Andrew Gruen says he was “passionately studying indecision” halfway through his sophomore year when he decided to transfer into Medill. He says he listened to the BBC’s World Service every night since he was 11, but had never considered trying journalism himself.
Around that time, political science professor Jerry Goldman gave Gruen a book of British scholarships for Northwestern students.
“We had just eaten dinner,” Gruen says. “He handed me this red book. On the front it said Northwestern University Office of Fellowships, and he said you’re going to do one of these. I said ‘yea right,’ but I went and did precisely that.”
Gruen is now a Gates Cambridge Scholar pursuing a Ph.D. in sociology at Cambridge. He’s working on a thesis about accountability journalism in the digital age, examining how born digital news enterprises that produce accurate and informative products can be viable.
“Let’s say that the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, CNN—all the traditional accountable news organizations—they all die today, we’re in trouble right?” Gruen says. “Maybe, maybe not. There aren’t many places that are born digital and producing accountable journalism, the stuff people were afraid would go away when newspapers went away, like checking on people with power, but there are some. I’m looking at what it is to be one of [these organizations]. I'm agnostic about which economic model you have, I just want to know how you make it work.”
Gruen gained unprecedented access to two born digital firms -- The Texas Tribune, in Austin, TX and OhmyNews in Seoul, South Korea -- where he spent the 2011-2012 academic year as an embedded researcher. He says the key to these enterprises' viability is their lower costs; ability to generate revenue from multiple, independent sources; and smart use of non-monetary resources, such as a willingness to build partnerships with competitors on commodity content.
Gruen is now back in Cambridge, where he serves as president of the Gates Cambridge scholars' council, and is writing up his dissertation.
Before starting his PhD, Gruen worked for CNET and the BBC as a technology reporter in 2007 while still at Medill. After graduation he worked as a digital executive producer for the Hearst-owned NBC affiliate in Orlando for a year before receiving his first Gates Cambridge Scholarship. He completed his MPhil in sociology at Cambridge in 2009, where he researched citizen journalism. He then went to work in South Korea as an editor and producer for OhmyNews, as a Henry Luce Foundation Scholar., OhmyNews is one of the only news organizations that have successfully implemented large-scale citizen journalism. It started in February of 2000.
“At OhmyNews they had a bunch of regular citizens writing stories in small amounts, but professional editors doing the editing and fact-checking,” Gruen says. “No one had gotten that to work anywhere else. We couldn’t get people to send us a picture in Orlando, and this was in 2008. For my master’s degree, I wanted to find out why citizen journalism worked in Korea but failed so completely for me in Florida.”
Gruen says the Ph.D. is an academic analysis of his journalistic career. "Before there was a new media track, I was in that space trying to figure out what that space was going to look like? How are we going to operate?” Gruen says. “Now I'm trying to tie it all together. My PhD is an attempt at writing a cookbook for anyone who wants to start a new, high-quality news organization. I want to help people see what resources they need, and how to put them together.