Last summer, four young journalists launched “Fly Over Me,” a long-form multimedia documentary project. They wanted to tell the stories of rural America—and in particular, those of Valentine, a small town in the Nebraska Sandhills. After spending three months in Valentine last summer, they’ve produced a collection of multimedia stories. As summer again approaches, they’re planning to go back. NET News spoke with Lauren Justice and Jacob Zlomke of the Fly Over Me project.
JACOB ZLOMKE: The project’s goal is to make connections between people from rural parts of America and the rest of the country where they may be less familiar with what that kind of culture is like. We feel it’s a hugely important part of American culture that in traditional media is maybe not given the time and coverage it really deserves to be fleshed out and understood. The way we’ve done that so far is mostly through immersion. We moved out to Valentine, Nebraska last summer, four of us: Lauren, myself, Nick Teets and Andrew Dickinson. We lived there for three months, became a part of the community and told stories that way rather than correspondents that were sent there.
NET NEWS: What inspired this project? What’s its purpose?
ZLOMKE: I’m from a small town about the same size as Valentine, and I’ve always been really interested by the character of places like that. Andrew and I had been throwing around ideas of projects we could do that could, in one sweep, tell the story of a town. Eventually we landed on Fly Over Me.
NET NEWS: Named that because of the location?
ZLOMKE: Yes, it's definitely a tongue-in-cheek reference to where we are.
NET NEWS: What surprised you about Valentine or the people?
LAUREN JUSTICE: Going to Valentine was the first time I’d ever lived somewhere that had less than 100,000 people. So for me, there was a certain amount of culture shock going into such a small town, and an environment driven by ranching, the Rosebud Reservation, and that small-town community feel. Going in, one of the things I wasn’t sure about was the amount of acceptance we would get as outsiders coming into this small, tight-knit community. We were all very accepted very quickly. We drove into town and there was a sign that said, “Welcome Fly Over Me journalists.” And it really made us all feel more connected to the place. We weren’t sure how fast that connection would be made, and it happened fast.
NET NEWS: You talked about doing this as an immersion approach, by spending three months there. What did that offer you in your reporting or storytelling?
ZLOMKE: You develop a more inherent understanding of the climate and culture that you’re dealing with. The conclusions you’re drawing and photographs you’re taking aren’t based on just one experience or one interview. They’re based on a collective knowledge you’ve developed by eating at the restaurants with people you’re interviewing and going to multiple ranching operations and being out there for a day working with these people. It’s a collection of experiences that all informs the storytelling you’re doing.
NET NEWS: What were your days like last summer?
JUSTICE: Sometimes that was based around different events going on in town. When we started we knew we wanted to get out and meet as many people as we could. We have a section on our website called Community Voices, basically us asking multiple members of the community the same questions. That was a way we were able to introduce ourselves as well as learn about the community and find directions we wanted to go in as far as stories to tell, and who else we should meet. That really helped guide our beginning time. From there, community voices led to other avenues so depending on what was going on in the town or at ranching communities we could be up at 4:30 driving to a ranch for a branding, watching the sunrise before we even got to the location where the branding is happening. Or we spent three days on the Rosebud Indian Reservation at the Buffalo Jump Youth Camp. We were able to spend entire days based on what was going on, which was a really big relief in terms of getting to know the people and really see what was going on. Some days were 12 hours, some were shorter than that, going out and meeting people.
ZLOMKE: The nice thing about having four people is that there were very few days when all four of us were doing the same thing. The Buffalo Jump was a bigger event so all four of us went to cover that for a couple days. But other days maybe Lauren and I would go to a cattle branding and Nick and Andrew would sit at home and work on editing and stuff like that.
NET NEWS: How did you decide who led the project or who made the editorial decisions?
ZLOMKE: We were really fortunate: it’s not very often that if you get a group together that wants to work toward the same goal, they share the same vision for it. The four of us were really unique in that we really did, so it made the democracy of it really easy for us.
JUSTICE: We all get along really well and respect each other. So on some of the bigger stories that all four of us worked on, we’d have group meetings after and put everything up on a TV screen and all of us go through and say, we should use this one, or not this one. We talked through it as a group about why we liked or disliked certain things. If there were disagreements it never got to a point where it was uncomfortable, it was all talked about and supported. And same with events around town. Sometimes it depended on who met the person or personal interests in the story or event. We were all able to work together without having any ego behind it.
Andrew Dickinson is a photojournalism student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and has pursued numerous multimedia projects in the U.S. as well as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, India, and Brazil. His recent work includes travel to Haiti, Ghana, and Ethiopia.
Nick Teets grew up in Omaha and attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he graduated with a degree in chemistry. In his free time he produces videos for Nebraska musicians.
Lauren Justice achieved a degree in photojournalism and sociology from the University of Cincinnati. She has worked in four states and traveled through 10 countries. Currently, she works part-time for the Lincoln Journal Star, is documenting the school year at St. Augustine Indian Mission on the Winnebago Indian Reservation, and does additional freelance work in Lincoln.
Jacob Zlomke received a degree in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and is a staff writer for HearNebraska. He grew up in the Sandhills.
(Photo courtesy of Fly Over Me Kickstarter campaign)
NET NEWS: Who do you think is your audience? Who are you telling these stories to?
ZLOMKE: Ideally, people from the coasts is a lot of what I think about. People from very urban centers that don’t have any experience with rural culture.
NET NEWS: So not other Nebraskans, necessarily?
ZLOMKE: They’re more than welcome to digest our stories but it’s not as important for them. I think at the stage we’re at right now, that’s the audience we have the most of and who has gotten the most enjoyment out of it because everybody likes stories about them and their own kind of life. But for me, the whole point is to get it to an audience that would never see a cattle branding or think that there’s a town with less than 3,000 people in it.
NET NEWS: You’re using text, photos, maps, and blogging elements on your website. Do you think the combination of those skills are the new norm in journalism?
ZLOMKE: We’re trying to figure that out. We have a lot of conversations about the direction journalism is trying to go and how we fit into that. One of the really exciting things for us is that Fly Over Me has given us the space to experiment and see what works. Ideally we’ll find a formula that hits and we’ll get to be on the frontier of the direction journalism goes from here.
NET NEWS: What’s been the most challenging part of this project?
ZLOMKE: For me personally, doing it. I’m a big planner, I’m really good at coming up with ideas, but then actually taking those steps is really hard for me. But the nice thing is Andrew Dickinson is really good at that.
JUSTICE: It was hard in the beginning to find the right footing to get started. We spent a lot of time talking about what we wanted to do and trying to plan, but trying to plan without being in the town made it difficult. So I think the first couple weeks we were living there it was difficult to put our thoughts into action. Finding that balance or the connection between what we envision and the reality of it and making it all come together.
NET NEWS: You spent three months in Valentine last summer, and you’re planning to go back again this summer to shoot a documentary, right? What will be different this summer?
JUSTICE: We have four more people coming out with us. The project is kind of split into four directions: the Rosebud Reservation, tourism, ranching and the community itself. With eight people out there we’ll be able to split up into groups of two and really focus a lot more on those individual aspects instead of trying to jump from one to another. That will lend itself to being able to spend much more time in those areas and with families from those places. That’s something we’re really trying to focus on this summer—filling in the gaps from last year and also going a bit deeper.
ZLOMKE: It will also be much easier this summer because last summer was difficult because we didn’t know anyone and had to spend the first couple weeks meeting people. But now we know those people so we’re able to sit here in Lincoln and shoot ideas to them and say, this is when we’ll be back, are you still willing to work with us? We won’t be there as long but our schedule will be much tighter and more efficient than last summer.
Watch the trailer for the forthcoming documentary:
NET NEWS: Do you think that after being in the community for a while there’s a graying of being a reporter and being a relatively objective person, or are you viewing this in a softer sense, not quite strict reporting but more of telling the stories behind people?
JUSTICE: That’s a question I struggle with a lot, not just in this project but in longer stories when you really become a lot more connected to the people you’re talking to, and that line does become blurred. That’s something I ask myself a lot, are we going over the line in a negative way or is this able to still be balanced? One of our main goals with this was to become immersed. So maybe it was always meant to have the line blurred and really see what it was like to be a part of the community and use that as a form of telling the stories and experimenting with that.
ZLOMKE: I think objective journalism is this perfect ideal but it’s not really attainable. I think we’ve given ourselves the freedom to play with that idea and embrace the subjectivity because it gets at a different kind of truth than the objective reality. And personally I hope and think it can be much more compelling and we just hope our audience will agree with us.
Fly Over Me will be back in Valentine from June 15th- July 15th, 2014. See their stories here, and their photo collection here. You can also read and see more about the project on their Kickstarter page, where they successfully raised more than $5,000 for the project.