As a political science student in LSA reporting for the Michigan Daily, Richard Berke (A.B. ’80) once snagged an interview with Jimmy Carter’s incoming secretary of commerce. It marked an important step in a career that saw Berke go on to interview some of the world's most powerful people while working for some of the biggest names in the American media, including the New York Times.
As you might expect for someone who spent decades reporting on American politics, Berke has covered a number of juicy stories and scandals. In fact, two of his most explosive scoops for the New York Times came within a few days of one another during the 2000 presidential election season. The first involved rumors that then-President Bill Clinton was suffering from a lack of confidence in Vice President Al Gore’s campaigning abilities.
“I received a phone call from Clinton himself to dissuade me from running the story,” says Berke, who ran with it anyway. “He said that he thought that Gore had improved a lot. It actually magnified the story by a million times.”
The second bombshell came a few days later when, for a story about Elizabeth Dole, her husband, Bob Dole, said she wasn’t the best campaigner but was improving. “There were huge reverberations in national politics from those stories,” he says.
Media’s Changing Landscape
Throughout Berke’s career, the fundamentals of journalism have remained unchanged, but its medium has evolved from print to the fast-paced world of online news. Perhaps not coincidentally, Berke’s career trajectory has reflected this shift, too.
As a reporter for the Michigan Daily, Berke covered everything from long lines at registration to a feature on U-M alumni in Washington, D.C.
Image courtesy of Richard Berke
“When I first started in the business, you had time to think—and to think ahead—about the stories you were doing,” says Berke. “Now, the reporting is constant. Sometimes this is good because smaller pieces of news about campaigns and candidates are easily accessible. But in other ways, there is little time for people to catch their breath, which makes it harder to be thoughtful.”
In 2015, Berke was approached by John Henry, the owner of the Boston Red Sox and the Boston Globe. Henry felt that quality national-level journalism about health and science news was surprisingly lacking—and that Boston, as a longtime epicenter of medical research and advancement, was an ideal place to launch a new venture focused on this type of reporting. That’s when he got Berke involved.
“It’s really a dream opportunity to build and run our own news organization with such ambitious journalistic goals,” says Berke, who oversees the editorial team as the executive editor of STAT, a new site dedicated to the health and science reporting.
Berke has enjoyed helping to build STAT from the ground up, hiring more than 50 people since February 2016. One of Berke’s first hires was a fellow U-M graduate—and Michigan Daily writer—who reached out to Berke for advice on how to launch a career in science journalism. Berke saw it as a sign, and brought him on board, too.
STAT is geared to offer unique takes on today's biggest health stories and debates. "We can have fun, we can be serious, we can do deep investigative pieces," Berke told NPR. "Nothing is going to be off limits."
Images courtesy of STAT
Since then, STAT has already garnered acclaim—the Columbia Journalism Review called it the “media startup to envy”—for ongoing coverage of the crisis surrounding the Zika virus, and reporting on everything from the Supreme Court’s impact on abortion access to the mysteries of the placebo effect. The site, which shares content with and complements the Globe, has reporters in offices across the country who search for breaking news, important stories that have been neglected by other outlets, and in-depth investigations on health-related topics. Berke emphasizes STAT’s broad appeal—the site is aimed not only at experts in science and health fields, but also at the general public—as part of its model for success.
“Given my freshness to the subject matter, I can ask the basic questions that people who are more in the weeds can’t ask, but that our readers will want to know,” says Berke.
Although STAT's focus is a bit of a shift for Berke, he says that there is plenty of overlap between politics and STAT’s purview.
“We have multiple people who cover the intersection between the election and health issues,” he says. “These are stories that touch everyone: Health and medicine are part of everyone’s lives.”
Stories that—thanks to Berke and STAT—will now get their full journalistic due.
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