Innovation amplifies old-school news sense for unprecedented journalistic impact, Stanford alumni panel says

They welcomed an audience that included 150 journalism alumni, students and faculty who share an interest in how Stanford can help sustain public affairs reporting in the digital age.

Black and white image of students around table working on typewriters.

Stanford has a rich tradition of student journalism that dates back to the university’s beginning. This undated photo shows the Stanford Daily offices on Lomita Drive when the tools of the trade included typewriters, rotary phones and plenty of carbon paper. (Image credit: Courtesy Stanford University Archives)

The impact of journalistic storytelling has soared despite the challenges news leaders face as they wed emerging technologies with the timeless skill of information gathering. That was the message from a panel of four Stanford alumni journalists at a gathering to mark 125 years of Stanford leadership in the field.

Today, virtual-reality programming, curated live talks and behind-the-scenes glimpses of eminent newsrooms convey the immediacy and relevance that news audiences continue to demand, said the panel, which convened last week for the 50th Carlos Kelly McClatchy Symposium.

The panelists were Peter Bhatia, ’75, editor and vice president for audience development for the Cincinnati Enquirer/Enquirer Media; June Cohen, ’93, who develops audio content for Audible and virtual-reality programming for Vrse; Bob Cohn, ’85, president of The Atlantic; and Francesca Donner, MA ’06, director of the New York Times’ digital Times Insider.

Richard Saller, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, and Professor Fred Turner, chairman of the Department of Communication, welcomed an audience that included 150 journalism alumni, students and faculty who share an interest in how Stanford can help sustain public affairs reporting in the digital age.

Today’s news leaders must be “platform-agnostic,” Bhatia said.

“We see a story, and then we apply all the techniques we have on hand,” said Bhatia, who has led news teams to nine Pulitzer Prizes during his career.

“Is it video? Is it an interactive graphic? We have to tell the stories in the best way possible if we want people to consume them,” Bhatia said.

Stanford is fostering this needed multiplicity of skills. Its students and affiliated practitioners draw from seven interdisciplinary Stanford centers working to turn unstructured data into structured stories, said James T. Hamilton, director of the Stanford Journalism Program, who moderated the event.

The latest such center, the Stanford Computational Journalism Lab, opened in 2015 to lower the cost of telling public-interest stories driven by computational data and to refine their narrative form.

Panelist Cohen began her career as a news innovator while still an undergraduate. As editor-in-chief of the Stanford Daily in 1991, she led a team that built one of the world’s first multimedia magazines, with downloadable videos of Stanford athletes training for the 1992 Olympics.

“I’ve spent most of my career looking for opportunities for storytelling in new technology,” Cohen said.

As vice president for content at HotWired in the 1990s and later as executive producer at TED Media, she helped popularize such now-familiar digital media features as banner ads and embedded short-format video talks.

The power of virtual reality

Today, Cohen focuses on audio content and virtual-reality programming. While VR headsets are increasingly accessible, Cohen said most people watch VR programming via mobile apps downloaded to their phones.

Recently, virtual reality afforded ABC News viewers 360-degree images of a Syrian refugee camp, a heart-wrenching sight few Americans can actually visit but many more can experience in surprising emotional depth through what Cohen called VR’s “tremendous capacity for empathy.”

“Virtual reality is showing you what’s all around you,” Cohen said. “It mimics your environment and tricks your consciousness into thinking you’re there.”

Aspiring Stanford journalists are learning to master this medium. In 2017, Lorey I. Lokey Visiting Professor Geri Migielicz will teach a class titled Virtual Reality Journalism in the Public Interest.

‘Magazines on the stage’

In addition, panelists said, 21st-century Americans’ need for immediacy and connection – what Cohen called “a hunger to come together in a space”  – is drawing them to live events. All four panelists said their news organizations produce events that examine current issues.

How are such events journalism? “The way the speakers are invited and the talks are crafted, it’s like putting a magazine on the stage,” Cohen said. “You figure out where the story arc is and prepare.”

“At The Atlantic, we’ve tried to take our most ambitious journalism, which is generally our cover story, and turn it into a more impactful moment with digital and events and the full power of our platforms,” said Cohn, who noted that The Atlantic, puts on 150 events a year.

The Atlantic leveraged its recent cover story “The Obama Doctrine” with video, a digital series, Explaining the Obama Doctrine, and a live event in Washington, D.C.

Said Donner about the Times Insider: “We’ve thrown our political reporters in a room and said, ‘Talk.’

It’s amazing what emerges. It’s journalism at its best.”

That audiences are willing to pay to attend many such programs “is a consideration these days,” Bhatia added.

At The Atlantic, Cohn said, 20 percent of revenues come from live programming, even though all but two of the events are free.

Engaging readers

Achieving journalistic impact also means forging new ways for readers to engage with news organizations, Donner said. Times Insider “takes people behind the scenes in the newsrooms” through invitations to live events, downloadable ebooks and digital behind-the-scenes experiences that reveal how major stories take form.

After the March 22, 2016, Brussels terrorist attacks, Donner’s team produced a timeline of how the Times reported the story.

“It helped people in understanding the complications, the rumors that need to be dispelled, the facts that need to be pinned down, the people we need to send places where they’ll be hard to reach,” Donner said.

“People saw finally what the Times was doing and how hard it is.”

Such initiatives help bridge the gap between fast-breaking digital outlets and the deliberative Times approach, especially for younger readers, Donner said.

“When a big event occurs, they piece it together, and then go to the New York Times to verify those facts. They do this because the Times isn’t always the first to get the story, because the Times can’t get it wrong.

“We have to meet people where they are,” Donner said. “If they’re on their phone, we have to get on their phone.

“Who doesn’t want a fun, amazing news experience?”

Tradition of achievement

The panelists continue a Stanford tradition of journalistic accomplishment that goes back to 1891, when students formed what may have been the first campus newspaper founded simultaneously with the university it covered.

Latest bearers of that legacy include former Knight Fellow Martha Mendoza and Mary Rajkumar MA ’91, part of the Associated Press team that won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service for a report that documented coerced labor in the US seafood supply and former Knight Fellow T. Christian Miller of ProPublica, who shared a 2016 Pulitzer in Explanatory Reporting for a series of stories about law enforcement’s failures in investigating reported rapes.

Today the Department of Communication offers a MA program, undergraduate courses and major, and a research PhD. It shares space in McClatchy Hall with the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, which since 1966 have brought outstanding midcareer journalists to Stanford for a year of reinvention and innovation.

For 30 years, the Rebele Digital and Print Journalism Internship Program has supported aspiring Stanford journalists at community, regional and national news organizations. The Daniel Pearl Memorial Journalism Internship honors Daniel Pearl, ’85, who was kidnapped and murdered while reporting in Pakistan in 2002, and enables a Stanford student journalist to work in a foreign bureau of the Wall Street Journal.

A Stanford Journalism 125th anniversary website tells more.