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Medill alumna Clarke Humphrey (BSJ14) emphasizes the importance of a representative political space

As Deputy Digital Director for Joe Biden, Humphrey has successfully directed a mostly grassroots-based online fundraising program.

by Julia Richardson, BSJ23
Graphic by Carly Schulman

At 28 years old, Clarke Humphrey (Medill ’14) is leading the charge on ads, emails, texting and store fundraising for former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. As Biden’s deputy digital director, Humphrey is running a historically successful fundraising program fueled by grassroots support.

After she graduated from Northwestern, Humphrey worked as a production assistant at the Democratic National Committee, where she contributed to the DNC online fundraising efforts for the midterm elections. In 2016, she joined then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign as digital director for North Carolina.

Humphrey went on to oversee the DNC’s ads program for the 2018 election cycle and worked for Bully Pulpit Interactive, a political ad agency in Washington, D.C., before becoming the DNC’s primary online director. In June, she landed her current position as deputy digital director, a job she describes as “reactive.”

“I would say throughout days, they don’t really look the same, so you are basically dealing with whatever is happening in the world at the time,” Humphrey said. “What I have envisioned my role to be is kind of just doing what I call blocking and tackling, so the folks on my team have the space to run effective programming.”

Leading up to the 2020 election, Humphrey focused on making sure there is enough money to run the Biden campaign’s ads. She also negotiates for resources that her team may need and organizes emails from significant signers, such as former President Barack Obama. She said the campaign has raised a large amount of money in the last few months, allowing for more TV ads and campaign efforts in battleground states.

Although working amid the uncertainties of a global pandemic has been difficult, Humphrey says one of the most rewarding parts of her job is grassroots fundraising.

“This campaign is primarily funded by people who are giving us donations of $200 or less, and that is the program that I oversee,” she said. “Just being in a position where literally millions of people are giving their hard-earned dollars to own a part of this campaign, and power the work that needs to be done. That, to me, is what makes this work really fulfilling.”

Lauren Williams, Humphrey’s friend and former colleague at the DNC, said Humphrey’s ability to build a strong fundraising team while maintaining good relationships is an “underrated skill,” and that she has a unique way of connecting with both supporters and people she works with.

“She takes her work incredibly seriously, but does not take herself too seriously,” Williams said. “All while coming across not as a very stuffy spokesperson, but she comes across as a real person with a bright personality and a sense of humor.”

Shelby Cole, former digital director for vice presidential nominee U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), said Humphrey has especially succeeded at running an ethical fundraising program with messages grounded in truth and reality.

“She, I think, really believes strongly in treating supporters like human beings and not ATM machines,” Cole said. “So, having watched her step into this role and run this program at this scale, as a Black woman to do it, too… I don’t think anyone has ever done what she’s done.”

Although Humphrey is what Cole describes as “the best in the industry,” she did not always plan to work in politics. She said she had envisioned herself as a magazine writer and only considered campaign work once graduation was approaching and it came time for her to apply for jobs.

However, Medill Dean Charles Whitaker, who taught Humphrey and worked with her in NU’s chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists, said her career path did not come as a surprise to him.

“She was always a really strong leader, someone who… I could tell was going to go into politics because she was good at assembling people and rallying them around a cause,” Whitaker said. “(Her position) is a great intersection of things she is good at and is passionate about.”

Humphrey said that her work has allowed her to learn a lot about herself and that she enjoys working in the political space. But she said she hopes to diversify the space going forward, as it still may be difficult for those without money or connections to become involved.

“That affects the work that we’re able to produce,” she said. “We are talking to so many different and diverse groups of people, and the people doing that work should reflect the basic folks that we are trying to talk to, and so one thing that I have learned about myself is that I’m very passionate about getting the space to a place where that actually is true.”

Published Nov. 2, 2020 in the Daily Northwestern

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Medill alumna Audrey Cheng leads software development school in Nairobi

Audrey Cheng (MSJ15), co-founder and CEO of Moringa School in Nairobi, Kenya and Kigali, Rwanda. Moringa School provides software development and data science training.

by William Clark, BSJ24
Graphic by Emma Ruck

In the five years since Audrey Cheng (BSJ15) has graduated, she co-founded a software development and data science school with campuses in Kenya and Rwanda, worked with the World Bank to run a 20-week coding program in Pakistan and was featured on Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list for social entrepreneurs.

However, Cheng resists placing too much focus on her recognitions.

“It’s really validating to receive them, but I think ultimately what matters most is, ‘Are we solving a real problem? Are we doing it in a really meaningful and effective way?’” she said.

Cheng is working to solve what she called a “skills gap” in East Africa. The term describes the gap between technical skills African youth are acquiring in schools and the rapidly changing needs of the African economy as it increases automation.

The employment gap is another hurdle African youth face, Cheng said. As the population grows, the economy and jobs market must grow with it, and if it doesn’t, finding employment could become difficult and competitive.

During her sophomore year at Northwestern, Cheng started working remotely with the Savannah Fund, a capital fund that invests in African technology startups. She took the Spring Quarter of her junior year off to work with them in Nairobi, Kenya.

Cheng said she enjoyed the work but realized that as important as investment was, access to technological skills training for local youth was central to economic stimulation.

“You don’t get to build these amazing companies without that kind of skill,” Cheng said.

So, she co-founded a school.

In May 2014, Moringa School started its first class in Nairobi. Moringa offers students short, intensive programs that focus on building technical, career-oriented skills. These courses are split into two sections, a five-week introduction to programming and a 15-week program where students focus on a specific coding language of their choice. Throughout the program, students complete hands-on projects with mentors.

“(Moringa’s learning model) helped me interact with people,” Moringa graduate Ruth Mwangi said. “It also helps you learn to work in teams, because you’re usually put in pairs and have to work with your partner trying to solve problems.”

Other Moringa graduates said the school’s curriculum fosters a sense of community.

“We still have… communication groups in WhatsApp,” Reuben Gathii, a 2020 graduate, said. “We get to talk, we share ideas, we review each other’s code and we learn things from each other.”

But it’s not just the student community that allows for collaboration.

Moringa students receive technical mentors who help them find job opportunities after graduation, Billy Ayiera, another 2020 graduate, said.

Ninety-five percent of Moringa graduates have been hired at reputable companies, and graduates record a 350 percent average salary increase after graduation, according to the school’s website.

Moringa’s sense of community helps students succeed in the technology industry post-graduation, but it also addresses a problem Cheng said she noticed when she started working with Western organizations in Africa.

Too often, Western organizations seeking to “aid” African communities lack knowledge and respect for African independence, cultures and lifestyles, Cheng wrote in a 2014 Huffington Post op-ed. They draw on a stereotypical view of Africa that reduces the continent to disease, poverty, hunger and war, ignoring positivity, growth and vibrancy.

But Moringa is a company, not a charity, and Cheng said she believes this model incentivizes the school to better serve the needs of the community.

“At a nonprofit… the money is coming from donors, and so ultimately organizations are responsible and accountable to their donors, as opposed to… the person that they’re actually serving,” she said. “In a company, because the person who is paying is also the user, we have to be meeting their needs, and we are accountable to our students.”

Moringa also offers need-based flexible installment plans, as well as financial aid amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sasha Achieng, who leads community engagement at Moringa, said she frequently surveys the student community to ensure that their needs are met.

Moringa is currently using the online model to access more students across Africa during the pandemic, but in the future, they’re looking into geographic expansion, Cheng said.

“There’s basically space for everyone to grow,” Achieng said. “I mean, if I started (in 2018) as an intern and I’m currently leading in the company, it really speaks for itself, right?”

Published Nov. 11, 2020, in the Daily Northwestern

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Medill Board of Advisers adds four new members

Four leaders in the fields of journalism and marketing have joined the Medill BOA 

“Our board members are a tremendous resource for the school and its leadership,” said Medill Dean Charles Whitaker. “I look forward to working with these new members in the years ahead and to the contributions they will make to Medill.”

New Board of Advisers members include:

bradley-akubuiro125x156.jpgBradley Akubuiro (BSJ11) is the chief spokesperson and senior director of global media relations for The Boeing Company, the largest aerospace manufacturer in the world. In this role, he is responsible for leading Boeing’s team of company spokespeople enterprise wide in their efforts to advance and protect the company’s interests around the globe. Akubuiro has provided leadership and counsel through the company’s response to COVID-19, the national conversation around race and several news making challenges and milestones in its effort to return the grounded 737 MAX to commercial service.

Prior to joining Boeing, Akubuiro served as director of corporate communications and public affairs for United Technologies Corporation (UTC) where he led the global corporate media relations and public affairs functions for the $77B Fortune 50 company. In an earlier role, he was deputy communications leader for the global military jet engines business at Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies.

marcia-davis125x156.jpgMarcia Davis is the supervising editor of race and identity at National Public Radio. She joined NPR in June 2020. A native of St. Louis, she spent more than 20 years as an editor and writer at The Washington Post.

At The Washington Post, Davis edited for Metro, Style, National and The Washington Post magazine. On the National Desk, she led coverage of the federal government, including breaking stories on mismanagement at the General Services Administration and stories on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. She edited several columns, including the Federal Eye, In the Loop and the Federal Diary.

She also helped to lead the coverage of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in St. Louis. That death was a significant point in the history of the Black Lives Matter Movement.
As the District of Columbia political editor, she supervised reporters who covered Mayor Adrian Fenty. And while editing for Style, she helped lead the award-winning series “Being a Black Man.”

Davis attended Medill in the 1980s before finishing her degree at Roosevelt University.

matt-murray125x156.jpgMatt Murray (BSJ87, MSJ88) is editor in chief of The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswires, responsible for all global newsgathering and editorial operations.

Murray previously served as executive editor since 2017, and had been deputy editor in chief since 2013. He joined Dow Jones & Company in 1994 as a reporter for the Pittsburgh bureau.

He is the author of “The Father and the Son” and collaborated on memoirs by former New York City fire commissioner Thomas Von Essen.

emily-ramshaw125x156.jpgEmily Ramshaw (BSJ03), is co-founder and CEO of The 19th, a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom reporting at the intersection of gender, politics and policy. Most recently, Ramshaw was the editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, a Peabody Award-winning, 10-year-old news startup that boasts the largest statehouse bureau in the nation, powers the pages of newspapers across Texas and the nation, and is considered the gold standard for sustainability in local news. She is also the youngest person ever to be named to the board of the Pulitzer Prize, where she is serving a nine-year term.

Before helping to found the Texas Tribune a decade ago, Ramshaw was an award-winning investigative reporter at The Dallas Morning News, where she broke national stories about sexual abuse inside Texas’ youth lock-ups, reported from inside a West Texas polygamist compound and uncovered “fight clubs” at state institutions for people with disabilities.

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Medill announces John M. Mutz Chair in Local News

A newly endowed chair will study and support innovation in local news at Medill thanks to a gift from Medill alumnus John M. Mutz (BSJ57, MSJ58).

The John M. Mutz Chair in Local News will focus on local news sustainability. It will advance the aims of Medill’s Local News Initiative, an innovative research and development project aimed at providing greater understanding of how digital audiences engage with local news and finding new approaches to bolster local news business models.

“Local news is vital to our democracy and an empowered citizenry,” said Medill Dean Charles Whitaker. “As the media industry has transformed, local news outlets face unprecedented challenges. We are deeply grateful for John’s visionary generosity, which helped Medill launch the Local News Initiative and will now cement our place as a leader in addressing the crisis facing local news.”

Mutz’s $2 million gift to create the local news chair counts toward We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern, raising his total giving to Northwestern to over $2.3 million. The chair was supported in part by alumni Patrick G. ’59, ’09 H and Shirley W. Ryan ’61, ’19 H (’97, ’00 P) through the Ryan Family Chair Challenge, which matches gifts made by other Northwestern supporters to establish new endowed professorships, or chairs, across a wide range of disciplines. In 2017, Mutz’s commitment of $250,000 to the Local News Initiative was instrumental to the program’s launch. He also is a member of the Henry and Emma Rogers Society, which recognizes those who have included Northwestern in their estate plans.

Mutz earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from Medill in 1957 and 1958. He also participated in the Medill Cherubs program for high school journalism students in the summer of 1952. Mutz’s daughter, Diana, is a 1984 graduate of the School of Communication, and his son, Mark, graduated from the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences in 1983. Two of Mutz’s grandchildren are also Northwestern alumni: Fletcher, who graduated from Weinberg College in 2017, and Maria, who graduated with a joint degree from the McCormick School of Engineering and Bienen School of Music in 2020.

Mutz is a business leader and politician who served as lieutenant governor of Indiana, Republican candidate for governor and president of Lilly Endowment Inc., one of the world’s largest private foundations. Mutz also served as president of PSI Energy, Indiana’s largest utility (now Duke Energy).

“My political experience has dramatically shown me how important reliable local news sources are to local governments and economies,” Mutz said. “Without it we may lose our democratic society and that would be a tragedy.”

Medill Senior Associate Dean and Professor Tim Franklin is the inaugural holder of the John M. Mutz Chair. Franklin is the leader of Medill’s Local News Initiative.

Franklin joined Medill’s faculty in 2017 after serving as president of The Poynter Institute, a leading international school for journalists and a media think tank. Before that, he had a distinguished career in journalism serving as top editor of three metropolitan newspapers, The Indianapolis Star, Orlando Sentinel and Baltimore Sun. His newsrooms won numerous national journalism awards, and The Sun was a Pulitzer Prize finalist during his tenure. Before joining Poynter in 2014, Franklin was a managing editor in the Washington bureau of Bloomberg News, helping oversee coverage of the White House, Congress, Supreme Court and many federal agencies. He also had a 17-year-career as a reporter and editor at the Chicago Tribune.

“I’m honored to serve as the inaugural Mutz Chair,” Franklin said. “John knows from first-hand experience during his political and business career about the importance of local news in our democracy. He’s passionate about the need for robust local news in our society, and he’s also passionate about Medill. With John’s generous gift, Medill will continue to be a national leader for years to come in developing partnerships, programs and new tools to help local news organizations and the communities they serve.”

Medill’s Local News Initiative began its work in 2018 in partnership with Medill’s Spiegel Research Center by analyzing 13 terabytes of reader and subscriber data from the Chicago Tribune, Indianapolis Star and San Francisco Chronicle to gain insights into online reader behavior. Medill now has conducted data-mining research in more than 20 local news markets. Next year, the school expects to roll out a new tool, the Medill Subscriber Engagement Index, which was awarded a Google Innovation Challenge grant. These findings, coupled with additional research and product development by Medill’s Knight Lab, are providing actionable guidance to media leaders about news and information consumers will pay for and how to grow reader revenue.

The funds raised through the “We Will” Campaign are helping realize the transformational vision set forth in Northwestern’s strategic plan and solidifying the University’s position among the world’s leading research universities. More information on We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern is available at the We Will website.


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Two Major Industry Players Join Medill’s New Subscriber Index

By Mark Jacob

Two major news industry organizations, McClatchy and Mather Economics, have signed on to the new Medill Subscriber Engagement Index, a tool designed to give local news outlets more actionable intelligence on their readers than ever before.

McClatchy, one of the nation’s largest local news chains, is providing data from its 30 local outlets, including such well-known outlets as the Miami Herald, Charlotte Observer, Kansas City Star and Sacramento Bee, according to Shannan Bowen, McClatchy’s Director of Product Engagement.

Mather Economics, which manages subscriber information for many of the world’s top news outlets, “is in the process of getting many of its 500-plus North American newspaper clients to participate in the index,” said Mather President Matt Lindsay.

The subscriber engagement index, developed by Northwestern University’s Medill Spiegel Research Center, will allow participants to better understand which aspects of their online content are boosting the acquisition and retention of subscribers and which are leading to dropped subscriptions. This is vital intelligence at a time when local outlets are shifting from reliance on advertising dollars to a greater emphasis on reader revenue.

The index, expected to be ready in early 2021, will allow newsrooms to measure their performance against other news outlets participating in the index, highlighting best practices. And it will offer a groundbreaking feature: a ‘What-If” tool that will use current data to forecast how specific strategic actions would affect a news organization’s financial bottom line.

“Our goal was to make the Medill Index a go-to place where local news organizations could measure and benchmark their performance in growing reader revenue,” said Tim Franklin, who is Senior Associate Dean and John M. Mutz Chair in Local News at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. “Our partnerships with Mather Economics and McClatchy will help make the Medill Index a unique, robust, indispensable tool for many local news outlets who will now have unparalleled insights into the behaviors of their paying readers. Eventually, we hope to have hundreds of local news organizations be part of the Index.

The index is part of Northwestern’s Medill Local News Initiative, a project headed by Franklin that promotes financial sustainability for local journalism in challenging times. Development of the index is being funded by a grant from the Google Innovation Challenge program.

Jonathan Copulsky, Spiegel’s Executive Director, said the research center was thrilled to partner with McClatchy and Mather.

“McClatchy is a leading publisher of local news in this country,” Copulsky said. “Mather is well regarded in the industry. They’ve got relationships with a number of publishers. They’ve got a commercial engine for data gathering and data ingestion, organization and reporting.”

Shannan Bowen, Director of Product Engagement at McClatchy.

McClatchy’s Bowen is especially upbeat about the ability to do benchmarking with other media companies and share best practices.

“We’re drawn to this tool because it’s going to help us learn from other news companies participating in the index,” Bowen said. “… And we’re also excited about trying a tool that anyone in our company can use, from journalists or marketing teams or product teams. All of our different groups are aligned with our mission to grow digital subscriptions and reduce churn.”

“Our editors [are] asking about when they might be able to get their hands on it,” she said. “They’re really excited. I’m excited about what I’ve seen about the user interface. It seems really easy to use.”

Mather’s Lindsay said his firm’s clients include Gannett and MediaNews Group, two of the nation’s largest local news publishers.  While talks with clients about data sharing are ongoing, Mather is bringing more than just data, Lindsay said. Mather also is offering analytical expertise that could make Medill’s What-If tool even more effective.

Matt Lindsay, President of Mather Economics.

“We provide a lot of predictive analytics and A-B testing of recommended tactics, so we can say here’s what we believe will happen if you market this type of subscription offer or you have this type of retention campaign,” Lindsay said. “And then we validate our forecasts with A-B testing. With Medill and its really smart people, we can form hypotheses about reader reactions to content and test those hypotheses with A-B testing. We can help our clients implement those tests and then observe the results. It would be great if we could facilitate sharing in terms of, ‘Here’s some great innovation that we’ve discovered in this part of the industry.’ And we could anonymize those test results and insights and share them with the rest of the industry.”

Copulsky said Spiegel is open to collaborating with other partners as well. His email address is

Article image: Data Mining Vectors by Vecteezy

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Washington Post reporter Fenit Nirappil (BSJ12) talks undergrad, branching out

The Medill graduate is now a D.C. city hall reporter for The Washington Post, where he has reported on Black Lives Matter protests and local politics.

By Alex Perry (BSJ24)

Washington Post city hall reporter Fenit Nirappil entered Northwestern with an affinity for writing and left with an interdisciplinary experience that set him up for success.

After graduating, Nirappil interned at the Associated Press’ San Francisco Bureau. After a short stint at The Oregonian, he returned to the Associated Press. He then completed the American University and The Washington Post’s master’s program, where he interned at the Post while getting his master’s in journalism and public affairs.

Now a D.C. city hall reporter for the Post, Nirappil has reported on Black Lives Matter protests and local politics.

While at Medill, Nirappil balanced law and journalism, competing on the mock trial team and writing for “The Protest,” an independent run student publication. During his senior year, he planned on taking the LSAT during Spring Quarter and found an internship for post-graduation.

“I was very deliberate in not doing The Daily while I was at Northwestern,” Nirappil said. “I’m a big believer that your extracurriculars should be outside of your main curriculum.”

Nirappil recalled enterprise reporting in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago during his sophomore year and his ability to report on environments like lesbian bars and wild animal expositions through the projects offered. During his junior year, he participated in the South Africa Journalism Residency program and the Medill Innocence Project.

Medill Prof. Douglas Foster, a faculty advisor for the South Africa program, remembered Nirappil as a humble student who was always open to learning from his peers and the communities he reported on.

“There’s a kind of quality of soft-spoken earnestness,” Foster said. “From the beginning, he was serious about the limitations of journalism and the possibilities in journalism.”

Foster also recalled Nirappil’s tendency to support his classmates instead of competing with them. To Foster, Nirappil was a team builder. When a classmate scooped Nirappil, he would “learn something from it” and apply it to his next piece.

Former classmate Sarah Eberspacher (Medill ‘12) said Nirappil was authentically friendly and open to reaching out to classmates outside of Medill. Eberspacher has known Nirappil since they lived on the same floor of 1835 Hinman and remembers thinking of him as a sociable and confident person.

“I think he takes a lot of pleasure in surrounding himself with a variety of people and learning different perspectives,” Eberspacher said.

This article was originally published in the Daily Northwestern on Nov. 19.

Twitter: @WhoIsAlexPerry

Graphic by Angeli Mittal

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How Black Medill alumni at theGrio tackled 2020

By Jude Cramer (BSJ23)

For all journalists, 2020 was a wild ride. This especially rings true for journalists working at theGrio, a news outlet owned by Byron Allen’s Entertainment studios dedicated to covering and serving Black Americans. Several Medill alumni hold positions on theGrio’s leadership team, and in the chaos of 2020, they feel theGrio’s mission was as crucial as ever.

Natasha Alford
Vice president of digital content and senior correspondent Natasha Alford (MSJ14).

“There’s been a reckoning with the way that certain communities are covered in the media,” says Natasha Alford (MSJ14), vice president of digital content and senior correspondent at theGrio. “Having a brand like theGrio that’s been around for more than a decade now, that has built trust with the African American community and has deep connections, and can just sort of have a depth in the storytelling is, I think, really important.”

Mariel Turner
Senior editor Mariel Turner (MSJ15).

Mariel Turner (MSJ15), senior editor at theGrio, says that working in an all-Black newsroom means her voice is always heard. “You know, I think often when I was working at predominantly white outlets, there would be certain public figures … that I would pitch for coverage. And it was often shut down because the people in the room didn’t know the importance of those figures, or they didn’t think that it was relevant to our audience,” she says.

“When [Black journalists] come into the space, there’s certain stories that they’re not going to have to fight for somebody to believe is important, to get the attention that it deserves,” agrees Alford. “But I think the flip side of that is that we are constantly immersed in the trauma of being Black in America. We’re reporting on issues, and we’re experiencing certain issues at the same time.”

Those issues have never gotten more national attention than they did in 2020, with the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and other Black Americans inciting massive Black Lives Matter protests across the nation. 

Cortney Wills
Entertainment director Cortney Wills (BSJ06).

Entertainment director at theGrio Cortney Wills (BSJ06) says that reporting on these killings and their aftermaths as a Black person is a challenge in itself.

“We didn’t have any time to react to these events that had very real emotional, traumatizing effects on us as Black people,” she says. “It really showed me that in order to do this job well, you also have to take care of each other personally and emotionally.”

That emotional support is another way theGrio’s all-Black environment separates it from other newsrooms. 

“Being able to work with people that not only empathize with you, but also understand how you feel or how you may not have the capacity to work at a certain level because of everything else that’s happening,” Turner says. “That’s the biggest thing … is just having a little bit more of that family feeling.”

Wills agrees, saying, “I can’t imagine having to do this job at this time, anywhere else.”

To best serve its Black readers, theGrio is very intentional in its news coverage, says Alford.

“When we have certain conversations with families, we’re moving beyond some of the trite narratives, you know, so it’s not about getting a crying mother, or just talking about how sad something is, but we’re focused on asking hard questions about action and organizing and policy change,” she says. “I think in many ways, we’ve been pushing the coverage to move beyond just the obvious of, ‘Is there a problem?’ into, ‘What is the solution?’”

TheGrio’s coverage is also often more nuanced than that of non-specialized media outlets, says Turner, particularly when it comes to police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“[In 2020] with the resurgence [of Black Lives Matter], we really tried to focus on stories that were more special to our community … actually speaking with people in the community, talking to different leadership there and making sure that it was a boots-on-the-ground kind of coverage,” she says. “We really try to give a voice to the people that mainstream media may not feel compelled to talk to or to cover.”

“You know, our first story about police brutality was not Ahmaud Arbery — that probably was not the first one of the week,” says Wills. “I think theGrio never lets up on the things that we are shining a light on and conversations that we are starting.”

Chief content officer Todd Johnson (BSJ07, MSJ08).

In addition to Alford, Turner and Wills, theGrio’s chief content officer Todd Johnson is also a Medill alumnus who received his BSJ in 2008 and his Medill master’s degree in 2009. Alford says she saw his picture in the hall every day while studying at Medill’s Chicago newsroom, and it inspired her to seek a career at theGrio.

“When you see someone, it creates a sense of possibility for you. So me seeing Todd at theGrio made me aware of Black media as an option for me,” she says. “It was not until I went to Medill that it truly crystallized for me what I should be doing with my life.”

TheGrio’s conversations are about so much more than just Black struggles — Black media, Black successes and, above all, Black joy are present in almost everything theGrio produces. 

Alford says, “I hope that any journalist, particularly Black student journalists, who are looking for a place and don’t feel like they see that space in the current media landscape — I hope that they know that they can still create their own world, and they can still do impactful storytelling.”

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Penny Abernathy, nation’s foremost researcher and expert on local news deserts, joins Medill as visiting professor

Medill welcomes Penelope “Penny” Muse Abernathy as a visiting professor. Abernathy recently retired from the University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism and Media, where she served as the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics.

“Penny is the nation’s foremost authority on the worsening crisis of local news deserts across the U.S.,” said Medill Dean Charles Whitaker. “Her research has chronicled the growing number of communities with no local news source, and it has brought attention to this critical problem and what it means in a self-governed democracy where citizens need news and information to make informed decisions. Medill is committed to providing news outlets with the tools and insights they need to thrive in their communities, and we are delighted to have the opportunity to work with Penny.”

As a journalism professional with more than 30 years of experience as a reporter, editor and senior media business executive, Abernathy specializes in preserving quality journalism by helping news organizations succeed economically in the digital environment. Her research focuses on the implications of the digital revolution for news organizations, the information needs of communities and the emergence of news deserts in the United States.

“Penny’s arrival will help make Medill the nation’s epicenter for local news research and thought leadership at this critical time for the industry,” says Tim Franklin, Medill senior associate dean, professor and the inaugural John M. Mutz Chair in Local News—a first of its kind chair in the nation. “Penny and her research are constantly quoted by national news outlets and cited by scholars studying the challenge of local news deserts and the implications for society.”

The Medill Local News Initiative launched in 2018 to help bolster the sustainability of local news and foster new business models. Since then, the Medill Spiegel Research Center has mined local news audience data in more than 20 markets, and it’s now creating a new Subscriber Engagement Index to help local news organizations grow reader revenue. In addition, Medill’s Knight Lab has conducted field research of local news readers and non-readers to help inform experiments with new tools and approaches to improve reader engagement. Medill also is starting a new Metro Media Lab to help strengthen local news and high school journalism in Chicago.

“I’m delighted to be joining the critically important Local News Initiative and collaborating with Medill colleagues in their efforts to save local journalism,” said Abernathy. While at Medill, she plans to collaborate with the Local News Initiative and Spiegel Research Center on local news-related projects and research. She’ll deliver presentations and talks at national conferences and at the school. And, she’ll write articles for news outlets and scholarly journals that provide new knowledge on the state of local news.

Abernathy is the author of “News Deserts and Ghost Newspapers: Will Local News Survive?” — a major 2020 report that documents the state of local journalism, what is as stake for our democracy, and the possibility of reviving the local news landscape, and she is the lead co-author of “The Strategic Digital Media Entrepreneur,” which explores in-depth the emerging business models of successful media enterprises.

Her first book, “Saving Community Journalism: The Path to Profitability,” is based on five years of research, involving more than two dozen newspapers around the country. She is also author of two other major reports: “The Expanding News Deserts,” published in 2018, and “The Rise of a New Media Baron and the Emerging Threat of News Deserts,” published in 2016.

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Medill students provide ‘crucial contributions’ to The Washington Post’s pandemic coverage

In March, the coronavirus was ravaging the Life Care Center of Kirkland, a nursing home in Washington state. Two-thirds of the residents and 50 staff would eventually contract the virus. Dozens would die.

The story of the Life Care Center of Kirkland signaled to a team of students at the Medill Investigative Lab (MIL) at Northwestern University just how vulnerable nursing homes would be to the spread of the virus. With residents and staff unable to socially distance and older individuals having the highest likelihood of developing severe or terminal symptoms, nursing homes would be particularly susceptible.

Having identified this looming crisis, the MIL team sprang into action working with reporters and editors at The Washington Post to develop a data source to track cases of coronavirus at nursing homes across the country. Eventually, that list grew to more than 4,000 facilities and contributed to the coverage in the Post. Medill students worked on more than 15 published stories on the topic.

“The work of student journalists from the Medill School’s investigative program has been crucial in The Post’s ongoing reporting of the pandemic’s tragic impact on nursing home residents,” said Ziva Branstetter, corporate accountability editor at The Washington Post. “These students have provided important data work and have teamed up with Post journalists to tell stories exposing patterns of inequality, waste and lax government oversight at a time when this vulnerable population most needed protection.”

Debbie Cenziper, an associate professor at Medill and the director of the Medill Investigative Lab, also is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist who writes for The Washington Post, making the partnership between Medill students and the Post possible. All the stories were completed in the first year of the new lab, which focuses on social justice reporting.

“Like all good journalists, students in the Medill Investigative Lab pivoted quickly in March to write about the devastating impact of COVID-19,” said Cenziper. “Working with a team at The Washington Post and me, they helped tell wrenching stories of illness, loss and love. Lawmakers have called for change. This is what good investigative reporting is all about and I couldn’t be prouder of our talented, passionate and persistent team of journalists.”

“It feels very powerful to be able to do work with this kind of reach and impact,” said Joel Jacobs (MSJ20), a former software engineer who quit his job at Google to pursue investigative journalism and a journalism master’s degree at Medill. “Some of our stories ran on the front page. A few of our articles were republished by my hometown paper, which was definitely a point of personal pride. With all this, there’s also a tremendous feeling of responsibility to make sure we get things right. It can be stressful, but it’s incredibly rewarding.”

With his background in tech, Jacobs dug into federal nursing home data that helped fuel the reporting. “Often, we combined different datasets,” said Jacobs. “Combining nursing home inspection records with our list of homes with outbreaks provided the backbone for our story on the history of infection control issues in nursing homes with coronavirus cases. We also compared outbreak data with demographic data on nursing homes for a story on the disproportionate impact on majority-Black nursing homes.”

Those health disparities resonated with Sidnee King (MSJ20) who set out to tell the story of the coronavirus in a predominantly Black nursing home. She chose a home steps from the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Atlanta. Her story combined the history of the Sweet Auburn Historic District with the story of a nurse trying to care for more than 100 residents.

“When Debbie told us that we’d spend the quarter covering coronavirus in nursing homes, it wasn’t long before I got curious about how the virus was impacting Black elderly residents,” said King. “I’d seen how the virus had impacted my own family and community and knew that Black people, in general, were being disparately affected by the pandemic. So as the ongoing national conversation about racial justice grew more prevalent, I really wanted to highlight how even in nursing homes, Black Americans are disadvantaged by systemic racism.”

You can view a full list of student coverage of the pandemic in The Washington Post on the Medill Investigative Lab website.

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Medill Degrees are Now STEM Certified

Medill degrees are now designated as STEM degrees based on a program review from Northwestern’s Office of the Registrar that provided updated CIP Codes. This includes Medill’s bachelor’s and master’s of science degrees in journalism and its master’s of science in integrated marketing communications."Medill Degrees Are Now STEM Certified" on la purple background showing interconnected nodes of light

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. STEM designation provides F-1 international students with a possible 24-month employment extension of a 12-month Optional Practical Training (OPT) authorization. Domestic students also benefit as STEM skills are sought by employers.

“Medill’s programs prepare tomorrow’s journalists and marketers, and STEM skills are essential to leading in the media industry,” said Medill Dean Charles Whitaker. “This new designation will position our graduates to demonstrate these important skills to employers who are eager to have them.”

Medill’s degrees are included under the “Digital Communications and Media/Multimedia” code (09.0702).

To learn more, visit the Northwestern Office of International Student Services.