On assignment in the West Bank for National Geographic 2009. Photo by Ed Kashi
Don Belt on assignment in the West Bank for National Geographic, 2009.
Photo: Ed Kashi

Longtime Nat Geo editor shows student reporters how to take it slow

February 23, 2024


Don Belt has a simple assignment for students in his course on slow journalism: Take a walk.

The former National Geographic writer and editor credits a colleague for saying that fast journalism is about information, while slow journalism is about meaning.

“I usually define it is as a return in certain ways to the fundamentals of journalism,” said Belt, who has been teaching at UR since 2016. “Take your time interviewing people, get out — use your ears, your eyes, your senses — to explore the news environment.”

Through the course, which he’s brought to other universities in partnership with the Pulitzer Center, Belt teaches student-journalists to “spend time with people and be in a place long enough to get a feel for the context in which current events happen. Very often, when you’re in a hurry, that cultural awareness is missing.”

Junior Evelyn Zelmer interviews a volunteer at a community garden for the spring 2023 slow journalism project Feeding Richmond.

The course is based on the Out of Eden Walk series in National Geographic, where two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek is trekking 24,000 miles in the footsteps of early humans and filing reports about the impact of global topics like climate change and technological innovation in hyper-local communities. In 2013, he left Ethiopia on foot and is about halfway through his journey to the tip of South America. Belt, who managed and mentored Salopek when he worked as a National Geographic writer, serves on the global project’s board of directors.

What students can learn from these Salopek's online dispatches is how to extract amazing stories from random encounters, then present them against a larger backdrop. “It’s just a matter of being alert and having a heightened sense of awareness of the world around you,” said Belt, adding that each “little gem of storytelling” is amplified by photography and multimedia.

As a class, the students — drawn from journalism and geography — come up with a central theme and hit the pavement.

“This class shed light on the true importance of storytelling — and that it is done best when we give ourselves, our sources, and our stories the time to evolve throughout the process,” said Nina Joss, a Colorado journalist and 2021 graduate who used her slow journalism coursework to apply for a Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellowship, where she reached the final round.  

Belt often starts by asking students to create a map from their walk, which grounds their observations and illustrates connections along a street or distant blocks.

One semester students explored the James River ecosystem, leading to stories about the biosphere, neighbors who claim the river as their front yard, and the river’s role in building community. Another year focused on the cultural life of Jackson Ward.

In 2020, when campus shut down due to COVID-19, students walked their hometowns; one reported from her house, writing about her mother, a nurse working on the frontlines. “Each student wrote stories about how the pandemic unfolded in our community,” said Caterina Erdas, a 2022 grad.

Kevin Johnson was among those exploring historic Highland Park. “We didn’t have the expectation of a story at first: The goal was to find interesting or important topics in our surroundings,” said the 2017 graduate, now a researcher for National Geographic and editor at Richmond magazine. “That was an awesome way to shake up an otherwise hard-news focused education.”