the capacity constraints of my location prohibit access to a lot of tools and platforms that other journalists operating in more-developed areas are using. I can't take a photograph in the field and immediately broadcast it over Facebook, for example. YouTube doesn't really work over here (although Google deserves major points for YouTube Feather; that service's launch was a big deal for me.) And uploading high-quality images to Flickr is always a very frustrating experience. So I pretty much just keep to Twitter.
DD: What makes the difference between something you'd put out on social media and something you wouldn't? Do you keep things off Twitter for your major story or do you live-tweet events as they unfurl?
How big the story is, whether or not the tweet will result in another journalist scooping me, the value of the message to the public—it's all a balancing act. I do strongly believe in Twitter as a powerful medium for journalism, and so I try to use it as much as I can. But I recognize its limitations.
One significant weakness—and one that would seem obvious but is generally ignored—is that Twitter requires an Internet connection. That's a major limitation. If some form of Twitter (that goes beyond only sending out tweets) could function in a strictly SMS-based interface, that could probably be very beneficial to a lot of people around the world.
DD: On that note, what are some social media guidelines you'd suggest for young journalists starting out?
Do social media. If you don't, nobody will hire you.
It took a while, but management has finally figured out the power of letting their journalists speak and interact directly with their audiences. Writers are no-longer just writers. If you want a staff position, you better be able to bring in 600 words plus a photo and a video clip, and know how to give it a rough edit, post it on YouTube, and broadcast it all on Facebook and Twitter. Oh, and we'll also want live updates from the ground, pics posted from the concert you're reviewing, and a Tumblr account that links back to your news outlet's homepage. And that's for a simple "staff writers" position. So good luck to everybody.
Also—and many editors might disagree with me on this—be yourself. Readers don't want to follow machines on Twitter. They want to follow real people living real lives. Journalists should give them that peek behind the curtain. Be yourself. And tell the boss who's telling you not to that they are wrong.
Full disclosure: Lorraine Murphy once contributed a story to a website Lupick edited.
Photo via Travis Lupick