My Northeastern colleagues Aleszu Bajak and Jeff Howe have written a commentary for The New York Times about how the right-wing media weaponized a Stanford study that suggested COVID-19 infections in Santa Clara, California, might be far more widespread than had been previously thought.
The study showed the infection rate might be 85 times higher than the official estimate. What excited the right about this was that it would mean a much lower death rate — possibly as low as 0.12%. So, gee, let’s open up, shall we?
The larger point Bajak and Howe make in their commentary, complete with data visualizations, is the danger of unvetted science ripping through the media so that it can be exploited for partisan purposes. The Stanford study, a so-called preprint that had not yet been peer-reviewed, turned out to be flawed. That’s not to say there isn’t some valuable data in it. But, as Bajak and Howe write:
The instant sharing of valuable data has accelerated our race for vaccines, antivirals and better tests. But this welter of information, much of it conflicting, has sown confusion and discord with a general public not accustomed to the high level of uncertainty inherent in science.
As it turns out, I spent three hours watching Fox News’ prime-time lineup on April 20, a day when yet another not-ready-for-prime-time study was making the rounds. This one was from the University of Southern California, which suggested — according to a press release (!) — that “infections from the new coronavirus are far more widespread — and the fatality rate much lower — in L.A. County than previously thought.” The release went on to note that the data showed the infection rate might be 28 to 55 times higher than experts had estimated several weeks earlier.
Tucker Carlson touted it. So did Laura Ingraham. “They were predicting doom and gloom,” she asserted, claiming that the response to COVID-19 would have been completely different if officials knew the fatality rate was so low.
Healthline, a respected source of health-related information, analyzed both studies in some depth and took a measured approach in assessing their importance: “There are disagreements about one study’s validity, and experts point out the statistical models and manner that participants were chosen might have biased the results. Although there’s agreement that the findings are plausible.”
What isn’t changed by any of this is that more than 80,000 people in the U.S. have died of COVID-19 in just a few months. And that toll would have been much higher if not for the extraordinary actions taken by state and local governments.
In the final semester we would work assiduously to place the story with a well-respected media outlet. Poker isn’t poker without money, and journalism isn’t journalism without readers. Since we mostly acquire the craft in a newsroom, we figured we’d bring the newsroom into the university. So far, and to our great pleasure, reality has followed the blueprint.
In the spirit of marrying education to editorial, this week we launched a partnership with Esquire magazine. The goal is to create both a physical and virtual research and development lab for digital storytelling. Online platforms have recently delivered a cornucopia of long-form journalism, but we’re still in the messy — a.k.a. totally awesome — phase of experimentation. Most of the current experimentation will fade away without a trace. But some of it will stick.
Esquire and Media Innovation decided to approach the subject from three directions:
StoryLab, a full-semester course taught at Northeastern’s School of Journalism beginning in spring 2015, in which students will work with Esquire writers and editors to reimagine both classic and new Esquire stories for the digital age.
Storybench.org, a news site that offers an “under the hood” look at the latest and most inventive examples of digital creativity — from data-visualization projects to interactive documentaries — as well as the tools and innovation behind them.
StoryChallenge, an annual new-media storytelling competition, launching in October 2015, which will challenge journalists to reinvent the way magazine stories are told.
These projects serve a few highly pragmatic purposes. As one of the nation’s most prestigious venues for literary journalism, Esquire has a great interest in the future of that form. As educators, we’re doing our best to prepare journalism students to enter a workforce that expects creativity and a collaborative imagination as much as shoe leather reporting.
Recently we had Jay Lauf — the founding president and publisher of the business news site Quartz — speak to our students. Like Vice and BuzzFeed, Quartz is growing fast and hiring accordingly. I’m so accustomed to journalism’s famine mentality I assumed they were getting inundated with talented candidates.
That’s not the case. “We are getting swamped with résumés,” Jay says, “but not always with qualified candidates.” Jay defines these as journalists who may have a base-level fluency in programming but, more important, they can demonstrate an easy facility with numbers and data and social media. In fact, the various digital journalism ventures in New York, Jay says, are battling it out for the few journalists that fit the new mold.
There’s another mission threading throughout these efforts: How do you train journalists for jobs that don’t exist yet? One way, we figured, was to try to invent those jobs here. We’re not going to do that by stroking our chins in Aristotelian reflection. We’re going to do it by doing it. There have to be readers at the end of the process, and real sources and real stories. Poker ain’t poker if you’re not using real money. Journalism ain’t journalism unless the stakes are real. And that’s what these Esquire partnerships bring to the table.
Jeff Howe is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University. This post was previously published at the Knight Blog.
Five years ago Clay Shirky wrote an eloquent blog post titled “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.” His essential argument was that we were only at the very beginning of trying to figure out new models for journalism following the cataclysmic changes wrought by the Internet — like Europeans in the decades immediately following the invention of Gutenberg’s press. Along with a subsequent talk he gave at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Shirky helped me frame the ideas that form the foundation of “The Wired City,” my book about online community journalism.
Now Shirky has written a rant. In “Nostalgia and Newspapers,” posted on Tuesday, the New York University professor and author wants us to know that we’re not getting it fast enough — that print is dead, and anything that diverts us from the hard work of figuring out what’s next is a dangerous distraction. His targets range from Aaron Kushner and his alleged apologists to journalism-school professors who are supposedly letting their students get away with thinking that print can somehow be saved.
As always, Shirky offers a lot to think about, as he did at a recent panel discussion at WGBH. I don’t take issue with the overarching arguments he makes in “Nostalgia and Newspapers.” But I do want to offer a countervailing view on some of the particulars.
1. Good journalism schools are not print-centric: Shirky writes that he “exploded” when he was recently asked by an NYU student, in front of the class, “So how do we save print?” I assume Shirky is exaggerating his reaction for effect. It wasn’t a terrible question, and in any case there was no reason for him to embarrass a student in front of her classmates. I’m sure he didn’t.
More important, Shirky takes the view that students haven’t given up on print because no one had given it to them straight until he came along to tell them otherwise. He writes that he told the students that “print was in terminal decline and that everyone in the class needed to understand this if they were thinking of journalism as a major or a profession.” And he attributed their nostalgic views to “Adults lying to them.”
Now, I find it hard to believe that Shirky’s take on the decline of print was novel to journalism students at a progressive institution like NYU. And from what I’ve seen from my own small perch within academia, all of us are looking well beyond print. In the new issue of Nieman Reports, Jon Marcus surveys changes in journalism education (including the media innovation program for graduate students headed by my Northeastern colleague Jeff Howe that will begin this fall). Citing a recent survey by Poynter, Marcus writes that, in many cases, j-schools are actually ahead of professional newsrooms in pushing for digital change:
A recent Poynter survey — which some argue demonstrates that educators are outpacing editors in their approaches to digital innovation — underlines the divide between j-schools and newsrooms. Educators are more likely than professional journalists to believe it’s important for journalism graduates to have multimedia skills, for instance, according to the survey Poynter released in April. They are more likely to think it’s crucial for j-school grads to understand HTML and other computer languages, and how to shoot and edit video and photos, record audio, tell stories with visuals, and write for different platforms.
Could we be doing better? No doubt. But we’re already doing a lot.
2. Aaron Kushner might have been on to something. OK, I’m pushing it here. There’s no doubt that Kushner’s moves after he bought the Orange County Register in 2012 have blown up in his face — the hiring spree, the launching of new daily newspapers in Long Beach and Los Angeles, the emphasis on print. Earlier this month, it all seemed to be coming to a very bad end, though Kushner himself says he simply needs time to retrench.
But Kushner’s ideas may not have been entirely beyond the realm of reality. Over the past several decades, great newspapers have been laid low by debt-addled chains trying to squeeze every last drop of profit out of them. This long-term disinvestment has had at least as harmful an effect on the news business as the Internet-driven loss of advertising revenues. Yes, Kushner’s love of print seems — well, odd, although it’s also true that newspapers continue to derive most of their shrinking advertising revenues from print. But investing in growth, even without a clear plan (or, rather, even with an ever-changing plan), strikes me as exactly what we ought to hope news(paper) companies will do. After all, that’s what Jeff Bezos is doing at The Washington Post and John Henry at The Boston Globe. And that’s not to say there won’t be layoffs and downsizing along the way.
Shirky also mocks Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review and Ken Doctor, a newspaper analyst and blogger who writes for the Nieman Journalism Lab, writing that they “wrote puff pieces for Kushner, because they couldn’t bear to treat him like the snake-oil salesman he is.” (Shirky does concede that Chittum offered some qualifications.)
Chittum recently disagreed with me merely for writing that he had “hailed their [Kushner’s and his business partner Eric Spitz’s] print-centric approach.” It will be interesting to see whether and how he and Doctor respond to Shirky. I’ll be watching. Chittum has already posted this.
In any case, I hardly think it was “terrible” (Shirky’s description) for Chittum and Doctor to play down their doubts given that Kushner, a smart, seemingly well-funded outsider, claimed to have a better way.
Post-publication updates. After this commentary was published at WGBH News on Wednesday, the reactions, as expected, started rolling in. First up: Chittum, who apologized for his F-bomb, though not the sentiment behind it.
by the way, apologies to @cshirky for the f u thing. the “lying” line in that nasty piece, but that’s no excuse. #breathe
Like a stock market crash, disruption creates its own brand of delusion. I remember spending an afternoon sipping iced tea in the Beverly Hills backyard of a seasoned music executive. It was 2003. Revenues from CDs had cratered, and the labels couldn’t figure out a way to compete with free. Panic was in the air, but not here. “The music business is booming,” he said. “It’s the recording industry that’s [in trouble].” Propelled by new distribution channels and cheap-but-powerful audio editing software, more musicians were reaching more audiences than any previous time in history. The delusion, of course, was conflating business with creation.
So it is with storytelling. Making money off journalism has become more difficult, but finding passionate audiences for true stories well told has never been easier, or more exciting. Journalists have access to more information, more tools, more mediums and more venues than our predecessors could have ever imagined.
At Northeastern University, we’re changing journalism education to reflect this new reality. The plain truth is that the skills journalists need lie outside the traditional curriculum of journalism. An interdisciplinary grad program isn’t just an option; it’s a necessity. In September, thanks to the support of Knight Foundation, we will launch the Media Innovation Program. We have one goal: to retrain storytellers for the 21st century, whether that means teaching them Web design, social media, data visualization or game theory. We can do this because Northeastern hosts some of the finest instructors in all these fields.
Here’s how the media innovation track program will work for the master’s in journalism: Students attend for three semesters. Before classes begin they will work closely with advisers within the journalism school to propose theproject that they will develop throughout their tenure in the Media Innovation Program. Students will identify one domain — the concentration — of study outside journalism, be that business or programming or videography. The majority of his or her classes will take place inside this department. Once a week they will come together in the seminar, an intensive course led by one of our top-notch digital practitioners that helps individual students apply their new skills to their project. In the last semester we will work closely with each student and our publishing partners to place their projects with outlets such as The New York Times, NPR, ProPublica or The Boston Globe.
The early response to the program has been tremendous. When I presented a rough sketch of our ideas at the Future of News conference in December 2012, representatives from several major media outlets said they would be interested in hiring the program’s graduates. However, the Media Innovation Program isn’t just an opportunity for journalists to develop skills that will enhance their work and increase their value to traditional news organizations and new media venues; it’s also a way for the School of Journalism to expand its networks and create deep, meaningful connections with other academic departments and news outlets in Boston and worldwide. We’ve already started offering courses in collaboration with the Art + Design program at Northeastern, as well as Laura and Chris Amico of Homicide Watch. We’re also looking forward to partnerships with organizations such as the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University School of Law.
Our goal with the Media Innovation Program is to empower journalists to think creatively about the future of the news, and provide the tools they need to realize their goals. At the same time, we hope to create a laboratory space that existing organizations can use to explore new ideas and new approaches to journalism. We’re at the beginning of our journey, but we’re excited about the road ahead.
More: The Boston Globe’s BetaBoston site covers the Media Innovation Program here.
Jeff Howe is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University and director of the Media Innovation Program.