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‘We lend transparency to how tough this is’

Storybench, a digital storytelling site staffed by Northeastern students, has created national news with in-depth investigations of digital journalism. The site attracts 50,000 users per month and recently celebrated 1 million page views. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

It started in 2014 because Aleszu Bajak, a journalist and faculty member at Northeastern, saw the need for a site that could explore the inner workings of digital journalism for students, users, and professionals.

“A place where they could read through how someone reported out the story, or built the visualization, or dug into the data, or requested the document—and kind of unpack the process,” says Bajak, who manages the Media Innovation and Media Advocacy graduate programs in the School of Journalism at Northeastern. “In the age of the press being ‘the enemy of the people,’ we need to lend more transparency to how tough this is, and how we do our jobs.”

So he created Storybench, a news site staffed by Northeastern students who study digital storytelling from the insiders’ point of view.

Storybench attracts 50,000 users per month and recently celebrated 1 million page views. Its team of student journalists has created a variety of well-received projects:

The 2020 Election Coverage Tracker has received national attention from CNN for itemizing examples of gender bias against women candidates for president.

Research by the Reinventing Local TV News project found that audiences preferred in-depth reporting, in spite of the ongoing trend toward short, quickly-digestible content.

How-to-guides have taught readers about programming languages such as R, Python, and JavaScript.

And scores of Q&A interviews have shed light on a variety of topics, including insight from a Wall Street Journal reporter and graphic designer who created an interactive graphic that revealed more than 500 potential conflicts of interest involving the family of President Donald Trump.

As a sign of its success, Storybench has been shortlisted for “Data journalism website of the year” by the Data Journalism Awards. The other finalists are Postdata.club of Cuba, Hate Crime Watch of India, and three American sites: the Wall Street Journal, graphics.reuters.com, and The Pudding.

“It’s basically been my own academic practice, where I’m able to learn while we’re writing it up,” Bajak says of shaping Storybench into what it has become. “If you read through the interviews we’ve done—it’s more than 100 with top newsrooms and journalists around the world, and having them talk about their processes. It’s an ethnography of journalism and where digital is headed.”

What is the future of journalism in the ever-quickening pace of the digital age? This is one of the questions Storybench is trying to answer amid the frantic realities of the 24-hour news cycle.

“In the context of what we’re doing at the journalism school, and what Storybench is trying to outline, is the room for introspection, the room for thinking about why we write and report what we’re reporting—and that we need more time,” Bajak says. “I think a lot of journalists and journalism educators would agree that we need to somewhere and somehow slow down that news cycle. Or else we’re just going to be running into oblivion.

“So this hopefully allows people to sit, digest, learn some new tricks. Learn about what people who have been successful have to say about their process. And hopefully it is a tide that lifts us all.”

For media inquiries, please contact media@northeastern.edu.

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