Syracuse alumni hit the road to find "American Dreamers"

Pete Wayner and Leah Stacy, two Newhouse alumni, and their friend Kevin Kennedy, are traveling the country to capture various perspectives of the “American Dream,” the first mission of their startup, The Bly Project.

Three college friends, including two Syracuse alumni, are living out their dreams—by writing about those of others.

On September 14, Pete Wayner and Leah Stacy, who earned master’s degrees from the Newhouse School this year, as well as Kevin Kennedy, their close friend from college, packed up Kennedy’s Jeep Patriot and began a road trip from Rochester, N.Y. to Austin, Texas. Their mission: to explore the modern concept of the “American Dream” by asking people about their hopes and aspirations, and then recording their stories in writing, photography and film.

The trip marks the first undertaking by the trio’s media startup, which they named “The Bly Project” after Elizabeth Cochran, a 23-year-old woman who used the pen name “Nellie Bly” after she feigned madness and wrote an exposé on the mistreatment of women in mental asylums in 1887. Bly later went on to travel around the world, and she pioneered a form of “immersion journalism” that Stacy, Wayner and Kennedy aspire to practice in the American Dream project.

“We really like travel and telling stories. There’s a lot to be said of just going to these parts of America when you’re not from that area and just talking to people and widening your perspective a little bit,” Stacy said.

The idea for The Bly Project has undergone several revisions since the three first met at Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, N.Y. and began tossing around ideas. At one point, The Bly Project was a camp for young aspiring journalists; at another, it was an investigative project focusing on New York’s organic farms.

“We finally settled on this,” Stacy said. “It’s the best time in all of our life to do it, so we said, ‘Let’s just do it.’”

D.C. Dreams

The Bly team recently spent three days in Washington, D.C. where they did several man-on-the-street interviews around the city. They also had the chance to speak to Murray Horowitz, former cultural programming vice president for National Public Radio and creator of the popular NPR comedy quiz, “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me.”

“He was a pretty impressive guy, really fun,” Stacy said. “He had an incredible story and a lot of good things to say surrounding our theme.”

Having Newhouse and Syracuse contacts has helped them find many interesting interview subjects, Wayner said. 

“Through those contacts we were able to meet quite a few people spanning a surprising breadth of professions and different ranks in their profession,” he said. 

But, true to their dedication to immersion journalism, the team has not shied away from pounding the pavement to find interesting stories.

“We also pick things that look interesting and go out with a camera and ask people questions about their American dream,” Kennedy explained. “In every city we’ve been in, we’ve been able to drop in and get honest reactions from people on the street who just happen to be there.”

The team asks people two questions: “What is your version of the American dream?” and “What are you doing to pursue that dream?” The answers have been extremely varied, Stacy said.

“It’s interesting, from city to city, how the answers vary. And also from different ages; our generation tends to be more idealistic, and the older generation tends to be thinking more realistically. It’s a range,” she said. “And it goes to show that no matter how old people are, it really depends on the person, and that’s what this project is all about.”

Wayner said that he has noticed how the “American Dream” topic has been particularly revealing.

“This question really cuts through all of the introductions and everything, and really hits people and gives them a reason to say what they’re feeling, and where they want to go in life, and where they wish they were in life,” he said. “It’s a trigger for people to give us their true feelings very quickly.”

Funding the Project

It is the topic’s engaging quality that could make The Bly Project’s first venture successful.

“As a platform for journalists, American dreaming is a powerful one, because it allows you to talk to many people,” said Steve Masiclat, director of Newhouse’s New Media Management graduate program and Newhouse associate professor. Masiclat served as a mentor to Stacy and Wayner as they worked to launch The Bly Project during the winter of 2011 and spring of 2012.

Michael D’Eredita, who taught the “Idea2Startup” iSchool course that Stacy and Wayner took this past spring, said he also admired the “American Dream” theme.

“I think putting a face to all of this is so important; that’s what these great storytellers do,” he said. “I think it’s so necessary. Their overarching mission of why they exist, I think, is very, very powerful.”

Both professors said that the Bly team had great enthusiasm and energy. Their biggest hurdle was finding a way to fund and monetize the project.

This past spring, The Bly Project won a $500 cash prize after being voted “crowd favorite” in a startup competition at the Raymond von Dran Innovation and Disruptive Entrepreneurship Accelerator (IDEA). Stacy, Wayner and Kennedy also raised money on the side by putting their film and producing skills to work, making almost $3000 altogether. The money they raised covers their travel costs, which mainly comprises food and gas, since many friends have hosted them on the road.

“It’s pretty low-budget—surprisingly low-budget,” Stacy said. “We call ourselves ‘the interns’ because we pay ourselves with food, and occasionally water and coffee.”

“A lot of coffee,” Wayner added ruefully.

The Bly Project also launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project after the trip ends October 3. The finished product will include content on the website, but also a book, Stacy said.

With 8 days to go before the end of their trip, The Bly Project still needs a little over $1,000 to receive any of the $3,750 they’d like to raise from the Kickstarter campaign. 

The Importance of Immersion Journalism

$3,750 isn’t much, and Stacy said that the project’s low budget is part of its point. It’s not meant as a critique so much as an example, she said.

“We’re kind of showing that you don’t need a huge budget to do something like this,” she explained. “It needs to come back because it’s almost like this missing piece of journalism, especially travel journalism.”

After this first inaugural trip, and if they raise enough funds, the Bly team has many other ideas in the works, including a modern-day around-the-world trip, in homage to Nellie Bly. 

“It’s endless, what we could do. It’s endless,” Stacy said.

Whatever The Bly Project decides to do next, travel will almost certainly be a central part of it.

As the Bly team was driving through Lexington, Virginia in their blue Jeep Patriot, Wayner said he was struck by the beauty of the surrounding countryside rolling past his window. 

“When you get out of your own place, it just makes it so much better, it’s like you’re seeing it with new eyes,” he said. “And the more impressed we are with a place, the more impressive our reporting will be, and the stories. We’ll be able to tell them with the excitement and wonder that they deserve, and that people want to see in our stories.”

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