Can Alexander Heffner scoop the media jackpot?
He’s only 19, but Alexander Heffner’s online magazine Scoop44 could redefine the face of American journalism
Is Alexander Heffner destined to be the man to reboot America's Fourth Estate? He is just 19 years old and a first-year undergraduate at Harvard, but he is already positioning himself as a sort of Walter Cronkite-meets-William-Randolph Hearst for his generation.
He crashed into the national media consciousness a year ago as the presidential elections began in earnest and he managed to parlay a school radio show and student newspaper into a web magazine called Scoop08.
Exclusively written by 18-to-25 year olds, its mission was to bring a new generation to politics just as those politics underwent a generational change of their own, and the genius of the idea lay in its timing. It became a national student online newspaper and caught the wave that carried Obama all the way to the White House.
Last time a Harvard student enterprise got this much attention it was Facebook
"It was a confluence of forces that culminated in Scoop's arrival on the national landscape," Heffner explains. "It was a result of the scope of the concerns facing the up-and-coming generation, and the advent of new technologies."
Quite. Heffner, who broadcasts The Political Arena with Alexander Heffner on Harvard's own radio station WHRB 95.3 every Sunday, as well as editing and running Scoop, really does talk like that. Just as he had the chutzpah to haul two former US senators and several eminent journalists onto Scoop08's advisory board.
Now he is reinventing Scoop08, the election blog, as Scoop44, a daily online magazine staking a permanent place in the new media of the blogosphere. The reception is rapturous: Heffner has written a manifesto currently running on The Huffington Post, the grandmother of American online magazines, and has been onscreen for CNN, CBS, C-Span, the BBC and even Fox.
The last time a Harvard student enterprise got this much attention it was called Facebook, and it changed the nature of 'social networking' while making its founders into potential billionaires. Can Scoop do the same for Heffner? Already he has been named a Young Person Who Rocks by CNN.
Whether or not he rocks, Heffner has preppy good looks and a terrific background at the heart of the Wasp establishment: the Phillips Academy boarding school, where he started Scoop at 17, and Harvard are the Eton and Oxbridge of America (the Bushes were Phillips and Yale).
"I'm no relation to Hugh Hefner (of Playboy)," he says. "This Heffner clan has charted a different course in journalism and public service." His grandfather, "a great source of inspiration", is a journalist who hosts The Open Mind programme on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), while his father is a leading New York prosecutor who hounds mobsters and bent Wall Street titans.
Perhaps because he is only 19 years old, Heffner is oblivious to cliché
Scoop's new mission, he says, is to "hold the Obama administration to account." And there lies the rub. What is original about that? That's what the media is supposed to do. Even the name, Scoop, has a secondhand ring to it. It was, after all, the title of Evelyn Waugh's unrivalled novel of the ways of journalism, and Tina Brown, famed former editrix of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, has just borrowed the novel's newspaper title, The Daily Beast, for a web magazine of her own.
Originality turns out to have nothing to do with it: perhaps because he is only 19, more cocky than weathered, Heffner is oblivious to cliché and sees only with a fresh pair of eyes.
"Scoop44 is poised to serve as the distinct source of news affecting young Americans, providing a fresh generational lens," he says. "We'll venture into territory traditionally left ignored."
This sounds new to the young because the American press lost its credibility by kowtowing to the Dubya Bush administration. It failed to do its job. "This is a call," says Heffner, "to reaffirm and honour the Fourth Estate's commitment to dispassionate political journalism. We're striving to emphasise real newsgathering and investigative reporting. That's our challenge, transforming the practice of journalism on the internet as the industry faces massive upheaval."
And then there are his own ambitions. The White House? "I've always been interested," he says with promising alacrity, "in actual governing, in the intersection of the press and politics."
Ethics and ambition are one thing, business is another. Scoop44 comes onto the scene just as America's traditional newspapers crash from lack of readers and lack of advertising: the 150 year old Rocky Mountain News, with its frontier echo of times long ago, printed its last edition just as Scoop44 went up. ·
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