Against the Odds

Perhaps it was unlikely that Project Word came to life in 2009, as it did. Project Word probably defies conventional thinking with its core idea: 1) that good old-fashioned print newspapers and magazines and conventional broadcast outlets are worth supporting, along with their many New Media alternatives, and 2) that practical hands-on measures could strengthen “media diversity”—the cultivation of writers from the widest possible diversity of backgrounds, as well as stories involving important and overlooked sources, voices, settings, and issues.

This vision was born in 2006 when the project’s founding director, Laird Townsend, an Associated Press-trained reporter and former Orion magazine features editor, noticed something at Orion: because of deadline pressures the magazine struggled to develop ‘risky” work, outside normal channels. There was little time for articles by ethnically and culturally diverse writers and stories about overlooked communities. Figuring that this happened at many media outlets, he thought an organization might exist to facilitate such writers or stories. But none did. So he decided to create the missing organization. The idea became Project Word, a dedicated, hands-on service to help editors and producers meet the challenge of media diversity.

The odds of success certainly weren’t encouraging. With the loss of some 35,000 journalists and editors in the past several years, discriminating editors were busier than ever, working with ever less time and money, especially at print publications. This meant editors could generally take fewer risks and develop fewer substantial pieces in the public interest.

However, we believed that a nonprofit editor-at-large, working gratis with philanthropic support, could help editors overcome the obstacles.

In particular, we believed that with the extensive editorial experience we offer, editors could develop, vet, and publish more work in the public interest, advancing media diversity. At the same time we believed that in helping fellow editors, we could also help 1) writers whose work otherwise would go unpublished, 2) communities whose voices might otherwise go unheard, and 3) audiences hungry for strong public-interest narratives related to environmental and social issues. We believed that this contribution would foster a healthy and resilient society. We believed that there was a niche to fill.

If the past few years are any indication, our belief has proved correct. Thanks to generous initial support for Project Word’s vision, we are happy to report that the first articles facilitated by Project Word have come to light—in The Boston Globe, The Nation, Mother Jones, National Geographic News Watch, Atlantic Monthly on-line, Resurgence, and Guernica. It’s safe to say that these articles would not have appeared as they did without Project Word’s broad range of services: from grant-funded reporting, to intensive story development, to liaisoning with editors, to technical and logistical assistance. But Project Word was only a catalyst for something that everyone wanted. We helped writers to do the job, editors to publish pieces they liked, and important ethnically diverse voices to reach the reader. To help support this work, please go to the Donate page.