I’m Dan. I really like stories, and I really like building things. Right now, I’m working on Stry.us [http://www.stry.us/], a nimble news organization I founded back in 2010. This summer, I’m leading a team of six in Springfield, Mo., doing reporting, telling stories, and working with partners around the state to build stronger communities around news. And on the side, I’ve got three other projects: BooksAround [http://booksaround.org/], a social literacy experiment; JStart [http://jstart.wikispaces.com], a wiki of resources for entrepreneurial journalists; and Very Quotatious [http://veryquotatious.com/], a site for inspiration, thought and other wisdom suitable for quotation.
What’s been a pivotal point in your journey?
It was a Tuesday. I’m not sure why I remember that, but I do. It was a Tuesday, and I went to work — I worked at a TV station in San Antonio at the time — and told my bosses that I was leaving my job at the end of the month to go start my own reporting outlet.
Then I went home and booked a flight to Biloxi, MS.
This was the summer of 2010. I’d been seeing all these changes in the news industry, and I thought I could build a better newsroom. A more mobile newsroom. A newsroom without overhead. A newsroom that wasn’t easily distracted by headlines or news of the day.
But I needed to prove my idea first. So I decided to move to Biloxi.
The five year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina was coming up in a few weeks, and I’d hardly heard anything about it. The Gulf Coast economy was floundering. There was still oil gushing out of the Gulf of Mexico.
Biloxi was at the center of it all.
I’d never actually been to Mississippi, though. I figured that if I was going to start a small media empire, and the thing was going to begin in Biloxi in a month, I should probably visit there first.
I made a lot of strange decisions that summer, but looking back, I’m almost shocked at how sensible that one decision was. Without that initial trip to Biloxi, the project never gets off the ground.
I went home, and booked a flight from San Antonio to Houston to Biloxi. This was on a Tuesday. I left for Biloxi Thursday morning.
What did you discover after taking that flight?
I have this theory that the best experiences are the ones that come out of the worst travel. If I have trouble with a visa, or the subway breaks down, or my flight gets unexpectedly cancelled and then rescheduled but I don’t get put back on it due to reasons that can only be explained to me in rapid-fire Spanish — true story — then I know I’m about to do something amazing.
My flight to Biloxi? I was switching planes in Houston, and Continental was kind enough to give me a full 12 minutes to cover a mile of airport in order to get from gate to gate.
I sprinted through that airport in sandals. I ran with one carry-on on my back and another over my head. I nearly collapsed on an escalator out of exhaustion.
I made the flight.
And my reward was this little plane, flying over nothing, landing into nothing. You land in Gulfport, MS., and all you see is a Home Depot and a Wendy’s. And that’s it.
I’d decided I wanted to take a massive leap forward, and here’s where I would take the first steps: In the kind of town where a Wendy’s was one of the landmarks you recognized upon landing.
And then I landed on the coast, and I couldn’t even get cell reception. It took the whole weekend for my phone to find the satellites. This happened every time I flew out of the Gulfport/Biloxi airport.
I was going to start a small media empire in a town where even cell phones went off the grid.
But I knew I had to be there. Exploring the coast, it felt right. Well, more accurately: It terrified me. I knew nobody there, and nobody had ever heard of me. And I was going to come here and convince people to tell me their stories?
I did it anyway.
I flew back to San Antonio at the end of the weekend. A month later, I put my life in a car and drove back to Biloxi. That’s when I actually launched Stry.us, the news organization I’m still working on today.
Everything I’m doing now came out of that Tuesday when I went home and bought a flight to Biloxi on 36 hours notice. Because Biloxi led to three months of reporting and many thousands of words. I don’t know why, but people there really did want to talk to me. Their stories led me to a fellowship at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism this past year. And that fellowship’s led me back to more reporting this summer in Springfield.
But it all starts — not with the idea for the company, or me telling my bosses that I was quitting — but with that flight. That’s when it became real. That’s when I knew I couldn’t back down from this dream. Stry.us came out of sprinting through Houston Intercontinental in sandals. It came out of getting to Biloxi. It came out of accepting that to get to where I wanted to go, I had to start moving.