by David Lillard
They started out simply to make a movie. They may have invented a new way to use film, video, and the internet to help conservation groups collaborate and spread their messages wider than ever before.
The Downstream Project got rolling when two Clarke County residents, longtime conservation advocate George Ohrstrom and documentary cameraman George Patterson, teamed up to produce a film about the Shenandoah River. Nearly two years later, Shenandoah: Voices of the River, a 52-minute film exploring the history, ecology, and beauty of the river, debuted to wide acclaim in Charlottesville, Va. Then, like many a documentary film team, they started looking for an audience.
“We did a road show,” said Ohrstrom. They showed the film wherever they could, knowing from the response they got that they’d done more than make a movie. They had told the story of the Shenandoah Valley and made a compelling case for the river’s restoration and protection.
Still, they had to ask: Now what?
Patterson wanted to make more movies. Ohrstrom was game, but felt they needed a different model—both in terms of how the films were financed and in their sense of purpose.
That’s when Bill Howard came aboard. He’d been doing some computer consulting and social media for Downstream to support the film launch. Howard had been a church administrator and run a Mac-based computer consulting firm; in him the two Georges found someone who could help shape the Downstream idea into something purposeful and sustainable.
“Before Bill got involved, we saw ourselves as film producers only,” said Patterson. Howard suggested that Downstream could be something bigger, that the group could combine its core production strengths with media and marketing to have an impact on conservation throughout the Chesapeake Bay. Howard pushed the idea of getting Downstream into the current—by providing services to partners.
Ohrstrom was intrigued. He had worked with many conservation organizations over the years, as president of Friends of the Shenandoah River and service on the board of the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Virginia League of Conservation voters. He’s also current chair of the Clarke County Planning Commission and vice chair of the county’s easement authority. Through this experience, along with his business background, he saw a common challenge among a lot of conservation groups.
“A lot of them do similar work, but they talk about it differently,” he said, “and they don’t always have the in-house people or expertise to form a message and disseminate it.”
So in 2008 Downstream did what many businesses and nonprofits do. They did some strategic planning, looking at the needs of the conservation community throughout the Bay region.
What emerged was a unique nonprofit that grew from the experiences of all three: Patterson’s decades of production experience as a television documentary cameraman, Howard’s organizational skills and knowledge of internet platforms, and Ohrstrom’s understanding of the issues surrounding conservation and his easy going grasp of the intangibles that shape people’s attitudes about the environment.
The core of Downstream’s approach is what they call OmniMedia. Think of the OmniMedia as an integrated approach to communications. Instead of hiring a web designer to get a site up, a film crew to do a video on a project, a PR firm for press and social media, now conservation groups can turn to Downstream for the package.
At first glance, it looks like a collaborative one-stop shop. But it’s more than that. It’s a way of building a project from the ground up, knowing how it will be distributed and who is going to watch it.
By way of contrast, go back to the film Shenandoah. Like many documentary filmmakers, Downstream made a film that was roughly an hour long, then figured out how to distribute it, then tried to promote the heck out of it. Doing this utilized many of the same specialties as the OmniMedia approach, but those skills were deployed one at a time—not quite haphazardly, but not necessarily strategically, either.
And now the OmniMedia approach: Take a look at Downstream’s effort with Gaining Ground, a partnership of Commonwealth agriculture agencies led by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS. They wanted to reach crop producers and livestock farmers throughout the Commonwealth with educational materials on no-till farming and rotational grazing.
In the old days, extension agents and others spent a lot more time handing out leaflets and talking to small groups of farmers than they did offering technical assistance.
As recently as a few years ago, they might have made a video, then spent tens of thousands of dollars mailing it out. Downstream helped change that approach.
Here’s how it gets built with the OmniMedia approach:
1. The most effective way to get farmers interested in these new techniques is to hear about them from other farmers—even better, to visit them on their own farms.
2. The best way to hear from other farmers is through a film shot on their own farms.
3. The most cost-effective way to produce and distribute a film throughout the Commonwealth is through short films on the web—which also allows farmers to see it on their own schedule.
4. To get the greatest reach and best stories, involve all the relevant ag-related partners from the beginning: agencies like Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia No-Till Alliance, Virginia Forage & Grassland Council, Shenandoah Resource Conservation & Development Council, and New River-Highlands Resource Conservation & Development Council.
5. And, if you’re going to build a whole campaign based on web videos, you need to build a website that’s designed to show video—and do it with an outfit that’s set up with the servers and technology to service it.
Downstream hosts theirs on their own proprietary server, with websites built on a WordPress platform they created especially for these types of projects.
At first, says Howard, NRCS was hesitant to build a campaign around social networking. They wondered whether farmers would take to this idea. So Downstream also produced several thousand DVDs, “to see which platform is more effective,” said Howard.
Up in the air
If a picture is worth a thousand words, it only stands to reason that at times that picture has to be taken hundreds of feet above ground. It’s the only way to see the forest instead of the trees. But aerial photography can be cost prohibitive. Sometimes, the high-tech people at Downstream rely on old-fashioned low-tech ways to get the shot.
To get aerial shots of Tangier Island for a recent production, Downstream hung a camera on specially equipped kites about 500 feet above the island. “Renting a helicopter is expensive,” laughs Howard.
After the Downstream crew participated in a workshop on “balloon mapping,” they bought a five-and-a-half foot helium balloon to capture aerials. “Since the workshop, I’ve been on it like paint,” said Howard. “It’s an avenue to low-cost aerial photography for a multitude of purposes, whether getting a good aerial shot or mapping a continuous route.”
Adding aerial photography to their toolkit has been more than just a way of making better movies. It can provide technical information that would otherwise be out of reach for the organizations and agencies working on the ground.
All this strategic thinking and infrastructure only pays off if the finished product is exceptional. That Downstream’s project portfolio is growing indicates people like what the group does. Downstream has produced film projects for the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and are working on a new project in Clarke County called CSpout Run, a restoration project focused on the entire Spout Run watershed.
Part of their success grows from the approach that worked with Shenandoah: Voices of the River. Maybe it’s all those years Patterson spent behind the camera that creates the style. The films are short on narration—if any, at all—allowing people to speak for themselves, whether it’s something heartfelt and passionate, like a connection with land and water, or whether it’s a technical topic like “streamside livestock exclusion.”
Downstream’s cast of characters includes videographer and film editor Nancy Saunders, graphics designer Tom Taylor, and a web building partnership with Studio 105 in Shepherdstown. The board of directors includes scientists and conservation advocates. Howard serves as the producer on Downstream projects, a role that combines his organizing skills and creativity, and ability to herd cats, according to those who work with them.
“I have no doubts about the direction we’re headed,” said Ohrstrom. He likens Downstream to a cauldron, a kind of big soup pot where people and partners—whether agencies, nonprofits or businesses—can collaborate, hone clearer messages, and benefit from one another. “We’ll get a lot more done if we can learn to listen to one another,” he said.
After all, says George Ohrstrom, everyone lives downstream of someone.
The Downstream Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization located on Main Street in Berryville. For information, see www.thedownstreamproject.org.