UW Today

August 31, 2011

Hanson Hosein, on creativity, credibility and his ‘Storyteller Uprising’

News and Information

In releasing a print version of his book Storyteller Uprising, Hanson Hosein did what he often encourages his students to do — stop waiting for institutional approval and just make it happen.

Hosein, director of the UWs Masters in Digital Media program, writes in Storyteller Uprising of his experiences moving away from NBC and CNN-style broadcast journalism to the community-empowered approach he calls “trusted communication.” And he points a way for others interested in following a similar path.

The uprising he refers to is the global transformation of news and information content — “people seizing control of communication by building ongoing, credible connection through story and digital technology.” These are ideas Hosein promotes in the graduate program and his own news and documentary film work.

So when Oxford University Press, the intended publisher, moved at a glacial speed, Hosein decided to change his approach. “I just felt, no, thats not the way to go. This stuff is too important and too current for me to wait.”

So he released it himself — online, as an e-book, a PDF file and cell phone app, as well as through the University Book Stores espresso book machine. Its a similar path to the one he took with his first film, Independent America. The change was emblematic of the newer, more fluid way of information distribution, he said, but also of his own personality: “I dont ever like to sit around and wait for an institution to pass judgment on my work.”

But even now, the manuscript isnt really done. “Its an unfinished book — a book in progress. To me its kind of like a blog in published form, that as I have ideas I need to share with my various communities, I’m going to put it together and have an artifact that they can use as a resource,” he said.

Hanson Hosein

Hanson Hosein

The book is just another step in a varied career that has taken Hosein from Columbia Universitys Graduate School of Journalism to network news, prized work as a freelance filmmaker, and finally to academe at the UW, where he appears to have flourished.

“All content is commodity now, so this book is a calling card that allows me to increase my credibility when Im on the speaking circuit, or at the University.” Hosein is currently writing the next chapter, “which is about engagement strategy after youve created this story. Its coming directly from some work Ive done with Microsoft, MasterCard and the University of Washington as clients.”

Its all part, he said, of the transition from a communication strategy to a storytelling  and community-building strategy. “Its no longer convincing people of storytelling, its now implementing the storytelling strategy.”

Intimately connected with this are what he calls the “Four Peaks” of the graduate programs curricular focus: entrepreneurship, innovation, community and story. In his blog about the book and related work, he wrote that he sees the Four Peaks “as the core elements that all communicators must now draw upon if they wish to engage with trust and persuasion in this noisy, chaotic digital age.”

He refers with pleasure to Clay Shirkys 2008 book, Here Comes Everybody and its use of the phrase “publish, then filter.” He writes, “In the digital age, it means barriers to entry, costs, and content distribution platforms are all so accessible that the traditional mass media model of ‘filter, then publish is no longer the norm.”

That gets back to how he tends to advise students, especially those who consider entering the shopworn establishment of professional news. “I have so many students — especially undergrads — who come to my office and say, ‘Should I go to journalism school? Ive got this film I want to make but I feel like I ought to go to journalism school first. I say, ‘Absolutely not! Do you really want to put yourself in debt to an industry thats dying?” The study of journalism remains “a great pursuit,” he added, though not as an expensive process that sends students off to “a dying business model.”

He said if they have an idea they believe in and the tools and time to do the film, he tells them, “You should just go do it! If you have a story and you think theres a community you can connect to, the time is now — just go do it.”

But he also tells them that “the competition for ideas and for attention now is worse than its ever been, its almost like the survival of the fittest, or the most entertaining, when it comes to messages and stories getting out there. Youve got to think of ways of being as compelling as possible.” He makes no apologies if the message doesnt promise pure objectivity and conform to an older style of news delivery. “Its not going to happen uniformly or universally, but theres a lot of fact-checking going on there.”

He and filmmaking partner Scott Macklin — also associate director of the graduate program — recently completed a short film called Detroit Uprising that comprises a third part of the Independent America series. It stemmed from their attendance at a Journalism That Matters conference in Detroit where the two learned of the strong negative local reaction to a previous Time magazine piece on the city. It was the sort of boots-on-the-ground filmmaking that is at the heart of Storyteller Uprising and Hoseins other recent work.

With a book published — or under way, depending on how you think about it — and a new cohort of students headed to the graduate program he heads, Hosein is  comfortable in his role as change agent and voice for empowered community storytelling.

“Ive had the ideas before, but didnt necessarily have the track record or credibility, so I kept shifting around from institution to institution to create a career,” he said. “Now I feel this wonderful nexus between creativity and credibility — Im really enjoying myself and feel people are actually listening to what Im saying. It doesnt get any better than this.”