6 min read

Storyhunter Special: World Press Freedom Day Interview with Laura Ling

This year, in honor of World Press Freedom Day, Storyhunter’s Founder and CEO, Jaron Gilinsky, sat down to interview a journalist who had…
Storyhunter Special: World Press Freedom Day Interview with Laura Ling
Laura Ling, Creative Executive at Happs, and Jaron Gilinsky, Founder and CEO of Storyhunter, at the AJ+ offices in San Francisco.

This year, in honor of World Press Freedom Day, Storyhunter’s Founder and CEO, Jaron Gilinsky, sat down to interview a journalist who had a profound influence on his own career, Laura Ling. Laura led the vanguard journalism unit at Current TV, the network where Jaron got his start as a video journalist. Laura helped Jaron to produce videos from many of the world’s most repressive regimes. In 2009, while in the field herself, working on a story about the trafficking of women between North Korea and China, Laura was captured and held captive by the North Korean government, along with Euna Lee. Thankfully, Laura and Euna were released after five harrowing months. Today, Laura is Creative Executive at the new live news network, Happs.

In this interview, Jaron and Laura talk about their shared history, Happs’ bold vision for changing live news, the ways Storyhunter has made it possible, how she approaches risky stories today, and whether Happs will one day broadcast from North Korea.

Below are edited excerpts from their conversation:

Bringing people closer together with storytelling and technology

Jaron: You’ve teamed up with David Neuman and Mark Goldman for this new venture. What’s the big idea here ?

Laura: The Happs vision is to connect people, to inform and inspire, with this technology that allows viewers to feel like they’re becoming a part of these moments in the landscape — to transmit a sense of shared humanity and empathy.

Jaron: To me, this shared commonality between what Happs is doing now, and Current TV, is that blend between citizen journalism and professional journalism. How do you bridge those two worlds, and what are the trade offs?

Laura: The world is getting smaller and smaller but for some reason but for some reason feel more divided than ever. What the technology has allowed people- from the professional journalists, to people who are just part of a situation — is to be able to stream what’s going on [from anywhere]. That person, who may be a victim of a fire in northern California who is streaming his or her story, is not expected to be an expert or a journalist per se. But his or her story matters, and what they can share is a perspective that is unique and valuable.

Happs @HappsNews
Happs (@HappsNews) from Buñol, España. Interact with our journalists and contributors as they share what’s happening…

Catching all sides of the story for accurate reporting

Jaron: I think that what you’re doing is trading off objectivity for authenticity and access. Is that accurate?

Laura: We want to present different sides of a story or situation, and if we can’t then we want to own up to that bias and make the audience aware of that. If we know that there is bias from a contributor, than we also want to get that other-side from a different contributor. [For example] with our coverage on the [Mexico- U.S.] border, we had someone down at the migrant caravan, and someone with the Minutemen — because those are equally valuable perspectives in this landscape. We’re not asking one person to be totally objective, but rather we want to own up to their biases and be accurate in the reporting.

Covering the map with Storyhunter

Jaron: You guys have been everywhere. How have you been able to do that?

Laura: We reach out to the Storyhunter community, who have delivered such amazing, authentic, smart, talented producers and journalists from around the world. Happs has only been in existence for a few months, but we have broadcast live from dozens of cities and countries from around the world: Syria, Venezuela, Kenya, Tanzania, the Philippines, Spain — just to name a few — it’s really exciting.

Happs @HappsNews
Happs (@HappsNews). Interact with our journalists and contributors as they share what’s happening around the world…

Authenticity above all else

Jaron: A lot of people [Happs contributors] don’t have live experience necessarily. What is it about them as individuals that you look for?

Laura: Many of the people who are Happs contributors have not had on camera experience and that’s okay. One of the things we tell people before they go live is, don’t try to be that reporter that you typically see. Remove all those formalities that you normally get or see and instead just be yourself, be authentic, be curious. Be a friend to the audience. Talk to the audience and the people you’re meeting as if you’re having lunch or a drink with them. Just be yourself.

Jaron and Laura snap a selfie at the AJ+ (former Current TV) headquarters

Live video is a conversation

Jaron: Why live? Do people want to watch six hours of Paris protests?

Laura: Well, people were watching six hours of Paris protests. Why live? Everyone on this planet has a cellphone, and there is something fascinating going on in the world at any given moment. For viewers, I do think they want to watch live and be immersed in a subject or a situation. You combine those things together and you have, what we hope, is this really exciting global community, that’s having a conversation about what’s happening in the world.

Happs @HappsNews
Happs (@HappsNews). Interact with our journalists and contributors as they share what’s happening around the world…

A rigorous risk assessment process helps support safety in the field

Jaron: You’ve been through, personally as a journalist, one of the most harrowing experiences possible. I’ve had a couple of close calls and incidents which you know of, but I’m curious how it’s affected the way you think of doing these harder stories. Would you send someone into North Korea? How do you think about risk now?

Laura: I think about risk now very much in the same way I thought about risk before. For those of you that don’t know, I was one of the journalists working for Current on a story about the trafficking of women across the border between North Korea and China when I was captured and held captive there for nearly five months. It was a terrifying time. But I didn’t approach risk differently back then. You and I would go through a very lengthy risk assessment process, to make sure the story was worth covering, and to be as prepared as we possibly could be when entering particular situations. However, we know that things happen, that we have no control of when we’re in the field, situations that just evolve, and you’re forced to react. That’s sort of what happened to me.

I approach risky situations [now] very much in the same way. We have very rigorous process at Happs, and are working with Storyhunter, to make that process more rigorous. We’re offering contributors in the field as much support as we can, analyzing every risk that could possibly be inherent in these situations. Happs will continue to report from situations where there is danger, — we think these stories are important and need to be told — but we don’t take them lightly.

Jaron: Will Happs be broadcast from North Korea one day?

Laura: I know first hand how closed off that society is. Perhaps the most closed off in the world. There is no free media whatsoever. But information is seeping across that border through the blackmarket, thumb-drives, and other means. So, who knows? Maybe one day. I don’t know if it will be anytime soon, but maybe Happs will be live streaming from North Korea someday.

For Storyhunter freelancers interested in working with Happs, sign-up here.


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By Jordan M. Rapaport, Storyhunter Writer