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Nieman’s 80th Anniversary Reunion Weekend

Transcript: Philip Meyer

Opening slide: Philip Meyer, NF ’67, wasn’t able to come to Cambridge for the 80th, so Nieman went to him. Stuart Watson, NF ’08, visited with Meyer to talk about the early days of precision journalism.

Slide 1: Meyer would use his year at Harvard to pioneer a new style of reporting: precision journalism.

Slide 2: Philip Meyer’s Nieman proposal was to apply social science research methods to journalism by using an expensive new form of technology: the computer.

Philip Meyer:  …the premise was that there were modern computer-aged techniques being developed to manipulate voters. I covered national elections and if voters were being manipulated it’s my duty to report on it. How in the hell can I do that if I don’t understand it?

I wanted to become the first journalist to understand the sneaky things these consultants like Poole were doing for candidates.

Slide 3: Meyer signed up for a Harvard research methods course, which gave him access to the most cutting-edge computer at the time: the IBM 7090.

It was a course in practical research and the feature of it was, you learned this system. Which was a … method of doing statistical problems on an IBM 7090 computer. This was revolutionary at this time. Once I saw what I could do with that, I thought, “My God, there’s an application for journalists here.”

It became more than finding out what politicians were doing with these tools. This made me feel so big and strong. Even though I only had three minutes of computer time for the whole semester, I spent my whole time figuring out how to use those three minutes.

Slide 4: Those three minutes of programming time lead to a revolution in computer-assisted reporting.

Stuart Watson:  How did you arrive at your first application of computing science and social science to journalism? How did you arrive at the first case study, test study?

Philip:  Pure dumb luck. I used to read a lot of science fiction and my favorite was Kirk Vonnegut Jr. He wrote a novel called The Sirens of Titan where he wrote fantastic adventures in space. Afterword, he lands back on earth and a crowd reaches him and says, “What happened to you?”

He says, “I was a victim of a series of accidents.” Aren’t we all? That’s a story of research and journalism. I was a victim of a series of accidents.

Slide 5: Following his Nieman year, Meyer returned to his post in the Washington bureau of Knight Newspapers. A chance phone call lead him to a stint at The Detroit Free Press.

I arrived back in the western bureau wondering how in the hell I was going to make some use for this. I was trying to dream up ideas and I was having a hard time selling it and then the phone rang.

It was Jerry Daniels who is my old city editor from Miami, then editor at The Detroit Free Press. Saying, “The Detroit riot is a few days a long now and our staff is worn out, I need two fresh bodies. Send me two people.” Since I was the one who answered the phone, I was the only one in the bureau, I decided who went. So, I sent myself.

That’s the one thing I learned about the newspaper business the most. You wake up in the morning and you’re never quite sure where you’re going to be at the end of day. At the end of that day I was in downtown Detroit riding around with the Nation Guard watching the fires burn, listening to the shots in the night trying to figure out how I was going to make a story out of this.

Slide 6: He would soon apply his new social science and data research skills to one of the biggest stories of the era.

I had in my hand a copy of The Los Angeles Times, which had just published a survey of the Watts Riot. The Watts Riot was two years earlier. I said, “This guy’s applied social science research methods to discover the causes of the riot, we can do the same thing. It took them two years to do it, we’re newspaper people, we don’t have to be as slow as social scientists.”

Out of sure good fortune, the series of coincidences, I was able to pull it off.

Slide 7: Meyer’s work contributed to a Pulitzer Prize in local reporting for The Detroit Free Press. Soon after, he wrote the now-classic book: Precision Journalism.

I was rejected even by The Russell Sage Foundation. They paid for writing the book, and it worked for hire project that they were the intended publisher. They sent it out to reviewers from both journalism and social science and on both sides the journalist said, “This is too much like social science, we can’t use it.”

The social scientist said, “There’s too much journalism here, it’s no good for us.” That’s when I knew I had winner, [laughs] because that’s a sign of creativity, if there’s no box to fit into.