Choose Your Own Adventure: Zach Putnam - Documentary Filmmaker



Zach Putnam
Zach Putnam
Documentary Filmmaker

MS '17 (Multimedia Journalism)
Lead Story Producer, “The Kenton Lead Blob*”

Owner and head storyteller for Zach Putnam Productions

Bachelor’s Degree: Media studies and sociology, Pitzer College, 2003

Role in “The Kenton Lead Blob*”: After pitching his idea for a short documentary investigating lead contamination in his Portland neighborhood, Putnam partnered with his multimedia journalism master’s program classmates to interview experts on lead pollution, present at neighborhood association meetings, interview residents, investigate onsite at the Portland International Raceway, shoot hours of footage, and edit it into a nine-minute film.

Other experiential learning programs he’s participated in: Putnam taught a media production workshop at the University of Ghana while participating in the SOJC’s Media in Ghana program in 2016. Last spring, he was a graduate teaching fellow for the SOJC’s Gateway to Media sequence.

Why he went back for a master’s degree: I was looking for a space to level up my storytelling skills, beef up my portfolio with work that I was really passionate about producing, and build up my network of like-minded creatives—which I absolutely did, through other students and the faculty and staff I worked with. I also wanted to get into teaching and educational opportunities.

What he got out of the multimedia journalism master’s program: Even though I had been doing video production for a long time, I was always more of a hired gun. But I had very little experience pitching, generating, producing, and finding a home for my own stories. I definitely brought those skills to the next level in the program, because you’re constantly having to generate story ideas, pitch them and turn them into full-fledged films.

“You can watch videos and talk about them in the classroom, but you really have to go out in the field and interact with people and stories where they’re happening to get better at it.” — Zach Putnam


Multimedia Journalism Master's Program
By Andra Brichacek

Multimedia Storytelling That Makes a Difference

Alarm bells went off in Zach Putnam’s head. Lead contamination? He stared at a map in The Oregonian showing Portland’s Kenton district—his neighborhood—smack in the middle of an ominous red blob of possible lead pollution. The story attributed the data to a 2015 U.S. Forest Service study of toxic metals in moss samples around Portland.

Putnam decided to take action. It was a decision that would jumpstart his award-winning documentary career.

A student in the School of Journalism and Communication’s Portland-based Multimedia Journalism master’s program, Putnam was no stranger to researching and telling stories. After a decade of working in video production, as a grad student he was finally pitching, producing and publishing his own documentaries. He was also learning journalistic skills, from traditional “shoe-leather” investigative techniques to the latest in data visualization and community engagement.

Putnam and classmates Richard Percy and David McKay put all those skills to the test to produce “The Kenton Lead Blob*” for their cohort’s collaborative Portland Air Problem project.

The short documentary earned them an A+ and a long list of accolades, including a prestigious Student Edward R. Murrow Award, official selection credits at numerous film festivals, and a showing on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Oregon Lens.” It also made an impact in Portland.

Using the civic engagement approaches he learned in the program, Putnam sought out interview subjects on the NextDoor social media app and attended Kenton Neighborhood Association meetings. The project caught the attention of Oregon Speaker of the House Tina Kotek, who wrote a letter to the City of Portland that resulted in new leaded gasoline policies at the Portland International Raceway. By November 2016, the students’ story was front-page news in the Portland Tribune.

Watch “The Kenton Lead Blob*” above to see the award-winning work Putnam, Percy, and McKay produced—and find out what really happened in Kenton.

Multimedia Journalism Master's Program



Timeline for "The Kenton Lead Blob*"

    July 2015

    U.S. Forest Service conducts an experimental air quality study using moss samples from around the city of Portland.

    February 2016

    The Oregonian publishes data from the moss study and the Kenton Lead Blob map.

    April 2016

    Putnam, Percy, and McKay officially begin reporting as part of the PDX Air project.

    June 2016

    “The Kenton Lead Blob*” short documentary debuts at a meeting of the Kenton Neighborhood Association.

    October 2016

    In response to the film, State Rep Tina Kotek writes to the City of Portland asking for more info about leaded gas use at Portland International Raceway. The city promises to investigate.

    November 2016

    The Portland Tribune runs a front page story about the documentary.

    April 2017

    “The Kenton Lead Blob*” is a finalist for Society of Professional Journalists Student Mark of Excellence Award.

    August 2017

    “The Kenton Lead Blob*” is selected for Oregon Public Broadcasting's Oregon Lens series.

    October 2017

    The City of Portland announces new policies for leaded fuel use at Portland International Raceway.

    “The Kenton Lead Blob*” wins Student Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Video Reporting at the RTDNA Gala in New York City.

    October–December 2017

    “The Kenton Lead Blob*” is selected for various film festivals.


Recognitions for “The Kenton Lead Blob*”

  • 2017 Student Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Video Reporting
  • 2016 finalist, Society for Professional Journalists Student Mark of Excellence Award
  • 2017 Recology Sustainability Award, McMinnville Short Film Festival
  • Official selection, 2017 Portland Film Festival
  • Official Selection, 2017 Oregon Documentary Film Festival
  • Official selection, 2017 Oregon Independent Film Festival
  • Official selection, 2017 New Urbanism Film Festival (Los Angeles)
  • Selected for Oregon Public Broadcasting's “Oregon Lens” series

Putnam’s Other Published Class Projects

Pastor Adam Phillips

  • Featured by The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Upworthy, The Oregonian
  • Official selection, 2017 Klamath Independent Film Festival, 2017 McMinnville Short Film Festival, 2017 Social Justice Film Festival

The Oregon Trail

  • Featured in The Atlantic, Quartz, The Oregonian
  • Official selection, 2017 Portland Film Festival, 2017 Oregon State International Film Festival, 2017 Klamath Independent Film Festival, 2017 Canby Film Festival

Why Is #GandhiMustFall Trending in Ghana?

  • Published by Quartz
  • Created while participating in the Media in Ghana program

Choose Your Own Adventure


Srushti Kamat Srushti


David Choe David
Art Director


Rachel Benner Rachel


Quinn Blackwolf Quinn
Public Relations Account Executive


Travis Kim Travis
Ad Executive


Jaclyn Robinson Jaclyn
Nonprofit Public Relations Strategist


Kim Duyck Kim
Public Information Officer


Ben Knauer Ben
Advertising Copywriter


Kaylee Domzalski Kaylee
Multimedia Journalist


Ashley Rendall Ashley
Magazine Community Builder


Zach Putnam Zach
Documentary Filmmaker


Emma Childs Emma

Back to story