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ASU student startup helps journalists stay safe

Razor wire outside a jail in northern Afghanistan.
Photo by: Jacksoncam (

September 01, 2015

Editor’s note: Due to the high-risk nature of the PACE Development Group’s work, the company’s founders have requested that their last names be withheld.

Last year, the world was stunned by the Islamic State’s brutal beheadings of two reporters, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, who were covering the Syrian Civil War. A free press is considered an essential part of democratic governance, giving citizens the information needed to participate in society. But some of the stories that need telling the most — like stories of war, oppression and natural disasters — are also some of the most dangerous to cover. In the past decade alone, 720 journalists have been killed in connection with their jobs, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Dave, an Arizona State University alumnus, and his partners Austin and John hope to reduce these tragedies. Their startup company, PACE Development Group (PDG), provides survival and safety training to journalists and others working in high-risk areas. It also provides support and resources for handling crises such as kidnappings.

In fall 2014, the team was selected for ASU’s Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative program, which helped them to launch their company. The Edson program provides seed funding, office space, training and mentorship to student entrepreneurs.

A case of inspiration

Dave graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in spring 2015. Before that he served in both the Army and the Air Force and spent more than a decade developing survival and crisis-management training programs for government and military personnel. Austin is currently enrolled as a graduate student through ASU Online, and both he and John served in the military with Dave before founding PDG together.

“We found that a large portion of our case studies happened to be journalists, probably upwards of 50 percent,” Dave said. “And when we looked at the services and support that they had for some of the work that they did, specifically covering conflicts, we just realized there was a big gap there.”

Two case studies that particularly moved Dave were the death of British photojournalist Tim Hetherington during the Libyan civil war, and the kidnapping of New York Times journalist David Rohde by the Taliban in 2008.

In both cases, the journalists didn’t have much training on how to handle high-risk situations or weren’t trained to the extent necessary to handle the situations they encountered. The lack of such resources for journalists and other civilian travelers inspired the creation of PDG.

“Our theory was the private sector should have access to the same level of support the government does, if not better,” Dave said.

Right now, the team is laying the groundwork for their company, networking and establishing interest. They’ve worked with the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism to put together guidelines and a standard operating procedure for high-risk assignments, and they are putting together a workshop with the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.

“We're trying to put together a program for reporters who are covering the Southwest with a special focus on the border,” Dave said. “So it'll be looking at cartels and questions on law enforcement, and then the environment. That can be pretty hairy too if you’re caught out in it or something bad happens out there. We're looking to do that at the end of this year or the beginning of next.”

Rick Rodriguez, a former reporter and editor and a professor of practice at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, has also benefited from Dave’s expertise. Rodriguez teaches an in-depth reporting class each year that takes students to foreign countries. In 2014, the class visited Chiapas, Mexico, and last semester they traveled to Nicaragua. Both times Dave shared survival and safety advice with Rodriguez’s class. On the latter trip he did double duty as a student in the class, as well.

“David came into the class and he talked about how to keep yourself safe, how to pack if you're going into the jungle, what you might take, what you might need, how to purify water,” Rodriguez said. “He was essentially teaching us survival skills and staying safe, and I thought it was really valuable.”

Backup plans for backup plans

PACE stands for Primary Alternate Contingency in Emergency, and it’s a phrase that exemplifies PDG’s mission. It means having backup plans on top of backup plans on top of backup plans — counting on the fact that nothing can be counted on to go off without a hitch and forecasting as many situations as possible.

“We understand that Murphy’s Law is alive and well, especially in high-risk situations,” Dave said.

PDG offers a number of other add-on services, from high-threat environment planning to hostage survival to improvised restraint exploitation, as well as more technical tradecraft of how to protect sources and ensure communication security.

“For the workshops we train the media workers how to effectively plan for contingencies that are likely due to the specific threats present. All of our training modules are based around effective planning,” Dave said.

The group also works with organizations to facilitate internal training and create policies and guidelines in case an employee runs into trouble.

PDG has already helped to avert at least one potential tragedy. A 16-year-old was kidnapped in Mexico, and PDG was contacted to consult on the case.

Despite being split up in three locations, the three co-founders were able to give the family advice on how to resolve the crisis, “lining up communications and de-conflicting everything,” Dave said. “That was extremely challenging because we weren't anticipating that something was going to happen, but then that's usually when stuff happens — when you're not expecting it.”

Although she had to empty her bank account to do it, the boy’s mother was able to pacify the kidnappers and retrieve her son within days.

“That's one of the things we can offer. We can give advice and talk folks through things, or we can facilitate some of the higher-risk actions. Like we can take over communications for the family [or organization] if they're too stressed out or too frustrated. If there has to be an exchange, if there has to be ransom or anything like that, we can help make that stuff happen,” Dave said.

Lasting relationships

The PDG team started their venture with extensive expertise on security and survival, but very little on running a business. ASU’s Edson program helped them overcome this challenge.

“First and foremost, it forced us to really drill down and focus on what our mission was and how it could make business sense,” Dave said

Through the program, they found mentors like Edson program manager Tracy Lea.

“Part of being a program manager is to help develop these teams along and really help work on their venture,” Lea said. “In particular with PACE, I'm a Navy reservist and PACE has a veteran background as well, so there were some other opportunities we were able to work on given that sort of relationship.”

Dave also cites the culture at ASU as creating a supportive environment for student startups “even before we had set our sights on the Edson program.”

This year, the PDG team will serve as Edson alumni, mentoring to a new cohort of Edson student entrepreneurs. In particular, Lea will collaborate with them on veteran entrepreneur initiatives.

“[I’ll] be working with PACE to help develop out those initiatives and be a voice to help elevate the imprint of veteran entrepreneur participation and activity in the Phoenix metro area and around ASU,” she said.

Rodriguez said he also hopes to continue his relationship with Dave and PDG.

“He's been very valuable to the students, and I hope that we continue to utilize him if he sticks around Phoenix.”

Written by Erin Barton, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development.

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