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September-October 2011

Interview: Nieman fellow David Skok on Canadian journalism’s digital future

Paul McLaughlinWebsite@paulmcl

David Skok. Illustration by Dave Donald

David Skok. Illustration by Dave Donald

David Skok, the managing editor of, checked into Harvard University in September to begin a one-year Nieman Fellowship. The 33-year-old is the first Canadian digital journalist to receive the prestigious award. He’ll be studying “how to sustain Canadian journalism’s distinct presence in a world of stateless news organizations.” He spoke with This two weeks before heading to Boston.

THIS: I’ve seen you referred to as an online journalist and a digital journalist. Which do you prefer?

SKOK: Digital journalist. Online is a little too specific to the web. What we do is beyond that. It’s mobile. It’s iPads and everything else.

THIS: Do you like being called a digital journalist?

SKOK: It’s fine for now but I look forward to the day when there’s no label that separates digital versus broadcast versus a print journalist.

THIS: Do you think the established media consider digital to be less important than traditional media?

SKOK: It depends on what we’re talking about. There are two ways to look at digital media. For me there’s the newsgathering … and then there’s digital media for publishing and distribution. I think digital media [for the latter] is becoming more accepted, if not by choice but by necessity. From a newsgathering point of view, I think there’s a long way to go.

THIS: For example?

SKOK: Look at the Arab Spring and how Andy Carvin of NPR used Twitter to verify information and facts. And he did the same thing with Syria. He was in Washington, DC. He’s being more effective at getting the accurate, fair, correct news out than the mainstream or legacy news organizations. That’s something I don’t think many news organizations have actually caught on to yet. And if they have it’s in a very tokenistic way, not as a real way of telling stories.

THIS: There’s a concern that if someone Tweets something, how do you know it’s true?

SKOK: Exactly. When I speak within my own newsrooms, I often make the point: how is a Tweet any different than a press release, or a report you’re hearing on a police scanner or anything else? Every piece of information we get needs to be verified and Twitter is no different.

THIS: Can you sum up your overriding goal for your fellowship?

SKOK: It’s probably too far-reaching but there are three parts I really want to look at. The first is the new tools of journalism, such as Twitter, open data, data journalism and even things like WikiLeaks. Second is how should Canadian newsrooms evolve in light of all these changes. This one hits me very close to home because I run a digital media organization within a legacy news organization. We created that from scratch and eventually, ultimately we have to integrate our product and our journalists into the main news organization as a whole. The third part is how can we, as Canadian news organizations, think of our role in the global sphere.

THIS: What do you mean by stateless news organizations?

SKOK: Ones that are based in a country but whose target audience is not that country. Al Jazeera, for example. Its target audience is not Qatar, where it’s based or Dubai or even the Arab world. I watched Al Jazeera and BBC World and CNN International on my iPad during the Arab Spring demonstrations. I didn’t need to be watching a Canadian news organization. Do we even need a national news organization anymore?

THIS: What else will you be studying?

SKOK: I’m noticing, as someone running the digital side of things, that we’re increasingly reliant on private enterprise to host the content. For example Facebook, Twitter, even the servers we use, Amazon, let’s say, they’re all private companies that host content in California. What interest do they have in sustaining Canadian journalism? What obligations does the CRTC place on them? There’s something about that we should be questioning. I’ll also be taking some courses at business school to understand more of the business side of things. As journalists we’ve always had this church and state mentality and I don’t know if we can still afford to do that anymore because we’re not making money anymore.

THIS: Are you excited about spending a year at Harvard?

SKOK: Absolutely. The resources at Harvard are immense. There are so many bright people. But not just that, there are programs that are thinking about all these issues we’re talking about, whether the law school, the Kennedy School, MIT. And they’re tackling these issues every day. To be immersed in that environment and be able to tackle them without the day-to-day operational running of a newsroom is incredibly exciting.

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