From the beginning, this project has had to overcome the conflict of having two goals, two bottom lines that would oft refuse to go in the same direction. We have always wanted to have our cake and eat it too: to practice journalism and undertake the feat of cycling across Eurasia.
In the first few months of this trip, when we were learning the basics of both trades, it seemed that they might have been incompatible. Both processes—journalistic investigation and bicycle travel—are so slow as to be tests of patience, and they are made slower still by the mountain of logistics we climb every day to accomplish those goals at the lowest possible budget. It doesn’t help that our style of journalism has been the feature, which involved weeks of research and writing in a single place to produce in depth coverage on a community. Our projects were measured in the span of months.
We have made the slow combination of cycling and journalism work with the luxury of a lot of time. Come March, we will have been gone a year, with the vast majority of that spent in only five countries.
With less than a year left in this project, and all of South East Asia, the Steppe, and China to cross, we will no longer have that kind of time. The next year will be more difficult. We will have to rethink our brand of journalism, find a new process for writing compelling stories that will allow us to spend less time in more places. The challenge starts here in Myanmar, where we only have six weeks to produce a column and travel 1800 km over bad roads, all while maintaining content for our Forbes blog, Thought Catalog, and this website.
In India, we had a similar distance between Hyderabad and New Delhi. With travel and writing, it took us ten weeks to get two feature stories out the door, and we had far less articles to write for other publications.
At no point on the rest of this trip will we enjoy that lavish pace. There are deadlines everywhere- short visas in the SE Asian countries, and a flight from Hanoi to Tblisi on June 15th to catch. After that, it will be a race to ride, enjoy, and report on Central Asia before the harshest of Chinas’ winter sets in. Everywhere we go, we’ll feel the Time Crunch. Every lead we pursue will come at the cost of another, and every day we spend in a town is a day we will not spend somewhere else. To continue producing good journalism, we have to completely rebuild our methods of investigating on the road.
We’ve started doing that here in Myanmar, where we’ve abandoned the feature model. Instead, we’re experimenting with a format that we hope to keep perfecting—writing a column based on a single big idea. Here in Myanmar, it’s about the change that is sweeping the country. The column will be a series of 600 word pieces about what change means to individuals we meet here.
The column model reflects a lot of what we’ve learned about how people consume content. People prefer short answers to big ideas, to questions that are immediately apparent for their relevance. Take, for example, or current column, about what change means in Myanmar. It’s been a subject of fascination with the press for a while, and change is one of those sexy words than can stand alone as a political campaign slogan. It’s accessible, and each anecdote we write about it will shed light on some small part of the change. Each anecdote will stand alone, and readers will be able to discover as much by they want by reading as many pieces as they want. This column will have ten pieces. Other big themes we might write about could include outsourcing in China, child adoption in Central Asia, or rural development in Thailand. They will be stories you have already heard of, and already understand to be relevant, told through a series of small anecdotes.
We no longer feel the need, as we did in India, to be able to make broad declarations about the nature of a community. It’s a practice that is a dangerous habit for a foreign journalist, and has to be backed up with exhaustive research and arguments. Readers, it turns out, draw strong conclusions on their own. It is enough to tell the story of a single character or many of them in a column, and let the reader decide what they want to take away. We, of course, the journalists and cyclists, will become some of the biggest characters in our stories. It is through our experiences that all of our writing stems. The stories may be more powerful unfiltered, where the reader only receives the anecdotes of what happened to us, unmolded by our preconceptions or desires to pound the anecdotes into an arc.
We think the column model, with the shorter anecdotes and more photographs, based on big ideas like the change in Myanmar, will find a warmer welcome among the short attention spans on the web. Just as important, it will allow us to write and report while continuing the march to Shanghai, and paint a broader picture of the lands we pass through for our readers.