Kristof made his mark covering human rights crises around the world: the ongoing protests in Bahrain (he was tear-gassed there last month), to war in the Congo, to the genocide in Darfur (the latter won him a Pulitzer Prize). Kristof and his wife, journalist Sheryl WuDunn, won a joint Pulitzer for their coverage of China’s Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989. Despite Kristof’s print pedigree, he’s not afraid to jump into social media and experiment publicly. For six years, Kristof has been bringing readers directly into his work with his annual “Win a Trip” contest. The student with the winning essay travels with Kristof on a reporting trip to a developing country and then blogs about it. The 2012 edition of the contest recently opened for applications. We spoke with Kristof about how journalism is evolving in a digital world.
Fast Company: In your columns and online posts you encourage reader dialogue and response. What kind of responses do you get?
Nicholas Kristof: One of the biggest complaints readers have about my work is that I don’t tell them often enough what they can do. I do think this is an area where journalism sometimes falls short. We describe a really grim situation but don’t really explain to people what they can do about it. So, a few years ago I started doing a year-end list of amazing charities. The first time, I had real anxiety about whether it was appropriate. But the response was so overwhelming, it seemed to be a real service to readers and I’ve continued to do it. It also happens when I’m not especially encouraging people to give. For instance, a few months ago I profiled a group called Room to Read and I later learned they raised $700,000 as a result of people hearing about them from my column.
That’s a pretty powerful impact.
It’s pretty amazing. It really took me aback. It makes me a little bit nervous because it’s not what we, as journalists, have traditionally done, but again it responds to real desire on the part of the reader to do more than just read the article, but to get involved. Increasingly journalists have to recognize that we need a real multi-party dialogue with readers. I think we in journalism were really late to social networks. We had a built-in network already in terms of our readers and we didn’t capitalize on that.
Yet you were one of the earliest adopters of social media at The New York Times.
I was the first blogger on the Times‘s website. That happened during the Iraq war, when I wanted an outlet for the things I was seeing every day that couldn’t fit into just two columns a week. Then I became interested in using multimedia, specifically as a way to engage young people. All of us in the news business are wondering what the future is going to be. It seemed to me that social networks were part of the answer to that, so I wanted to experiment and see how they could be used.
How do you think about your social media interaction?
I tend to regard them as very informal, but I learn a lot from them, especially Twitter. During the Arab Spring I learned all sorts of things from Twitter. I wouldn’t necessarily trust that information, but it gave me ideas about questions to ask. You can really learn things from the wisdom of crowds. When I was going to Haiti I was looking for interesting things to write about, so I asked people for ideas on Twitter and Facebook, and got some great responses, some of which I ended up writing about.
Is this a revolutionary shift in journalism or a more natural progression?
In some ways, it’s just an adaptation of traditional journalistic approaches. I used to call a bunch of experts about who I should interview in Haiti. I still do that, but now I also send inquires through social media. That change feels incremental. We’re moving from a format where we “proclaimed the news” to the world on a fixed schedule to one where we converse with the world on a 24/7 basis. That does feel like a significant change. I don’t think what we do 20 years from now will look much like what we’re doing today. I don’t think op-ed columnists will be limited to two 780-word columns a week.
There’s a lot of debate about the role of social media in journalism, especially on the part of the major print news institutions. While the Times was developing strategies and policies, you just started doing it. Why?
In the process of industrialization, the people who mastered one technology tended not to be those who came to dominate the next technology. The stagecoach people didn’t produce motorcars. The motor vehicle people weren’t the ones who ended up producing trains. The train people weren’t the aviation companies and so on. I worry about that all the time in the platforms of journalism. That’s one reason I’m willing to experiment with new media and platforms as they come along. Some of them are dead ends; often I’m not very good at them. I do think there’s a natural tendency to be very proud of your existing platform and to be a little bit skeptical of new technologies. But I think it’s useful to push back at that skepticism and try new things. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. I think gaming might be the next big platform for news organizations and causes. There’s some snobbery about games. Some people think games are just “what teenagers do” or that they are too fun to be worthy of our attention. But there are a lot of people who spend a lot of time playing games online, so we in the news business would do well to think about how we can use games to attract eyeballs. My wife and I are doing a TV documentary of our book Half the Sky, but we’re also creating a Facebook game as part of it.
It’s being built by an organization called Games for Change. It will be vaguely analogous to FarmVille. You’ll have a village, and in order to nurture this village, you’ll have to look after the women and girls in the village. Actions in the game will also have real-world effects. In other words, there will be schools and refugee camps that will benefit if you do well in the game. It will go live when the documentary debuts at the end of this year.
Is there a more problematic side with the journalism in the digital age? Do you worry that citizen journalism diminishes overall credibility, for instance?
I think that there will always be a hierarchy of credibility. We in the media have historically been gatekeepers. Now I think that’s largely lost, and that’s a disadvantage. But having people shooting videos everywhere provides a useful level of accountability. A lot of people including me were really taken aback by the videos of police violence during Occupy Wall Street. A decade ago nobody would have known about that because there wouldn’t have been a reporter there and even if someone did write about it, it wouldn’t have been that dramatic. Likewise in Syria, widespread video does provide some constraint on a government if it knows that if it massacres people, there will be video of that. They may still decide to massacre people, but it raises the price.
One of the other big changes in journalism we’ve seen in recent years is the rise of advocacy journalism. That’s different than what you do. Take Fox News for instance.
Fox News hosts have every right to be advocates and to be opinionated. In the case of Fox News, it’s been a little bit uncomfortable because they’ve been very close to the Republican Party. Bill O’Reilly less so–I disagree with him on everything possible, but I think he’s more independent. It doesn’t strike me as problematic for commentators to be very opinionated whether it’s Bill O’Reilly or Keith Olbermann. But I wish that some of that passion and heat could also shed more light on other issues. I think that’s where journalism tends to change minds and where we can have an impact. I once invited Bill O’Reilly on a trip to Darfur with me. He was harrumphing about the “War on Christmas” being a terrible injustice. I wrote a column saying that if you want to see injustice and terrible things happening, then put that aside and come with me to Darfur.
Did he come?
But you have taken some other people with you to cover these stories with your Win a Trip contest. How did that first come about?
The impetus for the Win a Trip contest came when I was writing about Darfur. I was very frustrated that I would write these columns and it felt like they were disappearing into space. I was trying to figure out how to engage young people and bring them into the op-ed world. So I had the idea to choose a student who would come with me on a trip to Darfur and blog about it. I proposed this internally and the Times‘s lawyers said something along the lines of, “Hmm. So you want to take a student into a war zone?!” So I modified it to take a student along with me on a reporting trip to the developing world. It’s been a big success. I think other students get particularly interested in the writing of a fellow student in these places, whereas they might tune me out. I really encourage the student to take different perspectives and write whatever they want to write.
You once described yourself as “basically a fraud” in the opinion business.
When I first got the column I was thrilled, but I was also a little bit horrified. I’m not particularly an opinionated person, and here I was being asked to write strong opinion pieces twice a week. But I went into journalism because I wanted to make a difference in the world. This spotlight that we carry with op-ed columns can really have a powerful effect on shaping agendas and on issues I feel passionately about: social justice, equality, and opportunity.
How do you negotiate the line between activism and journalism?
Occasionally somebody will come up to me and say, “Oh, you’re such a wonderful crusader” and I’ll flinch. I’m wary of the idea of being an activist or a crusader. I’m an advocate as a columnist but there is a faint, almost wandering line between advocacy and activism. One of the perils of activism is that you become so much a part of a cause that you lose your objectivity. There can be a tendency to start speaking for a cause rather than for yourself. I try to navigate this terrain, but frankly there are a lot of blurry lines. Especially when I was writing a lot about Darfur, I sometimes worried about where I was in a relationship to that line. Because of the Times‘s rules I don’t speak to fundraisers or closed-door meetings of specific organizations. This is one way to try and keep a certain amount of journalistic distance. On the other hand, when it feels like there are an awful lot of lives at stake, it’s hard not to want to do everything that you can to save those lives. There are real difficulties in trying to figure out when it’s appropriate for journalists to dive into the arena. But sometimes that’s what you have to do.
Note: This interview has been edited for content, clarity, and length.
David D. Burstein is a young entrepreneur, having completed his first documentary 18 in ’08. He is also the Founder & Executive director of the youth voter engagement not for profit, Generation18. His book about the millennial generation will be published by Beacon Press in 2012.