Ian Urbina

Director of The Outlaw Ocean Project

Ian Urbina is an investigative reporter based in Washington, DC and the director of The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organization based in Washington D.C., that produces investigative stories about human rights, environment, and labor concerns at sea.

The nonprofit draws its name from a series of articles Ian Urbina wrote for the Times in 2015 detailing such crimes as human trafficking, sea slavery, illegal dumping, illegal fishing, arms trafficking, and the murder of stowaways. The majority of these acts are committed with impunity, mainly owing to questions about the jurisdiction of international waters. The series led to bills being passed in the U.S. Senate aimed at limiting human trafficking and slavery and investigations being launched in various nations around the globe.

Ian Urbina has earned numerous awards for his work, including a Pulitzer Prize, two Polk Awards and an Emmy. He spent 17 years reporting for The New York Times and now regularly contributes to The New Yorker, The Atlantic, NPR, NBC News, and The Washington Post, among others. Several of his investigative stories have been converted into major motion pictures. In 2019, he published the best-selling book The Outlaw Ocean. The movie and TV rights were purchased by Netflix and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Where did the idea for The Outlaw Project come from?

Since I was young, I have been enchanted by the sea, but it was not until one severely cold Chicago winter that I resolved to act on this fascination. Five years into a doctoral program in history and anthropology at the University of Chicago, I put my dissertation on hold and flew to Singapore for a temporary job as a deckhand and resident anthropologist on a marine research ship called the RV Heraclitus. The ship never left port, but I spent my time getting to know the crews from the ships docked nearby.

This stranded stint port side in Singapore offered me the first real exposure to merchant seafarers and long-haul fishermen — an experience that fired my journalistic drive to tell their stories. I found this diaspora and transient tribe to be largely invisible to the rest of us. These workers had their own lingo, etiquette, superstitions, social hierarchy, codes of discipline, and, based on the stories they told me, a catalog of crimes and tradition of impunity. In their world, lore held as much sway as law.

I never finished my dissertation. Instead, I joined The New York Times. After writing several stories about this lawless frontier, I left the Times to dedicate myself fully to the topic and reporting for The Outlaw Ocean Project, which I did over the past several years, most of that time spent at sea on ships around the world.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I try to wake up early, and force myself to do tasks such as writing during certain times of the day when I can be most effective (i.e. the mornings). I’m also a big fan of listmaking and that helps my productivity.

How do you bring ideas to life?

With the help from the small but incredible and tireless team around me that shares the passion for The Outlaw Ocean work and by drawing inspiration from the somewhat shocking impact we have already had in only 24 months of existence as a news organization.

What’s one trend that excites you?

In journalism, I’m excited by a growing awareness among funders and philanthropies that good reporting can happen outside the confines of large legacy news outlets like The New York Times or BBC.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I drink lots of coffee.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Read some amount of good writing every week.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

The best TV series ever created was called Rectify.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

In writing, I try to improve my work by visiting what I produce more frequently for shorter sessions rather than trying to sit with it for a longer time frame. I also try to force myself to describe situations in ways that tap all five senses and look for words that are dull and overused and replace them with alternatives that will keep the reader awake, because the terminology is slightly surprising.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

One of the distinct things we do at The Outlaw Ocean Project is we leverage art for the purpose of accessing a different audience and tapping them in a different way. Our goal is to target a younger and more diverse public, while also engaging them on a more visceral level than is typically possible through written or video journalism. We do this by melding our reporting with music, animation, stage performance, stop motion and, now, muralism.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I can’t get all that I want to get accomplished on any given day, I always run out of time in relation to my to-do list. So I’m trying to get better at delegating tasks to other people and giving them the space and authority to carry them out.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

An app for newsrooms that allows them to disseminate their stories to a global audience using Whatsapp. Many people around the world do not communicate as much anymore by email but would gladly receive a news alert on Whatsapp instead.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

Not $100, but upgrading my Spotify account because music is my favorite pastime and I can also engage with news and podcasts.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

Google Calendar sounds simplistic, but it really helps improve my time-management. I can see all my arrangements in one place, schedule meetings, see other people’s availability in real time and be notified when I have something coming up. It’s really helpful for all my team at The Outlaw Ocean Project.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Not a new book, but some of the best writing I ever encountered: The Things They Carried by American novelist Tim O’Brien.

What is your favorite quote?

I don’t have one single quote I can point to, but I quite like this one attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “Whatever you are, be a good one.”

Key Learnings:

  • Read some amount of good writing every week.
  • Working on something more frequently for shorter sessions rather than trying to sit with it for a longer time frame can be more productive.
  • Good reporting can happen outside the confines of large legacy news organizations.