’60 Minutes’ got math prodigy story from Indianapolis Star

I always wonder while watching an interesting “60 Minutes” piece: Which newspaper did they fail to credit for giving them that story idea?

Jake Barnett

Last night Morley Safer profiled 13-year-old math prodigy and college sophomore Jake Barnett. He’s from Indianapolis, so I figured the story originated in the Star. A Google search proved me right.

Dan McFeely’s piece — “Genius at work: 12-year-old is studying at IUPUI” — ran in the Indianapolis Star on March 20, 2011. He wrote:

Just a few weeks shy of his 13th birthday, Jake, as he’s often called, is starting to move beyond the level of what his professors can teach.

In fact, his work is so strong and his ideas so original that he’s being courted by a top-notch East Coast research center. IUPUI is interested in him moving from the classroom into a funded researcher’s position.

I asked McFeely about “discovering” Jake, and what he thought about “60 Minutes'” treatment of his story. His emailed response:

Yeah, I was the first one to write about Jake. We got the tip in an unusual way. It wasn’t Jake’s mom. It was a mayor in a small town in Indiana where “Jacob’s Place” was opened – a fun place for autistic kids to play. They opened this place a while back, before Jake was famous. The mayor sent a “story tip” to our website, and it was funneled to me, as I was covering higher education at the time.

Dan McFeely

I called the mom and she agreed to meet with me. Several interviews later, and a lot of fact-checking and reporting, I wrote my story. It ran on a Sunday front page and became an online success as it was linked across the web. Lots and lots of “math geeks” (self professed geeks, I might add) shared it amongst each other.

Anyway … by the end of the year, Jake’s story was the No. 1 online story at the indystar.com website, getting more clicks than any other story posted in the calendar year.

After the story ran, I got dozens of e-mails from all over the world. Many came from the math geeks, many came from parents of autistic children, and I got a lot of calls from other media seeking to contact Jake and his family. I passed along the reputable calls and I know Jake’s parents were getting similar requests. Jake was featured first on a local TV station, the Fox station I believe. And then he went on the Fox Network and was interviewed by Glen Beck.

Anyway, Jake’s mom told me about all the offers she got for interviews. Many of them, from across the globe, came from networks willing to pay for the story. She asked my advice (at the time, I was the only media person she knew) and I advised her to turn down anyone willing to pay for the story. And then she said that 60 Minutes had wanted to do a story. She has always liked 60 Minutes. I told her to think about it and go for it, given the program’s reputation.

My understanding is that 60 Minutes followed Jake and family around most of the summer. They did all their own work. I did not receive any calls from them asking for help.

I thought the 60 Minutes piece was well done. I think they captured the essence of Jake as a brainy child prodigy who is also still very much a kid. Of course, I don’t think it delved deep enough into his story, but I suppose there was not enough time to do that in less than a half hour. That’s what newspapers can do much better, I suppose.

Photo: Glenn Glasser

ALSO ON SUNDAY: Newsweek/Daily Beast senior editor Rebecca Dana tweeted: So it’s ok for the NYT to totally rip off that great NYO story on the Mueller bros, provided they call it “Noticed”?

Here’s yesterday’s New York Times piece on identical twins Kirk and Nate Mueller, and here’s New York Observer’s profile from January 4.

Comments

comments

4 comments
  1. 60 mins should have credited Jake at the begining of the segment – end of story. So many journalists don’t stand up when other publcations copy their story ideas. I considering it stealing when you don’t mention the journalist who first reported the news. That would have been a great and well deserved byline awareness for Jake and his paper if 60 mins had simply mentioned where they read the news first. It doesn’t matter if 60 mins didn’t call Jake for help because he already laid out the details for them in print.

  2. I meant to write Dan not Jake in that comment as Dan is the jouranlist.

  3. Ink-stained wretches shouldn’t get too huffy: dailies have a long history of swiping story ideas from newspapers outside the circulation area, or from weeklies inside the circulation area … and the weeklies swipe ideas from shoppers, which swipe them from the daily or the weekly – and local TV news swipes from all of them. Blogs/websites are now part of that mix.

    This has long been standard practice at all levels of media, justified by: “We did our own reporting; we don’t need to credit somebody for an idea.”

    That is starting to change, mostly because the Internet makes “the idea was first reported here” easy to verify, but 60 Minutes is hardly alone.

  4. Mario M. said:

    What Dave Brooks said. Suggesting that 60 Minutes needed to credit someone else for having done the story first seems only a short step removed from saying reporters need to credit whoever gives them a tip that leads to a story.

    The work was the reporting and writing of the story, not its genesis.

    This is obviously different with enterprise pieces.