In the Spotlight: Taylor Doherty, Special Projects Editor, The Chronicle, Duke University

One of the most prolific writers featured on the website of The Chronicle, Duke University’s student newspaper, is a gray-haired alum from the 1960s.  Ed Rickards, a former journalist, is currently a full-time “Duke Checker.”

Under that pseudonym (very recently switched from “Fact Checker”), Rickards, 69, runs “an increasingly popular blog that focuses on the governance of Duke and the scandals that occur on the university’s campus.”

He frequently contacts Chronicle staffers by email about their stories.  And he comments, a ton, on Chronicle articles online– often pointing out additional information that does not frame Duke administrators in the most flattering light.  His words and pseudonym appear in the comments section of almost every major Chronicle news and opinion article.

Even within a digital sphere that is anything-goes, Rickards stands out for the stunning amount of comments, email messages, and blog posts he composes daily and the hyper-intense focus on his alma mater that has seemingly become his later life’s mission.

Is Rickards a valuable voice complementing the student newspaper’s efforts at holding powerful Blue Devils in check?  Is he poison-pill-spouting, as one Chronicle staffer admits, as many conspiracy theories as valid points?  And what motivates someone to spend his sunset years chasing leads and calling BS about a school from which he has long since graduated?

Recently, Chronicle special projects editor Taylor Doherty set out to answer those questions.  In a late October Chronicle feature on Rickards, he provided a face and a backstory to a man described in the headline as “the university’s unorthodox critic.”  Rickards commented three times on the piece.

In the Q&A below, Doherty briefly explains what drew him to profile a man who had emailed him more than 100 times about Chronicle content the year before.  He also outlines what he considers the strengths and weaknesses of Rickards’ work.

Taylor Doherty, special projects editor, The Chronicle, Duke University

OK, so this random guy sends you a slew of messages when you’re news editor [Doherty’s previous position at the Chronicle].  What led you to eventually look at him as newsworthy versus simply just being a crank?

As I learned more about him, I just found him really interesting.  Here was a Duke graduate from the 1960′s who– from Manhattan– was writing thousands and thousands of words about the darker sides of Duke.  I definitely wasn’t the only one who wondered why he was running this blog and why he cared so much years after leaving Duke.

My other motivation was that he was growing a following on campus.  Duke is planning to open a campus in China in 2013, and some faculty have opposed the plans pretty vocally.  Fact Checker would post confidential documents online that faculty would anonymously pass on to him, and it drove some people at Duke absolutely crazy that the information was being leaked.  I got the sense that his criticism of the China plans was influencing the way that a number of people at Duke were thinking about the campus, and so I thought a story about where he was coming from was important.

Rickards has obviously rubbed some Duke administrators the wrong way and I’m guessing came across as cantankerous to you at first.  What are your impressions of him now that you’ve interviewed him?

He was just as entertaining and quirky as I had hoped when I started reporting.  That made the story easy to tell, because he told me so many anecdotes that really gave what I thought was a good sense of his personality, character, and life philosophy.  We also finished the profile on good terms, which was interesting because I do disagree with some of his work.  I think he can present situations in ways that are misleading and biased, and I told him that when we met.  But he was respectful as a source and always willing to talk.  He seemed to enjoy the process.  A few days after the story came out, he sent me an email and said he enjoyed reading the profile and asked me to send him a print copy.

How does the Chronicle view Rickards’ blog– is it competition, a source for ideas, a National Enquirer-type outlet to read for a laugh?

This is tough to answer.  I should probably start by saying that I’m speaking from my perspective, because you might get different answers from other members of the staff.  I definitely did not see Fact Checker as competition for the paper, but I also didn’t see the blog as an entirely useless source of information.  The Fact Checker blog has different methods than the Chronicle.  First, he grants anyone who asks for it anonymity, which might make the reader wonder about what the motivations of some of his sources are.  There’s one person, for example, who he calls The Allen Building Mole, which is a reference to Duke’s administrative building.  Rickards knows absolutely nothing about this person, but he says he generally provides accurate information.  Who knows why this source decides to write in to Fact Checker.

Second, the Chronicle has a different standard of verification before publishing.  Rickards seems willing to post whatever information he has on a topic even if the story might be incomplete or, in some instances, incorrect.  Maybe that means he’s trying to spark a conversation more than be a source for verified facts.  The Chronicle takes more time to verify information before publishing it, a more traditional approach to journalism.  Then again, Rickards recognizes this difference in approaches and said he doesn’t want to be held to the same standards as the Chronicle or other newspapers.

The big question: What did the comments on your piece about Rickards focus on?

The comments on Chronicle stories can be pretty entertaining, including when Fact Checker posts.  In addition to Fact Checker– who is now starting to go by the name Duke Checker– two of the commenters on my story were DukePieMafia (who periodically writes about throwing pies in the faces of people he doesn’t approve of) and Duke.Swamp.Gator (whose gimmick is to throw a “CHOMP” or two into his comments).

A few people thanked Rickards for his work on the blog, but not all the commenters get along.  Fact Checker faces a fair bit of backlash when he posts on the Chronicle‘s website, and this story was no exception to the rule.  Parts of that conversation seemed productive, but in other comments it’s just the same lingering arguments between people that don’t like each other.  Rickards didn’t seem to mind all that much.  As he wrote at point, “You are just seething today, PieMafia, that the Chronicle profiled me.  And not you.”

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