How can we deliver public interest journalism that cuts through the noise?

In many ways, the ecosystem of public interest journalism in America has never been healthier. Although legacy media concerns continue to suffer losses, new ventures like BuzzFeed, the Guardian U.S. edition and Vice have joined nonprofit news organizations such as The Center for Investigative Reporting and Pro Publica to fill the void. Big players like The New York Times, The Washington Post and the major television networks continue to crank out fantastic content. The universality of the internet means the potential audience of a groundbreaking story is no longer geographically or temporally limited. The number of technical tools available to journalists has never been more vast.

But the flip side of the ascendance of social media and mobile devices is that every consumer lives in his or her own siloed media universe, making it difficult for journalists to craft public interest stories that cut past the cat videos and Trump memes and generate essential civic conversation. Facebook algorithms and web interfaces that customize content based on cookies exacerbate this by creating echo-chambers in which news consumers are fed a consistent diet of “news” that feeds their preconceived notions.

As a result, it is harder than ever to put a vital piece of new information in front of a wide cross-section of the public.

How I am approached this challenge

Because I am a journalist, I found it easiest to explore this challenge in terms of potential stories, and so I spent much of my time at Stanford scoping investigative projects in three diverse areas — firearms, real estate, and international war crimes.

But I didn’t do it the same way I would if I were in a newsroom. Instead, I am leveraged the academic resources of Stanford University. My hope is that this approach will lead to more intimate storytelling and more effective distribution for public interest journalism, and that the lessons I learned piloting these strategies for my own work can be a model for others.

Below are four examples to give you a sense of my approach:

Investigative journalism as a form of social psychology

In the winter, I began exploring one of my reporting projects in a graduate workshop in social psychology. It was taught by professors Geoff Cohen and Gregory Walton, two of America’s leading proponents of “nudges” or “wise interventions” that can change a person’s state of mind and help him or her succeed. Most of the other students in the class were Ph.D. candidates studying new ways to employ these strategies. Many were interested in empowering children who are struggling in school. One was interested in helping obese individuals achieve weight loss. Another was seeking a way to change the mindset of Navy SEAL recruits so that they don’t drop out during “Hell Week.”

Every week we met and critiqued each other’s progress. The feedback that I received from these psychologists was insightful and entirely different from the sort of thing I would typically hear from an editor or fellow journalist.

After completing the class, I launched a collaboration with Alana Conner, the executive director of Stanford SPARQ, a psychological “do tank” on in the Department of Psychology, to explore ways that journalists might apply best practices from social psychology to improve the impact of their work. The project is ongoing.

Management science as a tool for more universal and penetrating journalism

During the Fall academic quarter, I took a course called “Leadership in Action” in the department of Management Science and Engineering. The course was taught by Rosanne Siino, a co-founder of Netscape. Most of the students in the class were engineers who dream of founding their own technology company, or being CEO of a large Silicon Valley concern.

I took the course to learn new strategies for building the type of cross-company and cross-platform teams that will be necessary to penetrate the social media clutter that stifles the impact of quality public interest journalism. In designing my post-fellowship journalism projects, I am using what I’ve learned about organizational behavior to craft messages that generate real world impact.

Improving impact through a better understanding of public policy decision making

I took many courses in the Stanford Law School, including one called “Problem Solving and Decision Making for Public Policy and Social Change.” It is taught by Paul Brest, dean emeritus of the law school and past president of the Hewlett Foundation.

In this course, we learned about tools that government agencies, corporations, and philanthropists use to decide whether a particular effort will be effective. These included cost-benefit analyses, subjective linear models, and systems mapping. As a journalist, I am considering how I might use these tools to better allocate reporting time and financial resources to projects in a way that maximizes impact. I also studied how government agencies’ use of these tools might impact their response to a piece of investigative or public interest journalism.

Developing intimate, creative approaches to storytelling

Throughout the fellowship year, I have experimented with creative types of storytelling that have the potential to increase the quality and resonance of public service work. So much discussion of “creative approaches” in journalism these days involves data and visual displays (and that is important), but in our current atmosphere of infinite choice of what to read, listen to, and watch, the quality of the story itself is an important as ever.

By exploring the creative arts throughout the year — in courses ranging from acting to playwriting to a memoir class taught by Tobias Wolff — I applied the lessons learned in the psychology, public policy, and management courses discussed above directly to my craft. I integrated my learning in a way that increased the likelihood that it will resonate in the years to come.