In Memory of Jack Driscoll

When he joined the Media Lab as editor-in-residence in 1995, John S. (Jack) Driscoll brought with him decades of traditional newsroom experience—beginning as a high school correspondent to The Boston Globe and ending as managing editor of the same paper—and a keen interest in the potential of digital media.

Over the next 13 years, Jack applied his knowledge, enthusiasm, and good humor to a wide range of projects at the Lab, from the Freshman Fishwrap (a personalized daily newspaper he began contributing to when he was still managing editor of the Globe) to the Silver Stringers (a project to help older adults contribute to their communities as reporters, photographers, illustrators, and storytellers, by teaching them to use digital tools to create new forms of local news).

Former Media Lab Director Walter Bender, who invited Jack to join the Lab after he retired from the Globe, tells the story this way:

"I first met Jack Driscoll when he and Tom Winship came to the Architecture Machine Group in the early 1980s. I showed them NewsPeek, a personalized electronic broadsheet. Neither Jack or Tom was overly concerned at that point that "digital" was going to pose much of a threat any time soon. Rather, they came out of curiosity. Upon seeing my naive and amateurish efforts, they both smiled rather than laughed; encouraged rather than dismissed.

It took another 10 years, but Jack came back to MIT. He and I began working together when The Boston Globe joined the Lab's News in the Future (NiF) program. Jack took an interest in the program for all of the right reasons: he wanted to understand and help advance the role of news in anticipation of the then-newly emerging worldwide web protocol. Jack had a hand in almost every NiF project, encouraging through both critique and advice, opening doors—selflessly mustering industry resources beyond the reach of students and faculty—and directly participating in some projects, such as Silver Stringers and Junior Journal, both harbingers of blogging, but also reflections of the high journalistic standards that Jack brought to all of his endeavors.

(Do you know why a stringer is called a stringer? Jack did.)

Amidst all the chaos at the time, Jack kept an even keel. He was especially helpful to me when it fell upon me to run the Lab. He shared his experiences running a much larger organization, which, by its nature, was always fighting both deadlines and budget crises. His cool demeanor and wry humor kept me above water.

They don't come better than Jack Driscoll."

In a statement to the Globe after their father’s death, Jack’s daughters said, “It seems like everyone who came to know our dad cherished him. But, the thing is, he was always one step ahead—banking a person’s name in his steely memory, and with each interaction peeling away the layers of his or her story, always to reveal one constant: that every person matters.”

Henry Holtzman, a research affiliate and former head of the Media Lab’s Information Ecology group, describes Jack the same way:  "I best got to know Jack through helping him with thorny tech problems. Jack asked wonderful questions that got me thinking, and often I concluded that I'd gotten the better end of the deal. For example, in helping Jack with the Silver Stringers, I got to see how the fledgling tools of citizen journalism, when used as Jack envisioned, could not only empower individuals but strengthen communities and provide resilience. I will miss Jack's kind voice, his curiosity, and his wonderful stories. He was a great friend."

Although he retired (again!) in 2008, Jack’s influence is still very much a part of the Lab’s culture—and information and communications culture everywhere. His thinking on projects such as the Daily Driscoll (a daily email containing bits of news he thought the Lab community would enjoy) anticipated Twitter, social sharing, and digital content curation, and continues to be reflected in our newsletters and social media channels.

By bridging the worlds of the newsroom and the research lab, Jack helped people without newsroom experience shape the future of news. But, as Walter Bender remembers, “Jack was a newsman at heart. He reveled in stories about the industry. He had one habit—a holdover from his time in the newsroom—that I think best characterizes this side of him: Whenever he sent an email, Jack used the subject field to write a witty and irresistible headline. One could argue it was the original clickbait, as it was impossible to resist opening his emails to see if you had successfully cracked the code.”

As Media Lab co-founder Nicholas Negroponte puts it, “Jack was both seasoned and the seasoning, bringing a lifetime of newspaper experience to the Media Lab, as well as many new ideas for digital news.” Although many of the specific projects he worked on have ended, his interest in employing digital tools to democratize the news and transform citizens into journalists has echoes in the research that continues in groups such as Civic Media, Viral Communications, and Social Machines.

Walter ended his remembrance with one of his favorite stories about Jack’s clever wordplay: “Jack was on the sports desk in the 1960s. The Yankees were in town and Roger Maris, playing right field, fell over the outfield fence while catching a would-be home run. Jack's headline the next day: Roger, Over and Out.” 


1998, Webb Chappell

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