Storytelling Gets Digital

Almost every inch of the Stanford campus is “wired,” and one of the key reporters tracking the development of the World Wide Web, Peter Lewis, is currently teaching on the Farm.

With his charcoal turtleneck and blue jeans, Lewis, the Hearst visiting professor in the communication department, looks the part of an intellectual. As a physics enthusiast and professional journalist, Lewis grew up combining science and writing.

He analyzed changes around him through a scientific lens, a way of thinking that shaped his work in digital journalism. But how did he get there?

Lewis originally did not intend to be a journalist. He wanted to write fiction, move to Paris and produce the next great American novel, he said.

“A friend of my father’s took me aside and told me I would starve, and it might be nice to get some writing experience that would actually pay for groceries,” he said.

SUZANNE STATHATOS/The Stanford Daily

So he left the University of Kansas, where he had studied physics and journalism, and took a job at the Osawatomie Graphic News. A year later, The Des Moines Register hired him as a reporter. He went back to school and finished his degree in journalism at Drake University in Des Moines in 1982. He hasn’t left journalism since, going on to spend 17 years at The New York Times.

“He definitely knows what he’s talking about,” said Kat Lynch ’11, a student in his digital journalism course. “All the stuff we discussed in class…I feel like I’m going to be able to use all of it.”

In addition to teaching introductory and higher-level journalism classes, Lewis spent a year as a Knight fellow at Stanford in 2010, wrote a novel in Argentina and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the birth of the Internet.

As a Knight fellow, Lewis worked on a project that studied how people would pay for journalism in a new economic climate. He wanted to find a way to pay reporters in order to maintain a flow of high-caliber journalism. Although he did not find a “best way” to pay, he was pleased to find that there are many viable options.

It may have helped that Lewis understood the importance of the Internet and computers at their inception.

“People really didn’t understand how rapidly the change was going to take place,” Lewis said. “I started writing about computers for The New York Times in 1982. Very quickly after that, I realized that computers were interesting…but the really cool thing about computers was that they were a communications device.”

Because he understood the significance of the Internet, he became an early advocate for opening journalism to cyberspace. He argued to New York Times editors, “There are more people on the Internet right now than the population of Poland. We send a foreign correspondent to Poland, so why don’t you send me to cyberspace, and I’ll be the foreign correspondent there?”

Early on, Lewis felt optimistic about the Internet’s potential. “Any time you have a tool that enables people to communicate better, it’s going to be successful,” he said.

In addition to making information more available to a wider audience, the Internet eliminates the environmental damage inherent in printed news, Lewis noted.

“Newsprint is environmentally unfriendly,” he said. “You chop down trees. You print them on these big noisy presses, and then you throw them on trucks that spew pollution and burn gasoline. And it comes out the day later than something happens.”

Lewis’s work at Stanford is focused on preparing student journalists for an increasingly technological world.

“It’s always gratifying to see your name in print,” he said, but “at this stage, it’s less important to me than giving back and training a new generation of journalists.”

Lewis speculated that mobility will continue to be a defining feature of media technology. He predicted that “flexible, printable displays,” or computer screens that can be rolled up and stored in one’s pocket, will be available in five to 10 years. He noted that Piko Projectors in some Asian cell phones already contain small video projectors, and he suggests that eyeglasses with holographic displays of information might even be commonplace one day.

Although newspapers and magazines are shifting their resources and time to remain relevant in the digital world and reach larger audiences, Lewis said the fundamentals of news writing will remain the same, across radio, television, podcasts, print and social networks alike.

Whether in print or in pixels, Lewis said journalism will continue to serve a critical role in society.

“Open your eyes,” he said. “Look around. There are so many great stories to tell and so many interesting people.”

About Suzanne Stathatos