By Matt Holzapfel
It takes a special kind of creative mind and love for uncovering the truth to turn a topic like the sand into an in-depth, riveting long-form piece like “The Deadly Global War For Sand“. That, however, is exactly what Vince Beiser loves to do. The award-winning freelance/investigative journalist paid a visit to Elon, North Carolina this week to discuss his extensive work on the piece that was published nearly two years ago. “Why sand?” said Beiser as he began his talk. “That sounds like the most boring, the most taken for granted thing in the world.” And he’s right. Everyone in the crowded theater in downstairs McEwen (Elon’s main School of Communications building) agreed as he said this, sand is sand, what more was there to think or say about it?
“Sand is the most important substance in the world,” said Beiser. “Believe it or not, we are starting to run out of sand.” Because the room was almost entirely full of communications students, most of them had probably expected to be more intrigued by Beiser’s discussion of his journalistic approaches and styles and any tips he had to offer and less by his accounts of reporting on sand. The best journalists, however, can make anything pop off the page and become infinitely more inviting for even the casual reader.
Vince Beiser was born in New York City but was raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. He attended the University of California Berkeley where he got his degree in Middle Eastern Studies, and he is currently based in Los Angeles. As a freelance journalist, Beiser has done work for Wired, The Atlantic, LA Times Magazine, Harper’s, Mother Jones, and the New York Times, among other media organizations. Elon was able to bring Beiser in to talk to students through mutual affiliations with the Pulitzer Center.
Even Vince Beiser noticed that this group of communications students had taken an odd liking and developed a growing interest in his journalistic adventure across the world to uncover the secret behind all the missing sand. “We use 50 billion tons of sand every year,” he noted. “There’s just no other substance in the world that we have that much of.” Beiser then went on to explain the dark side of the sand business. Often times people will come into villages or onto other people’s land with no warning and without asking for permission and just start stealing their sand, sometimes by the truckload. If someone were to try and interfere with these operations, even if they were simply standing up for their community or their family, they would often get hurt, or worse, killed. “They bribe police, they bribe courts, they bribe government officials,” said Beiser in case people were not already starting to take this whole sand business serious now. “And if you really get in their way, they will kill you.” It just isn’t something that people think about according to Beiser, and he’s right of course, who thinks about it? When you’re walking on a beach or playing outdoor volleyball in the summer. The most you think about sand is how much you hate that it gets everywhere and that you’ll keep finding it in your hair or your clothes weeks later. It’s a nuisance, but for some people, it’s their life. “The entire developing world is growing, and they all want to live like we do,” said Beiser, citing the growing urbanization of the world and how that affects the worldwide sand supply.” The problem is there’s 7 billion people in the world. There just isn’t enough stuff in the world for everyone to live that way.”
Finally, the discussion shifted to a Q&A session as Beiser turned his attention to his audience. “How did you find this story?” someone asked first. A rather fitting question considering how off-the-wall this idea was, there was no way it could be a common topic, could it? “I do a lot of international stuff, so I just read a lot,” answered Beiser. “I just stumbled across this story about the sand mafia in India. In India, it’s a huge story. It kind of blew my mind.” A few questions later a young journalism student from the front row raised her hand and posed the question “what advice do you have for college students who want to be journalists?” A tough question it seemed, as Beiser paused for a second to think carefully strategically about his answer. “The whole industry is in tough times,” he started. “It’s not an easy way to make a living, it’s not an easy industry to get a job in.” Beiser paused again. “If you wanna do it, just be prepared to hustle,” he continued. “It can be scary but it can be exciting in its own right. Know that it’s tough.” Beiser finished, seemingly confident in his answer and hoping that he hadn’t scared away too many potential future journalists.
Lastly, someone asked Beiser how he goes about long-form journalistic writing, something that many journalism students at Elon are asked to do in their respective classes. “I’m an outliner, definitely an outliner,” said Beiser. “I’ll start with a really bare bones outline, then I’ll go back through all of my notes and come up with a much fuller outline. Then I write a draft. Then I’ll go to all my secondary sources.”
The talk ended and students started filing out as Beiser advised them to check out his professional Twitter account and website and to get in touch with him should they ever have any questions regarding his work. The “Sandman” had managed to put exactly nobody to sleep during his talk, which was only fitting. Everyone had listened, everyone had paid attention, and everyone had learned something. “I try to report mostly on things that I think are important and that I care about.” Well done Mr. Beiser, well done.
For more information about Vince Beiser and his work check out his website here. To learn more about his project “The Deadly Global War for Sand” and Beiser’s work with the Pulitzer Center, click here.