Talking “crowdsourcing” with Jeff Howe (BSJ ’94)
By David Neri
Jeff Howe, a 1994 graduate from Ohio University’s E. W. Scripps School of Journalism, has worked as a contributing writer for the Village Voice and senior editor for Inside Media. In addition to his BSJ from the Scripps School, Howe earned a master’s degree in creative writing from Boston University in 2011.
This video features an interview from Howe’s 2012 visit to campus.
Currently, Howe is an assistant professor at Northeastern University, as well as a visiting scholar at MIT. He also is a contributing editor for Wired Magazine, in which appeared his article “The Rise of Crowdsourcing” coining the titular term. He has published two books, “Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business” and “Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future” with Joi Ito, MIT professor of the practice of media arts and sciences.
Q) What have you been doing since graduation?
A) I had an incredibly awesome five years in Athens. [The] J-School was great. Even better were the people I went to college with. Before I left, I had already been freelancing for some art magazines. I wanted to write about digital art, I had been writing a lot for The Columbus Dispatch and I wanted to make it big. I went to New York for an internship at an art magazine and for the next three years I really focused on art writing, but grew disillusioned with that because it is a very elite conversation.
So I started doing general journalism again, and I began writing for the Village Voice. I did not have the initial goal to start writing [about] technology but I really believed in the idea that there are no boring subjects, just boring writers. I had written a piece on a lifelong skateboarder, and when I handed in the story, the sports editor was on vacation. The substitute editor, who was the tech editor, said she liked the piece and that she was looking for more writers and [asked] if I knew a lot about technology.
I said yes, although I did not. What I meant by that was that I will have learned an enormous amount about any assignment you give me by the time I go to print with it. Learning quickly is perhaps the chief skill a journalist can have.
So that wound up leading to a writing contract for Wired Magazine. That was kind of the big-time for me because I had always wanted to write features for a big time magazine.The next 10 years were really gratifying. If you don’t have kids and don’t need a lot of money, writing for a magazine like Wired is a really great job. Working on six stories a year meant that I could spend a lot of time on each of those stories.
In 2009, I took a sabbatical from Wired for a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, and I continued to study, with a heavy online collaboration, which led to a teaching job at Northeastern University, where I am going for tenure this year.
Q) How did you get interested in what you would eventually coin as “crowdsourcing”?
A) In 2005, I was covering the music industry, and I got a call [about] this amazing site, that all these bands were forgoing major labels and contracts and just put[ting] their music up on MySpace, and book[ing] tours that way. I was a punk-rock kid in high school, so I’ve always loved stories about the counterculture. I was just fascinated. At the time there was nothing like this.
So I went and started interviewing, and I spent a lot of time on the bands’ work tours. What fascinated me was that the drummer for one band was also publishing his own video, and the guitarist for another band was also site design[ing] and shooting video, and someone else who was doing all the music production had taught himself all this stuff. In my generation, you think that you need a manual to learn this stuff, and these were the first people I had met who I bet would have been like “What? Why would you look at a manual? Just teach yourself.”
I remember having this one conversation with this kid. I said, “Oh you want to be a filmmaker right?,”
“Why do you say that?,” he said.
“Because you’re making a film, dude.”
“A, it’s a video. B, no, the fact that I have a video camera in my hand just means that I am presently shooting a video.”
“I realized that there were some signs like this in 2005, a tremor of an earthquake which is gonna crumble entire industries. This is not going to be about content or video. It’s going to be about some things you think of as needing a professional to do. The tools are going to be democratized and you’re going to have regular people doing it.”
Q) What is it like writing a book?
A) Books are great, but very hard. I will say this: publishers are more inclined to give book contracts to writers who have experience with articles over 4000 words or longer, because a 4000 word article is not 4 times more complicated than a 1000 word article. It’s exponential, like 16 times more complicated.
Being a good writer line by line isn’t all that relevant. To be a good stylist, to be truly a great writer, you have to understand the architecture of writing, and carefully build an argument even when the reader does not understand what you are doing.
I’m 46, and I still consider that I am in the early stages of my career, so I hope to get much, much better at it. One of the great joys of writing is that you never crack it. It will always be too hard for you, with new levels of challenges and difficulties you have to overcome. But if life were just one great success after another, it would just be boring.
Q) Now that your latest book is published, what is your new focus?
A) I left Ohio in 1994. Bob Stewart brought me back a few years ago to give guest lectures, but I don’t come back all that often. But during the Trump campaign, when people started talking about coal country, I became especially interested in the [rising] mortality rate for white males age 45-54, the first time since penicillin was widely available that any demographic in America has started dying at a higher rate.
I’ve been fascinated with this for a couple of years and have just now been able to dig into it, and there are not really any answers except that the increased death rate has to do with opioid abuse, alcoholism and suicide. Suicide rates have really spiked among this population. Counties that went hardest for Trump are also the counties where white men are dying at these higher rates. I want to know what’s going on. Even though I’ve relocated to New York and now to Boston, I will always be a Buckeye.
Q) What moments during your time as a journalist stand out to you?
A) That’s a hard one. One month after 9-11, American Airlines Flight 587 took off from JFK and crashed within two miles. The assumption immediately was terrorism; we were freaking out. It turned out that it was plane failure but the plane wound up crashing into Belle Harbor, where a number of police and firemen lived.
If you work in journalism for a while, you get a respect for cops. There is no question that there have been some racist cops who have done some nasty stuff in New York, you know that, but you also know that the average cop is getting low pay to put his life on the line again and again. After 9-11, I saw a lot of cops and firemen and women who really were heroes. That’s not just some crusade cornpone served up by George Bush. There were heroes in New York and they were the cops and firefighters who rushed into a building they knew would fall.
I got the call at seven in the morning to go start reporting, and I went in and looked [at] my wife and said, “I can’t go report that story.” I didn’t know it until I did that [that] I was not going to go out and report it. I’m not saying it is bad to go out and report on the story. That’s journalism, but I couldn’t do it.
Q) Do you have any advice for journalism students hoping to enter the job market?
A) It is very, very important to remember that in life you can be anything you want to be. I had people who discouraged me from moving to New York, who discouraged me from being a book writer. Every step of my life, I have had people give me excellent reasons for why I will not and cannot accomplish the things I want. My greatest asset has been that I was blockheaded enough not to listen, because it turns out that those people are almost always wrong. I will not be a pro basketball player, no matter what I do, but most of my ambitions are pretty realistic and all it is going to take is a lot of hard work, smart planning and a whole lot of persistence, which is why the crowdsourcing story worked out. I didn’t give up after two months, I didn’t give up after three months, I didn’t give up after four months. I just kept reporting it out because I knew in my heart that there was a story there. That is the single most important advice I could give.