There was a time when being a successful journalist meant you had to like writing, or maybe talking. At the very least, you had to be employed by a reputable newspaper, magazine, or television station. Otherwise, how could you expect your work to be noticed?
That time has passed. Take it from Ben Doernberg ’13—or, as he is known to the Internet, @UpdateBen—a self-described social media journalist with little more than a Twitter, a smartphone, and a startling aptitude for sorting out signals from noise. Doernberg has live-streamed everything from Occupy Wall Street to the Diversity University forum and has been cited by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic in the process. You might recognize him for his acclaimed beard, his heated confrontations with President Roth, or his involvement with nearly every activist movement that exists on campus.
Doernberg graduated in December; when I visited his house at the end of winter finals week, he had already handed in his key and was supposed to be moved out (don’t tell Stacey Phelps). We chatted about digital journalism, near-death car wrecks, and that one time Michael Roth tried to get him suspended.
The Argus: What makes you a WesCeleb?
Ben Doernberg: Can we come back to that?
A: Sure. You were a spring transfer. What brought you to Wesleyan?
BD: I actually transferred from Muhlenberg, which was the only school I got into after high school. I transferred because I wanted to go somewhere people are interested in things and to a school that wasn’t 90 percent white. I transferred as a junior in January 2011. [I lived] in High Rise, and I’ve still never met my roommate because he was living in Beta.
A: Did you know that coming in?
BD: No. I figured it out like a week later. My room had been used the previous semester as a party apartment by Beta, so people just showed up the first weekend planning to throw a baby shower party in my room. And they got really angry at me [because] I was not down.
A: You have a prominent beard on campus. What’s up with your beard?
BD: I’ve never gotten as much positive energy for something that takes the opposite of effort. I grew it because I knew Wesleyan was the kind of place where people had beards, and I figured I should arm up because I don’t like skinny jeans.
A: You describe yourself as a social media journalist. How did you first get involved with [that]?
BD: I was really passionate about Occupy Wall Street, and the regular media is really bad at incorporating the views of regular people who are witnessing or involved with something. It was really frustrating for me to see people getting things wrong when anyone who cared would know it was wrong. The great and terrible thing about Twitter is that the feedback is instant. The first time I pointed something out, people were responding to it. It’s like crack.
A: So this started with Occupy? Were you involved in activism previously?
BD: This was definitely my introduction to activism, and I don’t know how much credit I can give Wesleyan. Or blame, depending on if you’re President Roth. It was in the air, and it also matched up with a lot of classes I was taking and my personality.
A: You started traveling with other students to New York, and you started live-streaming things.
BD: What I enjoy doing the most is sorting through all the noise. When there’s something happening and there [are] hundreds of thousands of people talking about [it], I like going through all of it as quickly as possible and trying to sort out what’s true and what’s not.
A: You’ve been cited by The New York Times, you have [about] a thousand Twitter followers, [and] there was a Wesleyan Connection article about your work. How did you get noticed?
BD: During the eviction of Occupy Wall Street, there were a lot of reports from journalists that they were being interfered with or arrested by the police. I used this tool called Storify to gather that and put it into a coherent story. I think that got something like 25,000 views, which was pretty cool. This summer I did another Storify on this bus monitor lady who was getting bullied by some kids. That ended up getting picked up by a bunch of places and got viewed like three million times. I got mentioned on The Wall Street Journal and New York Times.
A: Was the video already going viral at that point?
BD: Someone had posted it to Reddit. I covered it just because everyone who saw had such intense emotional reactions. Then someone started raising money, and they ended up raising 750,000 dollars for her. Halfway through I started feeling weird. I mean, what happened to her was really bad, but a lot of people have bad things happen to them, and there’s probably a better use for that three-quarters of a million dollars.
A: Have you always been really Internet- and social media-savvy?
BD: Actually, at one point I was really anti-Twitter. I took a semester off to transfer to Wesleyan, and I was working at an Internet policy nonprofit in D.C.[where] we just had to get an account as part of the job. But I’ve always followed the news; I’ve always spent way too much time on the Internet. This is not a surprise to anyone who knows me. It’s unbelievably predictable.
A: I don’t think it’s predictable how effectively you’ve made an online presence for yourself. Many people think Twitter is just something kids use to tweet naked pictures.
BD: Well, it can be. The basic concept behind all this is that it used to be that you had to send a reporter to find out what happened, and now there are essentially amateur reporters everywhere there’s a person. The best information is often going to be tweeted right after a dick pic.
A: How have you applied your skills to life on campus at Wesleyan?
BD: I’ve actually been really surprised at how uninterested in technology people are on campus. I’ve had a lot of ideas for all kinds of things, from the need-blind campaign to The Argus to Bon Appétit to every area of student life. But yeah, that hasn’t been part of my Wesleyan life at all.
A: But you’ve live-streamed tons of events. I know you’ve been really involved with need-blind activism. You stood up at that forum with Michael Roth last spring, and you kind of talked back to him and got noticed.
BD: Looking back on it, I think that President Roth definitely should have done a lot more to genuinely encourage student engagement, but I think at that first forum I definitely could have made more constructive comments. If President Roth kind of thought I was a dick, I understand that.
A: So what got you so involved with the protests that were going on this fall?
BD: I think this semester I was starting to finally feel like I had found my spot at Wesleyan and was starting to appreciate all the amazing things about it, and the idea that this was going to be restricted even more to rich people [was upsetting]. Also, I was a transfer student, and my grades in high school were pretty bad, so there’s a reasonable chance I wouldn’t have gotten in if I hadn’t been able to pay full tuition. And I think that’s bullshit. As a Sociology major, [I’m] studying the ways that elite colleges are overwhelmingly made up of students from the top 30 percent in terms of wealth. It was kind of a confluence of lots of things that all came together. Plus, I needed something to chalk about.
A: You were one of the students who was SJB’ed [Student Judicial Board] in the Board of Trustees protest, and you filmed the whole thing.
BD: Apparently President Roth wanted to suspend everyone who even went up the stairs to be outside the meeting. I thought that was really unfortunate. It was very clear that the Board of Trustees understood why we were doing what we were doing, and many of them had done the same things themselves.
A: So did you appeal your SJB charges?
BD: No. I considered it. But technically President Roth could’ve decided to expel me or suspend me. I’m sure he wouldn’t have done that, but the prospect of explaining to my parents why I was not going to graduate for appealing a warning was not… How did I start that sentence? Oh, then I have to say an adjective.
A: You’ve gotten into some other direct confrontations with Michael Roth.
BD: I think I’ve had two sort of personal interactions with him. One was about chalking. Then at the Parents’ Assembly, a parent asked what the impact of getting rid of need-blind would be on diversity and President Roth indicated that it wasn’t going to be a problem. I knew that he had told The Argus something like, “If I said this policy would be good for underrepresented groups, it’s not.” So I asked if I could make a comment and he said no, but I’m stubborn.
A: What do you think Michael Roth thinks of you?
BD: He doesn’t text me as much as he used to. I would guess that he thinks that I’m young, naïve, and misguided, and statistically speaking he’s probably right on all three of those.
A: You recently attended a conference in California on covering social protest movements online.
BD: I thought it was really nice for someone to have designed a conference for me. I was looking through the resources section of the event, and I saw that one of the articles they wanted attendees to read was an Argus article about the coverage I’d done of the eviction. They flew me out to California and put me up in the Marriott.
A: You’re graduating now. What are your plans?
BD: So I was going to go to New York and “journalism”—as a verb. But then last night I had a conversation with a former Weather Underground person, and we talked about how I should write a blank check to the universe and go to Peru and do Ayahuasca [a psychoactive brew].
A: So you’re not sure if you’ll end up moving to New York and searching for work?
BD: I mean, that was the plan. I’ve already got some leads. But I feel like going straight to do the stuff I already know I’m good at doesn’t seem like the best way to grow as a person. I realize how self-indulgent and “bougie” that is, and I do feel bad about that for my sociology professors.
A: Why not just do journalism the old-fashioned way—by writing stories for a newspaper?
BD: I hate writing! It’s so hard! Writing is so hard. I like making connections between things that already exist, and I think there is value in that. If you think about it, there are essentially infinite things to read on the Internet, and you have a limited amount of time.
A: So what makes you a WesCeleb?
BD: Originally I was going to say something like, “President Roth keeps asking me to do it, so I might as well.” Then I was going to say, “Well, you’re here interviewing me,” but that’s dumb. Then I could be like, “Because I’m a white male.” But that’s just that obnoxious activism that everyone hates. Then I was going to say the beard, but that’s just not fair to myself.
A: I think your thought process is the answer.
BD: You should say overwhelming neuroticism and curiosity.