Rethinking journalism at Stanford and other adventures

A meditation in five spurts.

‘Live Life Today’ by Justice Littlejohn. Courtesy: ArtStor, Stanford

Note: If you’re pressed for time, skip ahead to section 4.

1.

I assumed that the perks of being a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University were about space more than anything else: the fluidity of the campus, the carefully designed classrooms, the airy libraries, the offices of mentors and professors, and the quietness of my Menlo Park home.

Also space in other senses: being right next to the best minds in politics, humanities, technology, business, etc. Being in the same country as technologists in Silicon Valley or journalists on the east coast, (even if it’s six hours away by flight). Having access to people who are trying to solve our biggest journalistic challenges. And so on.

All of the above is 100 percent true.

But to me, a deeper pleasure of being a fellow is not so much space as it is time.

The goldfish tells the time. Or does it? Magnetic clock at Green Library, Stanford inspired by Athanasius Kircher.

2.

I arrived at Stanford in August with this question:

How might news organizations collaborate on fighting disinformation in communities with multiple languages, low literacy and limited internet access?

Earlier in May, I’d announced a public consultation in India with the intention to put together a collaboration of different stakeholders: from publishers to platforms to the public. By July-end, at a meeting that I organised, several of these stakeholders had agreed to a pilot project. This November, the pilot project — called the Ekta News Coalition— was in place.

This meant that the work that would answer the question above was already in autopilot mode. By ‘autopilot’ I do not mean that there is no work. On the contrary, the job of stitching together this coalition and ensuring that it works is at times gruelling. But it no longer takes up as much mental space as it used to, which leaves me with enough time to mull over big, existential questions.

Questions such as:

What can I do to keep me happily engaged for the next two couple of decades? What is that only I can do to further the cause of good journalism, given my combination of skills, experience, attitudes, opportunities and contacts?

The ‘Thinker’ at Stanford, which has a thing for Auguste Rodin. Suits my mood.

3.

How often do you give yourself permission to dream really, really big? What about that hairy, audacious goal that you’ve been aware of for years? The one you’re almost embarrassed to even think about because you believe you don’t have the qualifications to pursue it?

To me, this dream has been about rethinking journalism — what it’s mission is and how it should be done — especially for people in countries that aren’t protected by the First Amendment (which is to say, most of the rest of humanity). In democratic India for example, the press is free but free speech isn’t necessarily so. There are enough structural and constitutional limits to prevent the emergence of an Indian version of The New York Times. The best journalists and news organizations there work despite, and not because of, such restrictions.

There are other questions as well that I want to pursue: Should we journalists focus on uncovering hidden information, or help people deal with the firehose of already existing information today? (The obvious answer is: both.)

Should journalists approach their core mission differently when they serve people who have little or no access to quality information, who cannot read and who speak different languages? Is really journalism about telling us how to make choices meaningfully, and so on.

I used to think that this is the domain of the philosopher or a journalism professor with a Ph D. Or that it was too impractical. Over the years, I worked hard to give myself permission to pursue this line of thought. But I never discussed it with anyone until I got to the JSK Garage — the space where we fellows meet three times a week to learn from each other and others.

At a workshop in September where we worked together to frame our questions through the design thinking rubric, I spoke of these existential questions. Instead of laughing at me (as I’d convinced myself that they would), my fellow fellows gave me encouraging post-it notes and suggestions. The JSK directors — the three yodas as I think of them — had these little smiles on their faces that seemed to say, “yes you came here with a question that is amazing, but this thing you’re talking about and are scared to confront? That is what you might want to think about here.”


4.

This then is my plan for the rest of the year. I invite you to gaze at the triangle below and bullet points that follow.

My obsessions at Stanford.
  • Addressing disinformation: Through the Ekta News Coalition, conversations and readings with multiple stakeholders and interested individuals, my work will continue. I am both the steward and clear-eyed assessor of this effort, and I will be paying special attention to the three conditions of my question — multiple languages, low literacy, low internet penetration.
  • Media literacy: By this term, I mean helping all people (and not just children) learn how to deal with news and other forms of information. This really is the only long-term and sustainable way to counter disinformation. I thought I was alone when I hit upon this insight a few months ago. But talk to anyone who’s thinking about fake news and polarization, and they will scream media literacy at you. 
    A bunch of us fellows have got together to form a media literacy group and I expect to write about some of our findings in the next couple of months.
  • Journalism’s mission: Having spent the first three months gnawing away at the existential questions, I have a plan. Now to execute, test, and write up the results. 
    Here too, some of us have formed a journalism impact group, and I’m excited about what that partnership will yield.

The one thing that underpins all these enquiries is technology, and I’ve discovered that at Stanford, there are very many ways to drink deep from the well of ‘techknowledge’.

There’s the computational journalism course which I took (more on this later). There are all the seminars and talks on campus. There are people to meet outside campus. And then there are the fellow fellows — an eclectic group of creatures from whom there is always something fantastic to learn.

JSK 2019: A league of extraordinary gentlemen and gentlewomen.

5.

What now?

The design school, a beloved institution at Stanford, offers various frameworks to tackle just about any problem on earth.

It first made famous a five-step process: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test. But it is now focusing on teaching ability, and to that end has developed eight core abilities.

I am appropriating that framework for my own development as a John S. Knight Fellow. Thus far, my journey has included four of these abilities: ‘navigate ambiguity’, ‘learn from others’, ‘synthesize information’, and ‘more between concrete and abstract’.

The next two quarters will likely be about the other four: ‘experiment rapidly’, ‘build and craft intentionally’, ‘communicate deliberately’ and ‘design your design work’.


If you want to have a rolling conversation on journalism or how I can help you with your work or organization, do write in to hrv@stanford.edu. Or find me at my Twitter feed.