BROOKE GLADSTONE: On May 27th, Ron Lieber, who writes the Your Money column for The New York Times every Saturday, wrote about the patchwork of student loan programs across the United States that offer loan forgiveness, often after a period of public service. Many of them had stopped forgiving due to budget cuts, despite promises to the contrary. The story was compelling but hard to cover, because the loan programs are so disparate and so spread out. So Lieber and his colleagues set about calling every last state and federal loan program in a desperate bid to get their policy on the record by his deadline. When he had only two days to go, he knew he wasn't going to make it, but rather than put off the column, he decided to essentially bare it all in a very un-Grey Lady-like fashion. The resulting column was a hybrid, part mea culpa, part crowdsourcing project. Ron, welcome to the show.
RON LIEBER: Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you took on this Herculean task of trying to find out what was going on in the entire rest of the country and to have it all ready to go for your column by Saturday, and you couldn't do it.
RON LIEBER: Well no, there was no way we could do it, which is when we thought to turn to our kind of tribe of readers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What happened?
RON LIEBER: A couple of things happened. We got a phone call and several emails from people in California, mostly teachers, who said, this program is in jeopardy. We can't get any straight answers, but we bet you can. And, oh, by the way, here are the people that you should call. So not only were we able to flesh out California on the table, we were actually able to publish a separate story specifically about California. Then we got another note from a guy who said that, you know, I and a whole bunch of people I know agreed to stay in the State of Arkansas and work in this specific technical field because of promises of loan forgiveness, and they've pulled the rug out from under us here, too. You know, one other important piece of information that came in, there were law schools, dozens of them, possibly, who all have their own independent loan forgiveness programs for alumni. Are they going to end up getting their money now that some of those programs were funded by endowments that may be down 25 or 30 percent? We just don't know.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You put the call out to your readers to help you do your research, a classic crowdsourcing project, right? So what makes this so different?
RON LIEBER: With crowdsourcing, at least to my mind, you go out and you get the crowd to help source your story, to kind of lead you in the right direction, and then you finish it and you publish it. But what we realized is that we were not going to be done and, in fact, we could not possibly be done for weeks and possibly months, and there was no way we were going to speed that up, unless we put this out not just on Facebook, not just on Twitter, but in the newspaper itself, saying, we can't finish this unless you come and help us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I think what you’re doing is laudable, but you see it as a turning point, and I still need you to explain that to me.
RON LIEBER: Well, there’s nothing in The New York Times style book that says specifically, you have to be finished with your story [BROOKE LAUGHS] before you publish it. But [LAUGHS] I think it’s a, you know, at least sort of an unwritten rule [BROOKE LAUGHS] that the stuff’s got to be done before you run it. You know, my immediate editor knew, and there was another editor who knew, but I'm not sure I quite explained to them the extent to which we were going to go out in public and say, we are not done, we need your help. Here are a bunch of blank spaces [LAUGHS] in our table. Please help us fill them in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You learned firsthand that your readers are a wellspring of information and experience from which you can draw, something that many websites have understood for a long time. Is it simply that The Times isn't used to throwing it out to the audience in this way? Are you seeing the beginnings of a genuine convergence? Is this the great journalism of the future?
RON LIEBER: It’s a no-brainer, as far as I'm concerned. You know, The Times may, in decades past, have held itself out as being kind of all-knowing and all-powerful but, you know, the paper’s made enough mistakes in the past and we've had enough trouble, you know, getting stories that, you know, I think there are very few reporters left who are so proud that they would not attempt to ask readers for help in this way if they thought it would be useful. And, you know, Brooke, it’s no great secret that at some point in the future we may ask people to pay to use our website, and we think this sort of resource is something worth paying for. But we also think that if people are going to pay, they want to feel involved. They want to influence the outcome of the journalism. And this was really a way to do all of the above.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This paper’s been liberated for the people, with proper vetting.
RON LIEBER: [LAUGHS] Exactly.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] Well, it goes without saying, but it should not go unsaid, that everything that people sent to us – I mean, we called the appropriate authorities, we double- and triple-checked. It didn't get just get thrown in the table.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, Bob spoke with Ross Douthat and Ezra Klein, and both made their bones as bloggers. Now they're working for The New York Times and Thewashingtonpost.com. It seems that these two great papers are starting to embrace not just bloggers but the blogging aesthetic, and that seems to be what you’re doing too, acknowledging that the playing field between news writer and news consumer has leveled, almost completely.
RON LIEBER: Yes. Well, hallelujah, right? I mean, the age of the ink-stained wretch working in isolation is over, and I'm so glad it is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ron, thank you very much.
RON LIEBER: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ron Lieber writes the Your Money column for The New York Times every Saturday.
"I Think You're Hiding Something"
by Jesse Harris