R.B. Brenner

‘Obamacare on the Peninsula’ project showcased range of students’ skills

This fall, I challenged the 18 students in my Public Issues Reporting course to undertake a major project examining the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. In less than six weeks, while juggling other class assignments, they brainstormed idea, formed reporting teams, created a highly customized WordPress site, and produced in-depth articles,  a data visualization, audio slideshows and a four-minute video.

On top of that, they organized, hosted, live blogged and live streamed a panel discussion featuring two Stanford professors and a top public health official.

I’m proud to share the website that houses all their work.


Digital Journalism, Winter 2014

In “legacy” media, newspaper and magazine journalists had no need to learn how to operate the printing presses, or to understand strategies the marketing and circulation departments used to promote and distribute their work. Their interactions with readers were one-sided at best, antisocial at worst. And computers were treated as glorified typewriters. The Internet blew that world up. Mobile technologies and social media are shaking it yet again. This course explores the mind-sets and skill-sets of  journalism in the digital age.

Graded assignments: Students are evaluated on three assignments and on class participation.

The details:

  1. Envision, build and maintain a self-hosted WordPress site. Due Feb. 11 (30% of course grade)
  2. In-class Data Challenge, testing the skills you learn in Weeks 5-6. Feb. 18 (30%)
  3. On your site, write six blog posts: two in reaction to the “Riptide” video interviews you watch, two in response to Nieman Journalism Lab Predictions for 2014, and two based on COMM 291 seminars speakers Matthew Winkler and Raney Aronson-Rath. (20%) March 4
  4. Write a memo advising a media site on how to grow its audience and improve its journalism. March 11 (20%)

Grading: Grades will be determined on a point system: (96-100 = A; 90-95 = A-; 86-89 = B+; 82-85 = B; 78-81 = B-; 74-77 = C+; 70-73 = C, etc.)

Guidelines: This is a seminar that relies heavily on in-class workshops. Be prepared and collegial, show up on time, and meet deadlines. There are no textbooks or paper handouts. All of the materials you will need can be found on this website, which will be updated throughout the quarter.

Honor Code: Be sure you are familiar with Stanford’s Honor Code.

>>Pre-Class Requirements:

  • Follow our tutorial for purchasing web hosting, registering a domain name and properly installing WordPress.
  • Download and install the latest version of the Firefox browser on the laptop you intend to use in class.
  • Install the latest version of Microsoft Excel on your laptop.

>>Week 1, January 7 — Getting Started

  • Survey of classes, assignments and learning goals.
  • Introduction to the craft and business of journalism in the digital age.
  • Conversation with two leaders in the field: Emilio Garcia-RuizWashington Post managing editor for digital, video and presentation departments; and Jonathan KrimWall Street Journal technology editor and San Francisco bureau chief.

For next class: assignment, see below.

>>Week 2, January 14 — WordPress and Personal Platforms

  • A guide to the modern web: from static (HTML) to dynamic (SQL, CSS, PHP).
  • Cosmology of WordPress, from its lingo to the components parts.
  • What you need to know to begin creating your WordPress site.
  • Workshop leader: Drake Martinet

In-class workshop: 

  • Identify two WordPress themes you like. Be ready to explain your choices.
  • Configure File Transfer Protocol (FTP) and WordPress administrator access.
  • Install WordPress themes, activating top choice through the platform’s back end.
  • Find and install Cyberduck and Textwrangler.

For next class: assignments, see below.

  • Install Cyberduck and Textwrangler (if not completed in class).
  • Complete the FTP configuration with Cyberduck (if not done in class).
  • Find out what a favicon is, what its parameters are, and how you go about making one.
  • Explore options for choosing your site’s color palette.

>>Week 3, January 21 — A Deeper Dive into Web Development

  • Best practices for using Firebug and developer tools.
  • How to embed things the right way; math for layout.
  • Demo Google Analytics Install via FTP.
  • Workshop leader: Drake Martinet

In-class workshop:

  • Make a favicon and upload it to your site via FTP.
  • Change website colors using CSS.
  • Locate, install and activate plugins.
  • Install Google Analytics the hard (FTP) way. Check that it is running properly.

For next class: assignments, see below.

  • Have a professional-quality bio photo ready to upload.
  • Create a contact page, including an “About Me” paragraph, contact email and links to social media presence.

>>Week 4, January 28 — Individual and Small Group Website Consultations

  • Themes and Plugins — Did you choose wisely?
  • Technical troubleshooting: Sam Fisher
  • Individual consultations with R.B.

For next class: assignments, see below.

  • Work on your WordPress site.
  • Data mining prep materials will be distributed. All you need to do at this stage is download files onto your hard drive.

>>Weeks 5-6, February 4 and 11 — Data Mining, Analysis and Visualization 

  • Best places to find data.
  • Excel formulas and pivot tables.
  • The importance of cleaning data.
  • Introduction to basic data visualization publishing tools.
  • Using Google Docs and Fusion Tables.
  • Workshop leader: Phillip Reese

In-class workshops:

  • Hands on: Finding, analyzing and visualizing data.

For next class: assignments, see below.

  • Prepare for next week’s Data Challenge.

>>Week 7, February 18 – In-class Data Challenge (first half); Intro to Advanced Data Visualization (second half) 

  • Data Challenge; details to be announced on Feb. 4.
  • Introduction to “envisioning information” — the intersection of image, word, number and art.
  • Making sense of unstructured data.
  • Workshop leader: Carlos Martinez

>>Week 8, February 25 – Audience Engagement (first half) and Metrics (second half)

  • The 3 R’s of audience engagement: be relevant, relatable and real.
  • Designing the story process with the 3 R’s in mind.
  • How do journalists/news organizations connect with the next generation of news consumers?
  • Metrics, SEO and social media optimization.
  • Workshop leader: Tran Ha

For next class: assignments, see below.

  • Choose media site for optimization memo due on March 11.

>>Week 9, March 4 — Red Eye Case Study (first half) and Intro to Graphic Storytelling (second half)

>>Week 10, March 14 (* special FRIDAY lunchtime session *) — Graphic Storytelling Workshop

  • Your chance, in small groups, to produce static and animated explainers.

Where do you go to find stories? Start with the 3 P’s — People, Places and ‘Paper’

I show this video on the first day of my Public Issues Reporting course because the city editor’s words to a very young Bob Woodward — “Get your ass out of the chair” — still ring true to today. Fortunately, Woodward took the editor’s advice that day. Otherwise, he might not have stayed on The Washington Post Metro staff long enough to be there when the Watergate break-in happened.

Another reason I like the video is that Woodward explains the three tracks of reporting, which I refer to as the three P’s –shorthand for people, places and paper (in the digital age, sub documents and data for “paper”).

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Before the interview came words spoken to the wind

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Sometimes the best thing a journalist can do is not ask a lot of questions right away. Take the time to look and listen. There can be gold in that period before the interview begins.

In this recent podcast (above), author Dale Maharidge – longtime collaborator with my friend Michael Williamson, the one-of-a-kind Washington Post photographer — describes meeting steelworkers Joe Marshall Sr. and Jr. in Youngstown, Ohio. The words that Dale and Michael heard Joe Sr. say ever-so-quietly “to the wind” became a haunting quote in their first book, Journey to Nowhere. ”What Hitler couldn’t do, they did it for him,” Mr. Marshall, a World War II veteran who survived the Normandy invasion, said as he surveyed the ruins of the mill which had sustained his family and generations of others.

The Marshalls are featured prominently in Journey to Nowhere. They appear again in Someplace Like America, a sequel of sorts published this year. Dale’s podcast is a mini master class for young reporters.

Truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it — Flannery O’Connor

Pretty much anyone can be a publisher these days. We wear that hat each time we post a Facebook update or send out a tweet.

What makes someone a journalist, though?

I start with this list (some are principles, others qualities):

Verification: A journalist is obsessed with accuracy, with facts, with the pursuit of “the truth.”

Independence: “A journalist must always be a free agent, responsible to the craft, the value system and the readers (or listeners or viewers),” Columbia University professor Samuel G. Freedman writes in his wise book, Letters to a Young Journalist.

Originality: The concept that the best reporting is based on primary sources and, ideally, observable reality — you go there and see it for yourself. My friend Phil Bennett, the brilliant former Washington Post managing editor now on the faculty at Duke University, calls this “passing the presence test.”

Responsibility: Understanding that there are consequences to the act of publishing. As a young reporter, it didn’t take me long to realize that what I wrote had both the power to help and to harm, and that I should never treat this power cavalierly.

Depth and expertise: All good journalism must have a component of depth.

Empathy: Wanting to know what it’s like to walk in another personʼs shoes.

Courage: “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it,” the novelist Flannery OʼConnor wrote.

Clarity: The skill to cut through the clutter and the babble, to tell your story clearly and with context.

Curiosity: I donʼt think you can be a journalist without being a curious person.

Public Issues Reporting, Fall 2013

When approached with imagination and enterprise, a public issues beat becomes an avenue to every type of storytelling. That’s because government has its tentacles in virtually all aspects of our lives. The course is designed to broaden your knowledge of beat reporting, particularly on the local level; underscore journalism’s watchdog role; and sharpen your newsgathering, writing and critical-thinking skills. Throughout the quarter, as reporters for The Peninsula Press, you will cover a government-related beat based in Santa Clara County or San Mateo County. Class assignments are closely coordinated with Multimedia Journalism (COMM 275).

Learning Goals – By the end of the quarter, you should be able to:

  • Cover a local government beat in a meaningful fashion.
  • Display sound news judgment by identifying and writing timely, insightful stories that respond to breaking news; spring from public meetings, documents and databases; and illuminate trends through what you’ll come to know as “a conceptual scoop.”
  • Embrace the tenets of integrity, transparency, fairness and verification.
  • Demonstrate solid reporting skills: interviewing, sourcing, attribution and context.
  • Report and tell stories using contemporary social media and data tools, as well as identify which digital tools/platforms best engage the audience for every story you produce.
  • Root your reporting in primary sources and “observable reality”: Whenever possible, go there and see it for yourself.

Assignments – There are five assignments. They are detailed, along with deadlines, immediately below this introduction. The reporting you do for text articles will be used to produce a podcast, an audio slideshow, a video report and a portfolio of published photographs for Multimedia Journalism (COMM 275).

  • Four articles of between 800 and 1,250 words. One of these will be a team project, examining implementation of the Affordable Care Act in communities across the Peninsula.
  • A memo that outlines your strategy for covering your beat, including an extensive source list, timely and meaningful story ideas, and evidence that you are tapping into documents, databases and social networks.

Deadlines – All assignments are due by 4 p.m. on these dates:

  • 10/3: News story tied to a public meeting/event (800 words)
  • 10/17: Beat memo (roughly three pages, double spaced).
  • 10/25: Document/data story (1,000 words)
  • 11/11: Health-care project (team assignment)
  • 12/4: Enterprise story/”conceptual scoop” (1,250 words)

Grading – Grades will be determined by a point system: (96-100 = A; 90-95 = A-; 86-89 = B+; 82-85 = B; 78-81 = B-; 74-77 = C+; 70-73 = C; 66-69 = C-, etc.) Stories will be graded on organization and clarity; originality (i.e. a scoop); quality of leads, “nut” paragraphs and endings; breadth and depth of reporting; news judgment; grammar, spelling and AP style. You can rewrite a story once to improve the grade, but the first draft sets your baseline grade.

  • Individual Stories = 60 percent of final grade
  • Team Project = 15 percent
  • Beat Memo = 15 percent
  • Class participation = 10 percent

Guidelines – This is a seminar that relies on your active participation. Approach it in the way you would work with colleagues inside a newsroom. Avoid distractions, be prepared and collegial, show up on time and meet all deadlines.

Honor Code – Be familiar with Stanford University’s Honor Code.

Readings – There are three required books. In addition, get the 2013 or 2012 edition of The Associated Press Stylebook. The balance of the readings will be distributed through online links and printed handouts. Available at the Stanford Bookstore, our course books are:

  • The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect, by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel.
  • Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction, by James B. Stewart.
  • California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix it, by Joe Mathews and Mark Paul.

News Sites – The Peninsula Press, the Stanford Journalism Program’s  multimedia website, has two professional partners, SFGate (news site of the San Francisco Chronicle) and KQED. Make it a habit to read our partners, along with The New York Times and the San Jose Mercury News. Also: Identify community newspapers and local websites that are relevant to your beat, and track what your sources, potential sources and competitors are doing on social networks (particularly Twitter).

Professional Journalism Disclosure – When interviewing anyone on or off campus, you need to properly identify yourself as “a student reporter writing both an in-class assignment and a public story that could be published by major media outlets via The Peninsula Press.” Make sure every subject understands at the outset that his or her words could appear in major media.

>> WEEK 1


  • Survey of assignments, readings and learning goals.
  • Student update on breaking news plan.
  • Finalize selection of Peninsula Press beats.
  • What is public issues journalism?
  • Secrets to finding good stories on your beat.
  • Highlights from 2013 Silicon Valley Index.

For next class: readings listed below.


  • Review ethics guidelines and discuss how they relate to Chapters 1-4 in The Elements of Journalism.
  • Go over our Rules of the Road.
  • A lot of government business is conducted at public meetings. Are they worth your time? You won’t know unless you do advance reporting and then show up.
  • Sunshine laws: your rights as a journalist under California’s Brown Act.

Readings – Come to class prepared to discuss:

>> WEEK 2


  • Writing an effective news story: leads, nut paragraphs, transitions, quotes and endings. We’ll go deep into technique.
  • SEO and social media optimization strategies.
  • In-class writing and copy editing exercises.
  • Knight Citizen News Network Accuracy Tip Sheet.
  • Writing coach Roy Peter Clark on self-coaching.

Readings – Come to class prepared to discuss:

Assignment – Due by start of class:

  • Pitch your public meeting story, using our Trello system.


  • In-class conversation with Glenn Kramon, a senior editor for The New York Times.

Reading– As you work on your first story assignment, read:

  • Follow the Story: Chapters 4,5

Deadline – File story by 4 p.m. tomorrow (10/3)

>> WEEK 3


  • Who’s Who on your beat: identifying sources, from power brokers to experts to real people.
  • Primer on how to write an effective beat memo.
  • Findings in California Crackup & how they apply to your beat.

Reading – Come to class prepared to discuss:

  • California Crackup, Prologue and Part I


  • Double class session (10 a.m. to 1:15 p.m.) with guest speaker Phillip Reese, Sacramento Bee database reporter.
  • Nearly every story can be strengthened by data. You need to know where to look for it and how to work with it.
  • Data Skills Building (10 to 11:30 a.m.): tour of websites that provide large amounts of useful data; methods to find, import and work with data using Microsoft Excel; and how to build queries, join data sets and import large data sets using Microsoft Access.
  • On-deadline Exercise (11:30 a.m.-1:15 p.m.; lunch of pizza and soft drinks will be served).

Readings – Come to class prepared to discuss:

  • Material prepared by Phillip Reese, to be distributed on 10/7.
  • Get acquainted with the Sacramento Bee’s Data Center.

>> WEEK 4



  • Guest speaker: T Christian Miller, ProPublica senior reporter.
  • A good reporter knows to ask: Is there any “paper” on this? Whatever format, public records and documents can lead you to great stories. Often, though, the most valuable documents are not easy to get.

Reading – Come to class prepared to discuss:

  • The Elements of Journalism, Chapters 5,6

Deadline – File beat memo by 5 p.m. tomorrow (10/17)

>> WEEK 5


  • Working newsroom — Pitch your document/data story.

Reading – Come to class prepared to discuss:

  • Follow the Story, Chapters 5,6


  • Health care project PLANNING session.
  • Stories assigned; teams formed; and invitations issued to panelists for Nov. 19 event.

Deadline – File story by 5 p.m. Friday, 10/25

>> WEEK 6


  • ** NO CLASS ** to make up for double session on 10/9.


  • Introduction to “the conceptual scoop.”
  • Listen to NPR report.
  • Discuss conceptual scoop examples (to be distributed in advance).
  • How a reporter’s idea became a front-page story, then a best-selling book, and eventually a movie.

>> WEEK 7


  • Not every story is told in 1,500 words. Visual storytelling comes through interactive charts, breakouts and other devices that allow writers to “show” and data to “support.”
  • Non-narrative, alternative story forms.
  • Working collaboratively in multidisciplinary groups.


  • Advice and practice session for interviewing newsmakers and moderating newsmaker panels. Prep for Nov. 19 event.

>> WEEK 8


  • Working newsroom – Team health-care stories moving on track toward editing and publication.

Deadline – Team stories by 5 p.m. Monday, 11/11

>> WEEK 9


  • Six years later, why The Washington Post’s coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings offers valuable lessons today.
  • How to identify eternal themes amid chaos.
  • Being first isn’t best when you risk being wrong on things that matter.
  • The art of narrative reconstruction on deadline.


  • Special health-care newsmaker event, 6:45 to 9:30 p.m.

Thanksgiving Break – Week of Nov. 25-29

>> WEEK 10


  • Touching base on triumphs and frustrations of covering your beat.
  • D School’s I Like, I Wish, What If exercise.
  • Working newsroom for enterprise assignment due 12/4.

Deadline – Team stories by 5 p.m. 12/4