What do you do when no one is reporting the news you know is out there? Start your own international reporting non-profit.
That’s what Sarah Stuteville did six years ago, when she and two high school buddies from Washington state graduated college in New York City and found themselves unsatisfied with the international coverage available to them.
“Our generation is really interested in the rest of the world. It really connects with a global identity,” Stuteville said. “The journalism out there didn’t acknowledge our kinds of news consumers.”
So she, Alex Stonehill (now her husband) and Jessica Partnow founded the Common Language Project, a journalism non-profit that focuses on underreported local and international stories. What started out as a part-time project funded by jobs waiting tables, working in a wine cellar and staffing a food bank turned into an organization collaborating with nearly 100 journalists and housed in the University of Washington’s Department of Communications. The Common Language Project publishes stories in traditional outlets as well as its website and blog, the Seattle Globalist.
With an eye toward the future of journalism, Stuteville said the Common Language Project seeks to challenge bold assumptions, take advantage of new storytelling tools and report on critical issues of today “through a human lens.” For example, her recent story written with former Marine Dan O’Brien considered the lives of Iraqi refugees from the perspective of an American Marine returning as a civilian.
Like many of CLP’s international reporting projects, this story explored an underreported issue in the Muslim world. But unlike Stuteville’s typical method for developing story ideas, this one focused on her close friend. Stuteville and O’Brien were childhood friends, and it was more difficult than she expected to be fair to both O’Brien and readers when reporting on their experiences together in Iraq.
“The hardest part was trying to negotiate how to be sensitive to my friend, to the circumstances and to our shared history,” Stuteville said. “I think there were moments when we wished we could walk away, but I think both of us are glad we didn’t.”
Their work paid off when Stuteville’s story was honored with the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for local/regional magazine writing. The article can be read at SPJ.org or CLPmag.org, which includes O’Brien’s own video journal of the trip.
Behind the award-winning stories the CLP produces, you’ll find a whole lot of work. The founding team members clicked because of their shared interests in international issues and events, fostered by different areas of expertise that fueled the project’s inception. Stuteville notes that “all three of us were in New York on Sept. 11, and I think part of that informed an interest in the way the rest of the world was covered in the news, and America’s involvement in the news.”
While the CLP takes up most of Stuteville’s day, she still finds time to be an active member of the Western Washington Pro chapter of SPJ. After moving back to Seattle from New York, she was “struck by what a strong community of journalists was there.” She appreciates the closely knit, collaborative network of journalists. “SPJ here exemplifies that,” Stuteville said, citing the chapter’s enthusiasm for embracing new trends in the industry and serving as a hub for journalists young and old.
Looking to the future, Stuteville hopes SPJ will further address the importance of encouraging young journalists by providing scholarships, but also by encouraging them to join a profession whose future may seem uncertain. “Obviously it’s the best job in the world,” she said, emphasizing that for her, becoming a journalist during such a time of change was actually “too good to be true.”
Despite all the work involved in the Common Language Project and SPJ, Stuteville said that above all that, she is grateful to have the job she has.
“Waking up every morning realizing you get to go to a job you designed with your husband and best friend is pretty rad,” she said.