Last year, Dr. Seema Yasmin visited a newsroom for the first time. It was summer, and she was just about to start as a global journalism fellow at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. At The Washington Post, reporter Joel Achenbach introduced her as a physician who was training to be a journalist.
“And people said, why would you do that?” Yasmin said. “They were incredulous.”
She hasn’t had to live through the instability in the business, Yasmin said, but she sees how morale in newsrooms has been impacted. And practicing journalism and writing for medical journals are also two different things.
“But I’m really enjoying the challenge of bringing to life subjects buried in medical journals,” Yasmin said. “They’re actually really human stories, I think.”
Yasmin started writing for The Dallas Morning News in May, dividing her time between the newspaper and the University of Texas at Dallas, where she’s a professor in practice. She’s the Morning News’ third “subject matter expert,” combining reporting with university teaching.
“The purpose of all this is to build up our subject matter experts in fields that are important to our readers,” said Bob Mong, editor of the Morning News.
And on Saturday, Yasmin was able to offer another perspective on a global story — the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Yasmin, who knew one of the HIV/AIDS researchers on board, wrote a column about Dr. Joep Lange and his work.
The Morning News has worked with other subject matter experts in reporting/teaching partnerships, including Mark Lamster, an architecture critic and a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, and Dr. Richard Brettell, an art critic and professor at the University of Texas, Dallas.
In each case, the newspaper and the university share the cost of employing the experts. It’s 50/50 for Yasmin, Mong said: “we’re able to split the costs.” Yasmin attended the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine, where she became a doctor of medicine and surgery. She has previously worked with the Navajo Nation Division of Health and in Kenya.
The Morning News hasn’t had layoffs since 2011, and with no debt, the paper is more stable than many places, Mong said. They do occasionally hire back journalists who were laid off, he said, and are hiring traditional journalists, too.
“But we need to bring new DNA into our company. For instance, our editor of dallasnews.com is a former executive news director at one of the best local TV stations in America. We have attracted talent from Nokia and Google. My feeling is that getting Mark Lamster in here as architecture critic, or Seema Yasmin in as a public health specialist were rare opportunities to up our game. We look for other similar opportunities.”
The newsroom and the universities that partner together with the subject matter experts also discuss potential conflicts of interest, he said, and the universities understand they can’t interfere in the journalism those reporters produce.
And Yasmin doesn’t take the place of a health reporter who covers daily news, Mong said. Instead, the partnership makes it possible to bring in someone who can offer perspective and expertise to readers.
“To me,” Mong said, “this is about giving our readers an additional benefit of her experience.”
In some ways, working with Yasmin is like working with most journalists, said Tom Huang, the Sunday and enterprise editor at Morning News and an adjunct faculty member at Poynter.
“The similarities are that she’s a really smart, curious person and asks really good questions,” he said. “So she’s a lot like most journalists that I work with.”
The differences, he said, are her depth of knowledge, “so it’s almost like you’re working with an expert.”
Because she’s newer to journalism, Yasmin is also like a young reporter, Huang said, and he’s working with her to push harder for information and access, how to develop sources and where else to look for information.
On July 12, the paper published a story by Yasmin and Morning News reporter Sherry Jacobson about health implications of kids crossing the border.
Yasmin is analytical, Huang said, and able to see a bigger picture.
“She has a really good sense toward people, too,” he said. “She seems to be able to find real people who exemplify a certain issue and treat them with dignity. I think most good reporters are able to do that.”
Last year, Yasmin walked into a newsroom for the first time and was asked, basically, why?
“I think I’ve totally made the right move,” she said. “I am enjoying it so much, and every day feels like an education.”
She’s approaching her new role as someone who knows she has a lot to learn, Huang said, and she’s down to earth.
“I think that’s important when you’re coming into a newsroom as a doctor and epidemiologist,” he said. “You can’t come across as seeming to know everything. I think we’re always skeptical about experts who may want to do what we do.”
Yasmin sees some similarities between her two fields. “As a physician, one of the most important roles is being a patient’s advocate,” she said.
Journalists do that, too, challenging the people and institutions that don’t want to share information. As a physican, she’s an advocate for her patients. As a journalist, Yasmin said, she takes that role for readers.