Creator Q&A: Big Questions

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Journalist Bill Barol has spent the past two decades freelancing for the New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, and the other big boys, and his Kickstarter project would finance a new video webseries he hopes to create tackling the Big Questions, as he puts it. Some are big and serious and others are small and silly. Uniting them is Bill’s inability to cover these topics professionally — as a freelancer, it’s the editor’s decision, not the writer’s, on what’s worth writing about.

What’s most interesting to us about Bill’s project is in the very first sentence of our interview with him below. When asked where the idea came from, Bill responded:

“The truth is, Kickstarter came first and the idea came second.”

We like that. Read on for more from Bill; to support his quest to answer the Big Questions click here.

Where did your idea come from? Too many years slaving for the man (Kidding!)?

The truth is, Kickstarter came first and the idea came second. I’ve been blogging about pop culture and technology at True/Slant, a new group journalism site founded by Lewis Dvorkin, a very smart editor I worked with at Newsweek. Lewis’s notion, and sort of the organizing principle for True/Slant, is that as newspapers and magazines fold, consolidate or go digital, journalists are increasingly going to find themselves independent operators, and that we have to be entrepreneurs. That we have to take some cues from bloggers, in other words. That’s been a tough transition for a lot of people in journalism to make. I’ve been blogging since 2001 — longer than some, not as long as others — so I’ve been thinking that way for a while. Especially at True/Slant, I’ve been playing with new approaches to stories. A few weeks ago I started doing some of my True/Slant posts in the form of audio podcasts, just to see if it would work. And it did, for the most part. It’s sort of amazing the results you can get with GarageBand and a Snowball mic.

Right around this time I started to hear about “Put This On,” a new video podcast by Adam Lisagor and Jesse Thorn. I don’t think I knew initially that their pilot had been funded at Kickstarter; I just knew they were guys whose work I admired. In digging around a little I learned that they’d raised the budget for the pilot at Kickstarter, so I dropped Adam an email to ask what their experience had been. (I love the Internet, by the way. Never met the guy, don’t know him, have only corresponded with him very briefly when I was a beta tester for his excellent Twitter client, Birdhouse. Within about an hour he’d written back with a full and glowing report, and about two hours later Jesse sent me a Kickstarter invitation. The generosity of people you barely know absolutely floors me sometimes. Thanks, boys.)

So now I had a Kickstarter account and no idea what to do with it. I was tremendously inspired by the variety of projects on the site, their passion and creativity, and I started to think about what I’d do if I could do anything. The audio podcasts had sort of started an itch with me, and I realized that I had this nascent idea to do something more technically and journalistically ambitious, to produce and distribute it myself, which meant I could do it to my own specs and nobody else’s — in other words, to be that entrepreneur that Lewis is always talking about. I knew I wanted to do something impeccably professional and also sort of goofy. I knew I wanted to do something on video, because “Put This On” is a beautiful thing to watch. Having said that, I wish I could tell you where the specific idea for “Big Questions” came from. It just sort of popped into my head one morning — a series of reported video essays in which I’d “answer” unanswerable questions, using the tools of journalism to produce a hybrid of news and commentary and humor, which is a combination I’ve been playing around with in one way or another for my whole career.

What are some sample “Big Questions” and Answers? What can folks expect?

Well, I can’t give you the answers yet, because I haven’t done the reporting. But a lot of them will be binary, black/white answers like yes or no. The idea of, say, talking to a professor of theology and a rabbi and a priest and some people on the street, sifting all the answers, producing some creative video around them and then concluding unequivocally that “Yes, there’s a God” or, “Nope, sorry, there is no God” strikes me as funny. Some of the questions people posed in my Kickstarter video are “Is there life after death?” “Who’s better, the Beatles or the Stones?” and “Why do fools fall in love?” I just like the notion of flatly pretending there’s an easy answer to some of the hardest questions humans have ever asked, and propping up those ridiculous conclusions with actual, serious reporting. That part’s not a joke — I actually will talk to the biggest brains I can find. I grew up around the corner from a Nobel Prize winner, and we’ve stayed in touch. He’ll be the first call I make.

What do you hope to do for people by answering all their Big Questions?

Phew. Give them a laugh, mostly. But also, maybe, provoke some unconventional thinking about questions that we all tend to kind of push aside because they’re so big. But really, mostly, give ‘em a laugh. I spent some time as a comedy writer, and I know how hard it is to make people laugh.

How are people responding to your use of Kickstarter?

People really seem to appreciate the clarity and usability of the site. A friend of mine in New York was an early backer and he was especially impressed with the Kickstarter/Amazon integration. It just works.

One of my notions for the fundraising process is to turn it into its own narrative. I mean, it IS its own narrative: A guy with an eccentric idea taking a not-very-long 45 days to raise the budget that will allow him to get it made. The ups of that, and the downs. The stuff I learn as I go along. So I had the idea to do a Tumblr blog with daily video updates on the progress of the funding campaign. I figure if I’m ruthlessly honest and really revealing with people about the daily progress of the 45 days that kind of adds value to the process, or makes the process itself a sort of journalistic product. So that’s been fun to do, and I hope, entertaining and interesting for people to watch. This being the Internet, of course, I had to connect the Tumblr site to a whole interlocking network of other cross-promotional sites — a Twitter feed, a Facebook fan page, a Vimeo gallery. They all connect to each other, but ultimately they all lead back to the Kickstarter page, because everything you need to know about the project is there. The other sites give you some added value and maybe a sense of the sensibility of the project, and I hope they keep you roped into the “45 Days To a Web Pilot” narrative; but the Kickstarter page is home base.

What is a “High-tech anti-robot keychain”?

Jeez, isn’t it obvious? It appears to be a normal, not-very-expensive keychain with a robot figure attached, but in reality it’s a sophisticated radio-electrical device to block the neural net from accessing your brainwaves and revealing your location to the invading army of The Metal Ones. I mean, do I really have to explain this?

Okay, I will say this: Coming up with rewards was murder. I’m not producing a physical product — a book, a set of photographs, a CD — that can be parceled out as a set of rewards. So I had to think hard about what to offer, because I really do want to be able to give a nice tangible thank-you to people who are generous enough to pledge. So I decided that at least I could offer a couple of rewards that reflect the goofy, half-serious nature of the project. The anti-robot keychain is one (there’s a guy in the video who seems to be really afraid of robots); another is a one-of-a-kind, hand-painted folk art Pez dispenser on the Big Questions theme. Those will be produced by my friend Steve White, a fantastic outsider artist in Albuquerque.

Closing thoughts?

I’ve been surprised, I have to confess, by the proprietary interest I feel in the projects I’m supporting at Kickstarter. It makes me want even more to produce a piece of video my backers can be proud of. I’m knocked out every day by the variety of creative and heartfelt work on the site, and by the generosity of the people who contribute.

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