Read All About It
What a data deep dive, a Pulitzer and a bouncy ball can teach us about journalism’s rekindling.
ONthe morning of June 11, 2021, Jackie Botts’s mother turned to her husband and said she thought their daughter would win a Pulitzer Prize that day. Never mind that Jackie was just three years out of Stanford’s journalism program. Never mind that she’d been an intern on the project her mother considered a shoo-in. While her mother was tuning into the live webcast of the Pulitzer announcements, Botts was in a virtual training session at CalMatters, where she was now a Report for America corps member, unaware that the prizes were even being awarded.
Botts, ’16, MA ’18, had started on the project that will forever adorn her résumé as a master’s student in a Stanford course called Becoming a Watchdog: Law, Order, and Algorithms. A Reuters data editor had worked with the class, teaching students to go through court documents to find lawsuits filed against police officers for excessive force. Afterward, Botts started an internship with Reuters, where she did both broad data collection and substantive writing. As her internship got extended twice, she worked on a four-part series about how the Supreme Court’s continual refinement of a legal doctrine made it harder to hold police accountable for excessive force.
And so, when the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting went to five Reuters reporters “[f]or an exhaustive examination, powered by a pioneering data analysis of U.S. federal court cases, of the obscure legal doctrine of ‘qualified immunity’ and how it shields police who use excessive force from prosecution,” Botts suddenly held the most prestigious prize in her field.
“My mother texted me,” says Botts. “I think I cursed a lot. I ran into the kitchen where my housemates were and cursed a lot out of confusion and excitement.” Then, she treated herself to a coffee, bought a small bouncy ball, and bounced it around her neighborhood in Oakland, trying to make sense of it all.
Wait—Isn’t This a Dying Trade?
Newsrooms have been closing and downsizing across the country for more than a decade, as a business model that relied on advertising went bust and online upstarts proved tough competition for eyeballs. In the newspaper sector alone, the Pew Research Center noted in June 2020 that “financial fortunes and [the] subscriber base have been in decline since the mid-2000s.” Since 2004, about 1,800 newspapers have closed in the United States, according to a 2020 report by University of North Carolina researchers.
The trend accelerated during the pandemic. The number of people working as reporters, editors, photographers, or film and video editors and operators in the newspaper industry in 2020 was down 12 percent from the year before and 57 percent from 2004, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A third of large U.S. newspapers had layoffs in 2020. When the Stanford Alumni Association conducted its 2020 Alumni Careers Survey for alumni under age 65, it found that 18 percent of graduates worked in technology, whereas 1 percent were writers and editors.
Not only are jobs scarce, but those who land them often soon discover the downsides: low salaries and minimal benefits relative to education level, long and unpredictable hours, job instability, a lack of diversity in newsrooms—particularly in the leadership ranks—and, in recent years, a rise in misinformation and political headwinds against fact-based reporting.
And yet a number of recent graduates have charged ahead in the embattled field with no small amount of ingenuity and gumption. Botts, now at CalMatters, is finding her way forward at a nonprofit journalism venture devoted to explaining how the California state capitol works. Others have become leading voices explaining COVID-19 to the nation; framing the country’s conservative debates; or foregrounding Native voices in politics. Several have bridged the chasm between storytelling and technological skills like coding and data mining, modernizing the way reporting is done.
“What I’ve found is that journalism is attracting two types of students now: People who want to tell stories, and people who want to hold institutions accountable,” says Jay Hamilton, communication department chair and director of the master’s program in journalism. “The set of skills that a person can [use to] tell a story is different, and holding people accountable you can do at a younger age.”
Irena Hwang, PhD ’19, MA ’20, followed her doctorate in electrical engineering with a master’s in journalism and is now a data reporter at ProPublica, the investigative journalism powerhouse.
Lenny Bronner, ’16, MS ’17, applies his mathematical and computational science major to work as a data scientist at the Washington Post, maintaining databases and reporting on voter registration, vote-by-mail and campaign finance.
Katlyn Sofaea Alo Alapati, ’17, MA ’18, is a newsroom developer at the San Francisco Chronicle who makes graphics and web pages. Earlier this year, she built vaccine trackers to inform readers about eligibility, safety and efficacy, and overall progress toward inoculation.
In the Narrative
Aliyah Chavez, ’18, MA ’19, an anchor and producer at Indian Country Today, has already made journalism history. Not long after her arrival at the nonprofit news enterprise that covers the Indigenous world, Chavez wrote a feature that became the first story the Associated Press circulated from a Native American press.
“If the old adage—that good journalism is the first draft of history—is true, then October 1, 2019, marked the first time in mainstream U.S. media that history was written by a Native publication about Indian Country,” the Columbia Journalism Review noted that month.
Growing up in Kewa Pueblo, N.M., Chavez didn’t think about journalism as a career. But the attraction was clear by the end of her frosh year, she says, after she took a course taught by lecturer Janine Zacharia, a former Washington Post journalist. “It was so exhilarating,” Chavez says. “That was the first time the light bulb turned on to me.”
Through Stanford’s Rebele Journalism Internship Program, which provides students with stipends for internships with qualifying news organizations, she spent the summer of 2018 at a community newspaper in Phoenix. The next summer, she used another Rebele fellowship to work at Indian Country Today.
Chavez quickly carved a niche for herself in politics. Using what she learned at Stanford, she created a database of every Native American candidate running for office in 2020. “At first, I was just going to create a list,” Chavez says. “Then I thought, ‘Wait, I could create a whole database.’ ” Soon, politicians were citing the database in their speeches, and political organizers were using it to get out the vote. Advocates put the numbers in their election literature, and journalists referred to it in their coverage. “That ended up turning into a way bigger project,” Chavez says.
During her reporting on the primaries and the general election, campaigns took a strong interest in Indian Country Today, recognizing it as a credible news source that could reach Indigenous communities. Not long after President Joe Biden took office, the White House started an initiative whereby reporters from outside the D.C. area could ask questions at press conferences via video. Chavez was the second reporter invited to do so.
Later that day, she tweeted: “Native journalists in the White House. Let’s do it again someday!”
The Fourth Estate
On January 6, Marianne LeVine was working on the third floor of the U.S. Capitol, in the press gallery on the Senate side, when she heard an announcement to stay away from the windows. Shortly thereafter, she heard reports of rioters breaching the House side. She and a colleague locked the doors, blocked the entrance with a couch and turned off the lights. For about an hour, they didn’t know what was going on. Finally, someone evacuated them to another Senate building.
“You feel a great weight of responsibility when you’re in [that] situation. I have to cover the news, regardless of if I’m stressed or scared,” says LeVine, ’13, MA ’13, who writes about Congress at Politico. She and her colleague stayed into the night, until the Senate rejected objections to the Arizona and Pennsylvania election results, making it home between 1 and 2 in the morning. By 4:30 a.m., Politico had published “‘Is This Really Happening?’: The Siege of Congress, Seen from the Inside,” an oral history and real-time account from its reporters, including LeVine. Another story by LeVine and two colleagues soon described how the riot at the Capitol was fueling a reckoning in the GOP.
Beyond covering breaking news, LeVine says she’s drawn to reporting because of an urge to hold the powerful accountable—a motivation that has only grown amid misinformation and disinformation. “As a journalist, our job is to cover an issue and not root for an outcome,” LeVine says. “But I really love the idea of accountability reporting—shining a light on issues that might not otherwise get covered, so that situations can change.”
Alexei Koseff, ’12, MA ’13, is a state capitol reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. He broke the story that California Gov. Gavin Newsom had attended a dinner in November 2020 at the French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley with more households than advised by the state.
Alexa Corse, ’19, covers election security and technology for the Wall Street Journal. She started out there thanks to Stanford’s 2019 Daniel Pearl Memorial Journalism Internship; the award is given in honor of Pearl, ’85, who was working as the Journal’s South Asia bureau chief when he was abducted and killed in 2002.
Debating the News
The Wall Street Journal’s editorial section, which aims to “speak for free markets and free people,” is influential in the conservative political establishment; Vanity Fair calls it a “mainstay in the ecosystem of conservative thought.” It operates independently from the newsroom, with which it has at times butted heads. Yet it was editorial writing that notched the Journal’s first two Pulitzer Prizes, in 1947 and 1953, with additional awards coming in the 1980s, 2000s and 2010s. In recent years, several alumni have been making their mark on the section: Elliot Kaufman, ’18, serves as letters editor; Jason Willick, ’15, is an editorial page writer; and Allysia Finley, ’09, is an editorial page editor who sits on the editorial board. Willick joined the Journal in 2017 from the American Interest, a D.C.-based foreign policy magazine, and now writes some of the paper’s unsigned editorials on law, foreign policy and media regulation.
“My favorite bylined piece I wrote,” Willick says, “described the discovery of a new John Locke manuscript in Maryland while trying to convey the relevance of Locke’s thought today.” In the 2019 piece, Willick made the claim that Locke is “falling out of fashion,” with progressives losing interest in the Western canon and conservatives criticizing Locke for being overly disconnected from tradition and focused on individual autonomy. “He was a giant of American liberal democracy standing against totalitarian rivals. Today he is metaphorically in exile,” Willick wrote. The piece unexpectedly became an online hit, rising to the most popular reads list and garnering more than 200 comments.
Meanwhile, Kaufman, the newest addition, combs through 200 to 300 letters received by the paper each day, selecting the ones he believes shed light on an important topic in a novel way. “My first day at the Journal, the team showed me how to use the software,” Kaufman says. “My second day, I was given an article [to edit] by the secretary general of NATO. Not bad considering my father had warned me to be ready to get coffee for senior colleagues.”
So How Would You Describe This to a Fourth Grader?
If you’ve been reading long-form explainers about COVID-19, you’ve probably been reading the Atlantic and the lucid revelations of Katherine Wu, ’13, MS ’14. Wu arrived at Stanford with writerly ambitions. But by her sophomore year, a burgeoning love of science (and pragmatic concerns about making a living) had steered her in a new direction. Out with the English major; in with hum bio.
She soon seemed well on her way toward a career in research. After leaving Stanford, Wu began a doctorate at Harvard studying the bacteria behind tuberculosis. But she maintained a fascination with sharing science with the public. In 2018, she paused her PhD for three months to use an American Association for the Advancement of Science fellowship at Smithsonian magazine, and quickly found herself in the enviable quandary of having two loves to pursue.
After defending her thesis later that year, she set off for jobs at the TV series Nova and then Undark magazine. She arrived at the New York Times in June 2020, lending her scientist’s eye to its relentless COVID-19 coverage while still finding time to tell engrossing (and sometimes gross) tales you never knew you wanted to know. (Exhibit A: “Why Are Pandas Covering Themselves with Horse Manure?”) In less than a year, she got a call from the Atlantic, a preeminent source of long-form writing about the pandemic, with an offer of her dream job.
As Wu puts it, she’s gone from breaking news to breaking down news, a privilege to go deeper that she says comes with a sense of responsibility. “I like giving people something useful and something that actually makes them think about their situation in a different way,” she says. “That is a very difficult thing to do consistently.”
In the article “A Better Name for Booster Shots,” she takes a ubiquitous term and reveals the deep confusion about what booster shot means, even among experts. It’s a look under the hood of language that illustrates how much the pandemic still defies easy consensus.
“I was always a person who was bored easily,” she says. “That’s part of what drew me to science—the excitement of finding new things and always challenging myself—and I feel like that’s amplified many times over now that I’m a journalist.”
Gillian Brassil, ’19, MA ’19, recently began as a congressional reporter for McClatchy. In August, as the Tokyo Olympics captured the world’s attention, the New York Times published Brassil’s piece on traumatic brain injuries in synchronized swimming, which she began researching at Stanford.
Melina Walling, ’20, MA ’21, is a multimedia biosciences reporter at the Arizona Republic, where she covers health, technology, agriculture and the environment. “I can’t think of a better gift than having the opportunity to be curious, creative and compassionate for a living,” she says.
Keep On Keeping On
In 2020, Stanford’s master’s program in journalism saw its largest number of applications in more than a decade. Hamilton, its director, posits several reasons: “The moment, social justice, holding people accountable, the economy, and our focus—we probably have the most data journalists in the country.”
While Stanford does not have an undergraduate journalism major, students can major in communication and choose the journalism pathway—one of several informal tracks the department offers—to take a cluster of related courses. There’s a good deal of cross-pollination as well; undergrads can take graduate-level courses or follow up their bachelor’s degree with a master’s in journalism. The university is also home to the influential John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, which support diverse midcareer journalists from around the world who are creating solutions to the field’s most urgent problems.
Campus journalists and professors alike report seeing increased attention in the field from undergrads. Daily editors say freshmen flocked to the paper during the pandemic, even when they had to report remotely about a campus on which they’d never stepped foot. Some 255 students joined the paper in the fall of 2020, down only slightly from 283 in fall 2019 when the on-campus population was typical. And interest spiked this fall to 411 applications. (The Daily accepts everyone who applies, according to chief operating officer Eleni Aneziris, ’20, MA ’21.)
“I can tell you 104 is packed. We have to turn people away, there’s so much interest,” says Zacharia, who teaches Communication 104W: Reporting, Writing and Understanding the News. “People take 104 and they get enchanted with it. I want to teach Comm 104 to everybody at the university. To me, how we’re going to restore respect for credible fact-based news is an urgent national priority. And the way we’re going to do that is for people to understand how real journalism is done.”
Still, pursuing journalism professionally hasn’t necessarily been an easy choice. Many alumni had moments of reflection—even hesitation—about entering a changing and unstable field. Politico’s LeVine hadn’t come to Stanford expecting to go into journalism. But she loved writing, had an interest in policy and politics, and was intrigued by the idea of always getting to talk to people and keep learning. While in the master’s program, she covered East Palo Alto City Council meetings and explored socioeconomic and housing issues. And yet upon graduation, she worried about finding a path forward. “I was definitely really nervous about what the prospects were. It didn’t feel like a really steady industry,” she says. Even after securing an internship at the Los Angeles Times, she didn’t know what was next. “I had no idea where I was going to land. There’s just not as much opportunity.”
Her colleague Ruairí Alfredo Arrieta-Kenna, ’18, an assistant editor at Politico Magazine, had similar concerns. “I didn’t have connections in the industry or familial wealth to fall back on. But being a Stanford student, I had advantages many others don’t,” he says. “I was able to do my first professional journalism internship while studying at Stanford in Washington [SIW], and I later could afford to live in Washington on the low pay of my first full-time journalism job by moonlighting as an RA at SIW. Because the university affords these kinds of opportunities—as well as others, like the Rebele internship program, which I didn’t do but know others who did—journalism becomes a much more accessible career path, which is a good thing for people like me and the industry at large.”
Hannah Knowles, ’19, who spent her undergraduate years alternating between the Daily and summer internships, realized at some point, despite concerns, that this had to be her profession. “Every summer, I loved what I was doing, but it was depressing. There were layoffs, and people would tell you, ‘Don’t do this,’ ” says Knowles, a general assignment reporter at the Washington Post who has covered Northern California’s Dixie Fire, vaccine and mask mandates, and the trial over Ahmaud Arbery’s killing. “So every summer, I would come back and say, ‘I have to figure something else out.’ But by the end of the year, I just did the same thing, 24/7, at the paper. At a certain point, if you keep doing something, that’s something you should do.”
Botts, for her part, earned her undergraduate degree in earth systems and wended her way to journalism via science writing. Upon graduation, she tried out reporting at the Santa Barbara Independent and loved the work. She remembers tuning out the financial implications of choosing journalism. “I sort of jumped into it heart first,” she says. “My parents were always telling me to find a career that’s meaningful.”
Bay Area writer Brian Eule, ’01, Stanford senior writer Sam Scott and senior editor Jill Patton, ’03, MA ’04, contributed to this story. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.