Five Questions for David Skok, Nieman Fellowship winner

J-Source caught up with managing editor David Skok, who was recently named one of this year’s Nieman Fellowship winners. He is the first Canadian online journalist to win the prestigious year-long fellowship at Harvard University. Skok was born in Johannesburg, South Africa I 1978; he immigrated to Toronto in 1988. He holds a degree in political science from the University of Western Ontario, and a journalism degree from Ryerson. He has been with Global since 2003. We talked with Skok about his reaction to the win, how he’ll spend his year of study, and the lag in newsroom culture. Skok will be presented with the fellowship at this year’s Canadian Journalism Foundation gala, June 7th.

J-Source: When did you find out you won the Fellowship? What was the first thing you did?

David Skok: I found out early last week but wasn’t able to say anything publicly until the Nieman Foundation announced the full list of recipients.  The first thing I did was call my parents. They have sacrificed a lot to give their children a better life in Canada and I’m eternally grateful to them for the risks they took and the opportunities they’ve afforded me in this wonderful country. This is an honour that is as much theirs to celebrate as it is mine.

J-Source: You’ll spend your time studying “how to sustain Canadian journalism’s distinct presence in a world of stateless news organizations.” Can you tell me a little bit more about what you’ll be looking at? Any inkling of what you’ll find?  

DK: The Martin Goodman Trust is a wonderful gift that offers a Canadian journalist the opportunity to study at Harvard for a year. I felt it was necessary to use this sabbatical to study how to help strengthen Canadian journalism.

There is such a diverse array of news options at our fingertips today.  For example, take a look at the Arab Spring. Most of us watched the dramatic events unfold on Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya. The big question is how do Canadian institutions maintain our relevancy in this new world of Stateless news organizations?  

One of the key components of that is how we integrate the incubating online start-up culture and news workflows into the legacy newsroom operations. I believe it is the most urgent issue facing newsroom’s today: The culture hasn’t caught up with consumption habits. To quote Clayton Christensen, this is the innovators dilemma.  

I hope to shed some light on why the newsroom culture is the way it is and what are some concrete steps newsroom leaders can take to reward innovation.
J-Source: You’ll also explore what impact the new tools of journalism have had (and will have?) on the role of the free press. From your own experience at, what can online — and all the “new tools” that come with it — do better?

DS: I’m not sure whether online can tell stories better but it can certainly enhance the storytelling process in new and exciting ways. Whether through ‘participatory journalism’ of the kind we saw on our Global Edmonton Facebook page after the Slave Lake fires. (A phrase coined beautifully by UBC Journalism Professor, Alfred Hermida),  Or, from the Twitter debate analyzer you previously wrote about in J-Source. These are interactive, data driven, and engaging dialogues with our users that are changing the very nature of what constitutes newsgathering.  This is an incredibly exciting time to be involved in journalism.

J-Source: What is it about these questions, or this research area, that makes you want to dedicate a year of your life to it?

DS: Having grown up in a country that didn’t have a free press at the time, I am keenly aware of how important the fourth estate is to maintaining strong democracy. There is so much concern about the future sustainability of journalism in Canada, and I feel it is our duty to contemplate the ethical and economic issues that will lead the next generation of news pioneers. As I’ve said elsewhere, in the same way that Murrow and Friendly established the ideals of television reporting over 60 years ago, today’s digital journalists have the opportunity and the responsibility of establishing new ways of storytelling that uphold journalistic guidelines for the next generation of news reporters.

J-Source: On second thought, these are some big questions to ponder — and a year seems like it will go by pretty quickly. What’s your game plan, and how will the Fellowship help you to accomplish it?

DS: Everyone I’ve spoken to who has been to Harvard says that all you can do is drink from the fire hose aka. pick wisely and selectively!  I’d really like to get involved with the terrific Nieman Lab project that looks at the latest reporting trends. I plan on spending most of my academic time at the Kennedy School of Government and at Harvard Business School. I also plan on sharing my learnings with my Canadian colleagues at the Online News Association conference which happen to be in Boston this October.