Filmmaker Grant Slater on the future of media

Grant Slater was behind the camera for “You Can’t Go Home Again,” our upcoming shortreal (to be released in collaboration with TechCrunch) about the San Francisco housing crisis. Not too long before coming to San Francisco to film with us, Grant was in Ukraine for the New York Times. He’s working on a lot of really cool projects, which you should check out on his website.


Who are you?

I tell stories – mostly in pictures, both moving and still. I’m from Oklahoma where my family bounced around to a few small towns before we settled in Norman, home to the state’s biggest university. I spent most of my life there, playing music in high school and college. My grandparents lived on a farm about 20 miles outside of town and I spent a lot of time out there as well.

I got my start in journalism as a writer, first for local papers in Oklahoma and then as freelancer for three years in the former Soviet Union. I lived in Moscow and wrote about the 2008 war in Georgia, a significant economic collapse in the country and minority cultures. About that time, sitting in Moscow and watching the American newspaper industry collapse inward on itself from afar, I decided it was time to learn new ways to tell stories.

I picked up a camera and started to make videos for the web. Later, I learned how to take photos. I traveled for months in Israel and the Palestinian Territories and around Iraq. For the past few years, I lived in Los Angeles working on taking my filmmaking to a higher level, stealing strategies from real filmmakers and the production industry. There’s a whole new world of storytelling growing out of the possibilities of storytelling for web audiences.

Why does having a healthy media matter?

It’s easy to succumb to fears that the sky is falling on journalism today. I’m optimistic. We’ve never had more bandwidth and better tools to deliver stories to people.

There is still some work to be done to make sure we can deliver quality journalism to people. The most important stories are often the hardest to tell, both conceptually and financially. They are stories that get to the core of who we are as a society and, more importantly, where we are going together. I do this work because I believe we can’t decide anything collectively without it.

We need to find new templates, new inspiration and new audiences quickly. Particularly in web video, there is a temptation to swing for the fences and make every video into an easily digestible viral hit. This isn’t something we expect of our journalism on television. We have to look to new models beyond television news or viral videos to build audiences and tell important stories. As the audience for television news dies out, it’s important to ask ourselves what will fill the vacuum.

What is the future of media?

If I had all the answers, I’d be building it right now. I do value the breakneck pace of today’s journalism, from the flood of undigested information available on Twitter to the shared experience of know that each and every one of us has watched someone dump ice water on their head because of an ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. These are the new mass media.

As a journalist, I often feel like it’s more my role to ride the wave of media, which largely propels itself. I’m surfing atop it trying to stay afloat.

There are questions that never go away, but there are almost always new people to take a stab at the answer, new people with stories to tell. That is where we find ourselves now, relying on our own creativity to fashion new storytelling forms that will create bigger waves in our audience.

I think the next 10 years will see an explosion of new channels, new destinations for media delivery. It’s not enough to make one viral hit. Sustainability comes from loyalty and habit. It’s rare to see that in web video. It will need to happen a lot more often before we can start to change the paradigm.

What gets you going about filmmaking?

My early career in writing still weighs heavily on my editorial decision-making as a visual journalist. I’m often drawn toward the same stories that I would have chosen as a writer, topics that are complex and can be hard to visualize. I like to seek out engaging ways to convey through images and emotion something that might usually be left to a magazine article or a science journal.

I love to ask questions about our future, take a step back and say, “Where are we going now?” That can be a tough thing to visualize, but I think it’s an effort we have to make.

The thing I love about visual storytelling for the web is that we have a chance to let the subjects of our videos tell their own stories and get their own points across. There is no formula. There is no template. That’s liberating, and that’s why I do this.