James T. Hamilton is the Hearst Professor of Communication and the Director of the Journalism Program. He earned a BA in Economics and Government and a PhD in Economics from Harvard University. As well as this, James is also the co-founder of the Stanford Computational Journalism Lab, the Senior Fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. Through the research James T. Hamilton is conducting in the area of computational journalism, he is exploring how the costs of story discovery can be lowered, if there is a better use of data and algorithms. James T. Hamilton is also a prolific author, who has written books on media markets and information provision including All the News That’s Fit to Sell: How the Market Transforms Information into News, Regulation Through Revelation: The Origin, Politics, and Impacts of the Toxics Release Inventory Program, and his most recent book Democracy’s Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Journalism; which focuses on the market for investigative reporting. James T. Hamilton has won awards such as the David N Kershaw Award of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management, the Goldsmith Book Price from the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Centre, and many more.
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I try to solve puzzles that have positive spill overs on society, and then share the results with students. Right now as the Director of the Stanford Journalism Program I’m focused on two questions: How do you lower the cost of discovering public affairs stories with better use of data and algorithms, and how do you tell stories in more personalized and engaging ways.
Given current events, I’m reading Nixon’s White House Wars by Patrick J. Buchanan and A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr. by Alvin S. Felzenberg.
What’s your earliest memory of reading?
My earliest reading memory is learning the words to A.A. Milne’s poem “Disobedience,” from When We Were Very Young. The poem is about a three-year old named James, so I readily identified with it.
If you could encourage young people to read one book in particular, what would it be?
The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles (my favorite teacher in college). It tells the story of Ruby Bridges, a six year old African-American girl who in 1960 helped desegregate a previously all white elementary school in New Orleans. Norman Rockwell painted a picture commemorating this. More than 50 years later that painting hung outside President Obama’s office, and when Ruby Bridges visited the President he said, “I think it’s fair to say that if it wasn’t for you guys, I wouldn’t be here today.”
What is the worst job you’ve ever had?
Right after college I worked in management consulting. One case involved trying to determine how to restructure hog feed sales to serve large scale farms. Working 80+ hours a week against the backdrop of the decline of family farming led me to decide to get a PhD and go into academia.
Do you read as much as you’d like to?
I average two books a week. My main regret is that the siren song of breaking news keeps me online more than I should be.
I study the market for public affairs information. To understand news markets, I think you should read about information economics, for example; Information Rules by Carl Shapiro and Hal Varian), memoirs like Personal History by Katharine Graham and A Good Life by Ben Bradlee, and finally journalism histories like Watergate’s Legacy and the Press by Jon Marshall, Global Muckraking by Anya Schiffrin, The Creation of the Media by Paul Starr, and The Watchdog that Didn’t Bark by Dean Starkman.
Is there a book that you’ve read more than once? What is it and why did you revisit it?
I have reread Walker Percy’s 1961 novel The Moviegoer many times. Though the cultural references are now out of date, I think the book’s story of a person’s search for meaning in life is really timeless. Wikipedia places the book in the genre of “philosophical fiction,” and I think that’s on target. My favorite passage is: “What is the nature of the search? you ask. Really it is very simple; at least for a fellow like me. So simple that it is easily overlooked. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
What’s your favourite genre of book?
Pocketbook sized paperbacks from the 1960s and 1970s. That was a time of great polemical writers, rapid changes in politics, and the wonderful narrative nonfiction of the “new journalism.”
What do you think a world without books would be like?
The current Oval Office.
Is there an author whose writing you’re such a fan of, that you’ll read everything they release?
I read Daniel Silva’s thrillers about Gabriel Allon, a fictional Israeli art restorer and spy, on the day each new one is released.
Do you think digital books will ever completely replace real books?
No. I tried a Kindle, but still really prefer the heft, light on the page, and tactile sense of a real book.
What book do you feel humanity needs right now?
A modern version of Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, which would lead people to re-examine their world views, abandon hyper-partisanship, and focus on solving civic problems without resorting to ideology as a shortcut to solutions.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life?
Probably the workbook for Economics 10, the introductory economics class at Harvard. I took the class my freshman year, when I was a pre-med with a strong interest in political science. Ec 10 offered a whole new way of looking at the world, i.e., as individual decision making under conditions of scarcity, and the workbook had excerpts from newspapers and magazines that challenged you to use the concepts from class to better understand what policymakers were saying (or not saying). After that class I was hooked, and eventually ended up getting a Phd in economics.
Collected essays are great way to get to know an author. My favorites are Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, and Dorothy Day: Selected Writings by Robert Ellsberg.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
Next up on my book pile are Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us about Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World by Scott Hartley, and After Piketty: The Agenda for Economics and Inequality by Heather Boushey, J. Bradford DeLong, and Marshall Steinbaum.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
Since Hamilton is already taken, I would call it Dr Jay: The Adventures of an Academic Scribbler. Since the likely audience is N < 30 though, I don’t think this book will ever see the light of day!