As a fifth-grader, Dana Coester said she wanted to be a neurosurgeon.

Everyone laughed at her.

Such a ridiculous idea, right? A girl in the 1970s dreaming of becoming a neurosurgeon?

“I think back and wonder what would’ve happened if someone said, ‘Hey, that’s a fantastic idea for you’” Coester said.

Coester never became a neurosurgeon. Yet she still managed to prove those naysayers wrong by excelling in a journalism career that has not only inspired fellow journalists, documentarians, and storytellers, but has empowered ordinary small-town citizens across the United States.

Her path began in Liberia, of all places.

Coester’s father, who served as a civil engineer in the military, uprooted the family from southern Missouri to the African country for a few years when Coester was a teen. The family happened to be there during the Rice Riot of 1979, when hundreds of residents took to the streets of its capital city, Monrovia, to protest the increase in the price of rice (Liberia’s staple food). The military and police were summoned to turn back the demonstrators, who looted shops and supermarkets. Some people were killed.

Coester, who was 14 at the time, and a friend visited the market that day in an attempt to experience local culture. Instead, they got a firsthand view of chaos.

“I started getting into all things digital. To me, technology was culture, life.”

Armed with a camera, Coester began taking pictures. A soldier walked up and snatched the camera from her.

“I got this immediate sense that, ‘Wow. This camera is valuable,’” Coester said. “Information has power. It was that experience that made me want to go into journalism.”

COMPUTER MAGIC

Coester returned to Missouri to finish high school before embarking to the University of Missouri-Columbia to study journalism in the mid-to-late ’80s.

Even then, Coester could sense a tide turning in the journalism industry. Most households didn’t even have Internet access yet, let alone a computer. But Coester envisioned journalism embracing technological wonders and morphing from paper to digital, from the linear to the nonlinear, from a restrained art form to a realm of endless possibilities.

“If you were a photographer or designer in 1984, you knew the world was changing,” she said. “Darkrooms were disappearing, and photographers began using digital cameras. I knew that technology and computers would be the magic of everything. My professors at the time thought computers would lead to the downfall of the industry. As a student, I wondered, ‘How did they not see the magic of this?’”

When the journalism school first got four Apple Macintosh computers with Adobe Pagemaker, one of the first desktop publishing programs, no student was more excited than Coester.

“I started getting into all things digital,” Coester said. “To me, technology was culture, life.”



Coester, who worked at a museum in college, also gained inspiration from art. In 1991, she combined all of these interests—art, technology, journalism—for a project called “Pretty,” which is still ongoing. An award-winning documentary, “Pretty” follows a nonlinear narrative that intertwines three generations of women in Coester’s family.

Begone nut grafs, inverted pyramids, and structure. Coester approached this project in a nontraditional way.

She initially began working on it as a book project but it evolved into film. The documentary love story also features elements of photography, typography, and design.

In a weird way, it also brought her close to her original dream of becoming a neurosurgeon.

Coester said “Pretty” was inspired by new research coming to light in the 1990s in neuroscience and how memory and narrative is formed.

“Narrative exists in the mind in a fragmented way,” Coester explained. “The story is stored in pieces. I’ve wondered why some people are obsessed with structure when we don’t absorb content that way. When we’re viewing a story, our eyes jump from the photo to the caption to the middle of the story. It’s not a linear process.

AN APP FOR THAT

After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism, Coester landed a job with Time Inc. and worked as a designer for Southern Living. She eventually became an art director and a contributing editor. There she was able to apply and experiment with what she’d learned in college. She also learned that working collaboratively resulted in a top-notch product.

“They started to toy with creating teams—bringing everyone together from writers to photographers to designers,” she said. “Photographers and designers were considered visual storytellers, as well.”

She brought that teamwork concept to WVU as assistant vice president for branding and creative direction for the University Relations division, where she helped direct several award-winning interactive campaigns. She left that role in 2009 to become an assistant professor at the Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism.

One of her greatest endeavors since has been Mobile Main Street, an initiative that engages small-community organizations, businesses, and media in mobile app development and marketing to help fuel economic development. The project harnesses Twitter, Facebook, and other social media activity to help curate a voice for rural communities in West Virginia.

Mobile Main Street, which grew out of the Journalism School’s West Virginia Uncovered project, first paired up with Tucker County and the Parsons Advocate, a weekly newspaper that serves the area, with the aid of a $200,000 grant from the Ford Foundation for an experiment in rural mobile media.

The app took off in Tucker County, showcasing attractions such as Canaan Valley Resort State Park, Blackwater Falls State Park, and Dolly Sods Wilderness, and helping boost tourism dollars.

Today Mobile Main Street has 71 partners in Tucker County, in addition to five pilot communities.

Coester has described the app as a “leapfrog event,” meaning participants have been asked to work with the latest technology without first mastering the basics and without having local technology, access, or infrastructure in place.

The roots for Mobile Main Street had been planted in another rural community tucked away in western Alabama.

In 1999, Coester helped her husband and fellow WVUjournalism professor Joel Beeson put on a digital camera workshop for a blues community in Pickens County, Alabama. The couple helped train residents to make their own documentary.

“We did the workshop in a trailer with no running water,” Coester said. “And the floor was falling in. Someone had to call a friend of a friend to hook up dialup Internet access for the community. We spent $1,000 on the workshop and proved that it could be done. We feel passionately about access issues. That’s a big reason why we’re here in West Virginia. If you’re doing participatory journalism in marginalized communities, Appalachia is an important place to be doing that.

“My overall approach and drive has come from a willingness to try different things and look at different disciplines to problem-solve in media.”

For more info about the project, visit mymobilemainstreet.com.