“The Goat Must Be Fed report”

Former NPR editor to join Reporters’ Lab, teach journalism at Duke

Mark Stencel will oversee student projects and teach a course in watchdog journalism in the 2016 campaign.

By Bill Adair – September 3, 2015 | Print this article

I am thrilled to announce that Mark Stencel, a leader in digital journalism and a veteran editor from NPR and the Washington Post, is joining the Duke Reporters’ Lab as Co-Director and will teach in the Sanford School of Public Policy as a Visiting Lecturer.

As Co-Director of the Lab, Mark will direct research projects on fact-checking and political journalism. He’ll oversee the Lab’s database of global fact-checking websites and help us design teaching modules on fact-checking.

Fact-checking will be part of a new class Mark will teach next spring tentatively called Watchdog Journalism and the 2016 Election that will include practical skills and philosophy behind accountability reporting in national and local campaigns.

Mark is a rare talent in American journalism because he has experience on the business and editorial sides of publishing. He held senior editing and management positions at the Post, Governing magazine and Congressional Quarterly. He has often been years ahead of others in journalism in exploring new story forms and alternative sources of revenue.

Mark Stencel
Mark Stencel

At NPR, he was the managing editor for digital news, leading a team of more than 60 journalists and overseeing the network’s reporting for an online audience that more than doubled in four years to over 20 million readers and listeners. At the Post, he was an editor on the company’s first website and later directed groundbreaking digital coverage of the impeachment of President Bill Clinton and the 2000 election.

He didn’t need a campus tour. Before he shifted to digital media in the mid-1990s, Mark was a science and technology reporter for the News & Observer, covering Research Triangle Park from the paper’s bureau in Durham. Three months into the job, he was drafted into reporting on campus reaction to Duke’s somewhat unexpected return to the Final Four in 1994.

Mark and I co-authored last year’s Reporters’ Lab report The Goat Must Be Fed, which explored the reasons for the slow adoption of digital tools in American newsrooms.

He was a political fact-checker before fact-checking was cool, having created a debate fact-checking feature for the Post in 1996. This year, he authored an American Press Institute report on the impact of fact-checking, which he excerpted in a Politico article titled “The Weaponization of Fact-Checking.” He began his career as an assistant to a legendary journalist who sparked the modern fact-checking movement, Washington Post political columnist David S. Broder.

Mark was the co-author of two books on media and politics, On the Line: The New Road to the White House (written with CNN’s Larry King) and Peepshow: Media and Politics in an Age of Scandal (written with scholars Larry J. Sabato and S. Robert Lichter). He is the board chair for the Student Press Law Center and an advisory board member for Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism in Macon, Ga.

He graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in Soviet studies. But that was the year before the Soviet Union ceased to exist, so he often says his credentials as a media ‘futurist’ should be regarded with skepticism.

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For all the talk about digital tools and a data reporting revolution in the news business, the hype doesn’t match the reality in most American newsrooms.

That’s what we heard when the Duke Reporters’ Lab set out to understand why so many news staffs have such a difficult time figuring out how to open these digital toolboxes — even when peers at other organizations have shown what even one data-savvy journalist on staff can accomplish.

The resulting report, published today, got its title from an answer we heard in an interview with Jim Farley, the recently retired news leader at WTOP-FM in Washington, D.C., one of the best-staffed and most successful radio news operations in the country.

“We’re live and local, 24/7, 365,” Farley told us. “The goat must be fed.”

It turns out the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation — one of the news industry’s primary funders for digital tools and training — has been asking similar questions. From the point of view of Alberto Ibargüen, Knight’s president and CEO, “the biggest failure we’ve had has been precisely at the point of adoption.”

Based on our interviews with senior editors and producers in more than 20 newsrooms, the Reporters’ Lab found that:

  • Many U.S. newsrooms are not taking advantage of the emerging low-cost digital tools that enable journalists to report and present their work in innovative ways. Editors and producers cling to familiar methods and practices even when they know better, more engaging digital alternatives are available, often for free.
  • Journalism awards and well-attended conferences create a sense that the adoption of data reporting and digital tools is broader than it really is. But there is a still significant gap between the industry’s digital haves and have-nots — particularly between big national organizations, which have been most willing to try data reporting and digital tools, and smaller local ones, which haven’t.
  • Local news leaders often cite budget, time and people as their biggest constraints. But conversations with the editors and producers we spoke to also revealed deeper issues — part infrastructure, part culture. This includes a lack of technical understanding and ability and an unwillingness to break reporting habits that could create time and space to experiment.
  • The local newsrooms that have made smart use of digital tools have leaders who are willing to make difficult trade-offs in their coverage. They prioritize stories that reveal the meaning and implications of the news over an overwhelming focus on chasing incremental developments. They also think of the work they can do with digital tools as ways to tell untold stories — not “bells and whistles.”

Many of the news leaders we spoke to said they and their staffs struggle with the trade-offs this work requires of them — especially when it means cutting back on what were once core elements of their routine news coverage. “We have to be really careful picking our spots — what we’re going to do and not going to do,” said Marty Kaiser, editor and senior vice president of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, where he has made data reporting and digital tools a priority.

The report was written by digital journalist Mark Stencel; Bill Adair, the Knight Chair for Computational Journalism at Duke; and Prashanth Kamalakanthan, a student researcher in the Reporters’ Lab.

The full report is available at GoatMustBeFed.com.

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