“You are a journalist:” The Cav Daily, “Unite the Right” fallout and the importance of local media

Editor’s Note: There is a fine line between telling a story and milking a story, especially one like this. To err on the side of caution, this is the third (and last, for now) in a short series of posts about the Cavalier Daily’s coverage of the chaos over the weekend in Charlottesville. Part I reviews the preparation and the Friday march of white supremacists on campus.  Part II talks about the Saturday events, including the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

Tim Dodson, the paper’s managing editor, helps me wrap up the trilogy with a look at what people were saying in the aftermath and why student media matters every day. Tim stressed that the ongoing coverage was a team event and you can continue to see that today with a look at Bridget Starrs’ piece on the candle-light vigil on the University of Virginia campus.

Any mistakes are mine, not Tim’s. Corrections and tweaks are likely necessary and gratefully received.

National news organizations spent much of Wednesday reviewing President Donald Trump’s reversal on the condemnation of the white supremacists who descended upon Charlottesville. Talking head shows on Fox, CNN and MSNBC debated the big picture of white supremacy. The Associated Press put out a statement on its new rule for the term “alt-right” (in quotes only, as the term “is meant as a euphemism to disguise racist aims”). Great-great-great grandfolk of Confederate leaders spoke out about what should be done with monuments to the era of secession.

In some ways, Charlottesville became almost inconsequential as a town and as a people. In an interview right conducted shortly after the chaos of the weekend, Cavalier Daily Managing Editor Tim Dodson pretty much saw this coming.

“The national news outlets come into town when something like this happens and they report the major facts and the controversy,” Dodson said. “Then they leave, but we are the ones who are going to have to live with the outcomes of this. How are people going to heal from this going forward?”

Dodson wasn’t relying on cliche when he told me, “We live here.” He is from Charlottesville and stuck around his hometown to attend U.Va. after graduating from high school in 2015. As students roll into town in anticipation of next week’s start of the fall semester, Dodson said the staff of the Cav Daily continue to look for things that will affect them.

“I think we need to tell the stories that relate to students that no one else will have access to,” he said. “How does what happened (over the weekend) influence campus safety? How do students feel coming back into this environment? We’re not going to see stories like that on CNN or any other national outlet… I think that speaks to the role of local news and the importance of local journalism.”

Dodson said the staff’s goal was to look for ties between the publication’s campus readership and the events as they unfolded. For example, Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old woman killed during Saturday’s events, was a waitress at a restaurant adjacent to campus. Cav Daily reporters interviewed her friends and colleagues, some of whom had ties to U.Va.

The staff covered the candle-light vigil held on campus as well as the lawsuit filed in relation to the car-based attack on counter protesters. The Cav Daily also ran a story in which the university president, citing the violent events of the weekend, requested that students cancel this year’s “Block Party,” an off-campus, back-to-school event often laden with alcohol.

“We are trying to find angles that speak to the student experience,” he said. “We are not just in a bubble here at U.Va… However, you try to figure out how you can differentiate yourself by telling a story as a student.”

As the national outlets go bigger with the white supremacist story (CNN is now telling people where hate groups are in their area), and the Cav Daily goes for more local stories, one thing ties them together: They are all journalists, telling stories that matter to their readers. That can be a harder task for student journalists in a lot of ways.

“I think a lot of the reasons why professors and members of the community don’t like student journalists is because there is more risk involved,” Dodson said. “We’re not as seasoned as the pros. We’re going to make mistakes. We don’t always have the best email etiquette. Those experiences can rub sources the wrong way and that’s a challenge.”

Even knowing that, one of the themes Dodson kept coming back to was this: Don’t settle.

” I don’t think (a student journalist) should be intimidated because when you’re on the scene, you are working with the same situation and the same facts,” he said. “Don’t be intimidated because you are “just” a student journalist. You are a journalist. You don’t have to predicate that with “student.” You are a journalist.”

“I think it can be really problematic when students settle for less,” he added. “If all they do is email and quote from emails and write from a dorm room, well, that’s not journalism. Get on a phone, talk to someone in person, go to the scene in person. That’s what journalists do… Rather than taking press releases and emails, really put yourself out there.”

The Cav Daily crew proved that point this weekend when staffers waded into the chaos of the “Unite the Right” rally. Police in riot gear were everywhere. Members of white supremacist groups waved flags adorned with symbols of hate and toted military-style weapons. Tear gas made it hard to see and breathe at some points.

Still, the journalists did what journalists do: They reported the news.

“There were so many questions and concerns from people in the area,” Dodson said. “The media played a very important role in getting stories out there… I was one person on a team of journalists and I’m very proud of the members of our staff. We saw people with weapons and we saw people chanting and fighting, but we needed to tell the stories. Our team threw itself into it.”

“In retrospect, I probably should have been more worried about my personal safety,” he added. “But we were more worried about getting the stories out there.”

 

“We had never covered something like this.” The Cav Daily, “Unite the Right” and some incredible journalism (Part II)

The crew from the Cavalier Daily at the University of Virginia that covered the chaos in Charlottesville over the weekend: Alexis Gravely, Anna Higgins, Daniel Hoerauf and Tim Dodson. (Photos courtesy of the Cavalier Daily staff)

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a short series of posts about the Cavalier Daily’s coverage of the chaos over the weekend in Charlottesville. Part I can be found here, along with an explanation as to why I’m focusing on student media and how amazingly helpful managing editor Tim Dodson with all of this. Tim, Senior Associate News Editor Alexis Gravely, News Editor Anna Higgins and Senior Writer Daniel Hoerauf were on the ground as the “Unite the Right” event turned violent and deadly. Tim was repeatedly clear how much this was a team event and that is so clear in the coverage the Cav Daily published.

The staff of the Cav Daily is continuing to cover the outcomes of this event. Here are a few stories they published in the last 24 hours:

Here is part two from our hour-long interview. Any mistakes are mine, not Tim’s. Corrections and tweaks are likely necessary and gratefully received.


 

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Here are two images that give you an indication of what the Cavalier Daily staff was walking into when covering the weekend’s events. Photos by Alexis Gravely, courtesy of the Cavalier Daily.

As the Cavalier Daily staff began covering Saturday’s “Unite the Right” rally, one thing became immediately clear to Managing Editor Tim Dodson.

“We had never covered something like this,” he said in an interview this week.

Charlottesville had become a flashpoint for the alt-right, neo-Nazis and other white supremacist groups that weekend. A group of white supremacists had already gathered Friday on the University of Virginia campus, carrying tiki torches and chanting racist rhetoric. A federal court injunction Friday allowed the event to take place in Emancipation Park, but it felt like chaos might emerge in the city. Counter-protestors had gathered in droves. Police donned riot gear and braced for mayhem.

Into it all marched the four-person team of the Cavalier Daily, U.Va.’s student newspaper, unsure of what would happen but knowing covering the event was necessary.

“There are people who are ‘first responders’ who rush into situations like fires and accidents to help people,” Dodson said. “I’m not comparing us to them, but journalists are like ‘first informers’ and we run toward chaos too so we can tell people what’s going on… I am proud of the courageous members of the Cavalier Daily staff who put themselves in harms way to report what we were seeing”

The main event was to start at noon, but things were getting ugly far earlier. Dodson said brawls popped up in various spots around the area. Someone burned a Confederate battle flag. Marchers carried machine guns and wore tactical body armor. The air became unbreathable.

“We started walking over to the rally and immediately the chemical irritant hit us,” he said of the tear gas. “We were choking on it. I was trying to do a Facebook Live event but I had to give up on it. I couldn’t keep it going because I was coughing on whatever was in the air.”

Police were clearing the area when Dodson said the staff got word the white supremacists planned to gather shortly in McIntire Park to continue the rally.

“We drive over to the park and then we start walking around and it’s kind of empty, nobody really there,” he said. “There appear to be some alt-right people and some white supremacists, but not a crowd. It was really quiet. And then within a half hour, dozens or up to 100s showed up to gather and they’re clustered by this playground and we hear there are going to be speakers.”

Former KKK leader David Duke and white nationalist leader Richard Spencer arrived and addressed those who had gathered. The Cav Daily crew wove its way into the amped-up crowd to gather information.

“I think the people on the ground had great news instincts,” Dodson said. “There were seasoned members of the Cav Daily. In terms of the photography, Alexis is more of a trained photographer than I and she had a lot of photos. I had no experience with this so I kind of learned on the job when Spencer and Duke were speaking.”

Spencer and the Cav Daily had crossed paths before: The staff learned last year that Spencer graduated from U.Va. in 2001 and it began trying to piece together his past on the Charlottesville campus. He was not overly active in campus events, except for his participation in “Shakespeare on the Lawn” productions. Few people remembered him and those who did were almost universally unwilling to talk about him. When it came time to interview Spencer for the profile, the task fell to Dodson.

“I think I did two or three phone interviews with him to get a line on his time here,” Dodson said. “I had been prepared for the interview, I researched his timeline here and so forth. There’s not a whole lot written about his time at U.Va., so I was at a bit of a disadvantage… It was just a matter of asking some open ended questions.

“I don’t think I was necessarily intimidated but I did as much research as I could but I had to realize I was gathering information,” he added, noting that Spencer made it clear that nobody at U.Va “turned him into” the current iteration of himself. “You don’t always have all the answers.”

When Duke addressed the crowd, the situation began to devolve again.

“It was hard to keep track of all these things as the speakers were addressing the supporters…” Dodson said. “Some people saw a reporter being intimidated… During Duke’s speech, counter-protesters showed up and that altercation turned physical…  As all that was happening, our reporting team and I were watching this happening and covering all this on social media and we get this news that a car plowed through crowd in a downtown area.”

The staff members split up with two people heading downtown and two others staying at McIntire Park. All the content was flowing from the scene to EIC Mike Reingold, who was retweeting material and working with others to build content on the paper’s homepage. The social media flow from the scene was essentially a reflexive need to get the story out immediately, Dodson said.

“I think for the social media it was just our instincts,” he said. “As things happened, we just had our phones out and we were telling stories. One of our people was smart and brought a battery pack, so we were all plugging into that to pull juice off of for the day… I think as things happened in the moment we were very good at reacting to that.”

The car attack downtown killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injured 19 others. Other physical altercations, including an assault in a parking garage, were reported as well, with varying levels of injuries. The police began to take over the situation downtown and the rally in the park began to dissolve as the day wore on, Dodson said.

“Police began to take charge and there was definitely less chaos,” he said. “We could see the aftermath of what had happened…”

“It was a very long day in Charlottesville.”

 

The Cav Daily and its amazing “Unite the Right” coverage (Part I)

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Tim Dodson’s photo of the tiki-torch-wielding white supremacists on the U.Va. campus Friday night. (Courtesy of Tim Dodson, Cavalier Daily)

Editor’s Note: I wanted to take a look at the events of Charlottesville for the blog, but I wanted to look at it through the eyes of the student media. Far too often, student media gets the cruddy end of the stick or just gets ignored, so I went to the website for the student newspaper at the University of Virginia to see if anyone wrote a story on the topic. I was blown away by the overall coverage here in terms of quantity, quality and depth from the Cavalier Daily. The use of video, social media, text, links to previous work and photography was beyond what most local publications could handle. They “flooded the zone,” to borrow a phrase.

These are just a few of the stories the Cav Daily published:

I reached out to Tim Dodson, the managing editor of the Cavalier Daily on U.Va.’s campus, who was gracious enough to talk to me about all of this. He wanted to make sure I understood that he wasn’t the only one on staff working the story: Senior Associate News Editor Alexis Gravely, News Editor Anna Higgins and Senior Writer Daniel Hoerauf comprised the team that produced this incredible work. EIC Mike Reingold was chipping in as well, aggregating his staffers’ social media posts and flowing them through the Cav Daily’s formal social media channels. Opinion writers were building additional pieces and others were also adding what they could from wherever they were while still on summer break. As much as I knew I would end up telling this story through Tim’s eyes because he was my main source, he clarified at every turn that it was NOT “his reporting” or “his work” but that of the whole staff. So, if that doesn’t always come through in the writing, you should blame me, not him.

In going back through the notes of a more than hour-long interview, there is no way to do this well in one giant chunk, so I’m splitting it up across several posts on the next few days. In the mean time, here’s the first chunk of the story. Corrections and tweaks are likely necessary and gratefully received.

Corrections:  Date of Tim’s election to news editor has been fixed and clarification on who was covering which events on which days has been added. Keep ’em coming if I messed up.

Two days before his 21st birthday, Tim Dodson found himself working with a small group of journalists from the student newspaper at U.Va. to cover the chaotic events in Charlottesville.

“I think we all knew there was a potential for violence,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon. “I don’t think anyone was expecting to see everything that unfolded.”

The national media kept a wary eye on this city of nearly 47,000 as white supremacists, the alt-right and other hate groups gathered for the “Unite the Right” rally on Friday. Dodson, the managing editor of the Cavalier Daily, was part of a skeleton crew of staffers that planned to cover the event that was happening on U.Va.’s front doorstep. Aside from his position at the paper, Dodson had another reason to care about the weekend’s events: Charlottesville was his hometown.

“I’ve grown up here this is my hometown,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this. I’m in no way making light of anything that happened Friday but in some ways, it felt like I was in one those “Purge” movies because of all the stuff that was going on.”

Dodson graduated in 2015 from Western Albemarle High School, where he worked on the student newspaper (“It wasn’t this hard core,” he said. “I didn’t do any breaking news.”) before he enrolled at U.Va. He found out about the Cav Daily while attending a student organization fair and became a reporter on staff. He was then elected as one of two news editors in December 2016. A year later, he was elected managing editor and his 20-30 hours per week at the paper surged to 30+ hours as he helped the editor in chief oversee the publication’s operation.

During this summer, he was on his second internship at Charlottesville Tomorrow, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization focused on covering quality of life issues in the area, and his weekend gig at News Talk 107.5 WCHV, a local radio station. Thanks to the flexibility of his various bosses, he was able to work with the Cav Daily staff on the “Unite the Right” events.

“I’m honored and blessed that my bosses have been really good about flexibility with me,” he said. “We are in a period where nobody is formally writing things (for the Cav Daily) so several of us were really trying to figure out who is in town and how we could get all hands on deck for this.”

Dodson said he went to the Cav Daily office on Friday night after working one of his other media gigs to await a court ruling regarding the event. The city tried to force the group of white supremacists to a different location, but the group sued the city and got an injunction. As Dodson awaited a court’s decision on how all this would shake out, he got several texts from people he knew saying the white supremacists would be holding a rally at the rotunda, which is right in the middle of campus.

“I have no photo skills, but I grabbed a camera and headed over there,” he said. “I found two other reporters and we were all walking around together. Then we start getting pictures of people lighting tiki torches and walking around on campus… I called the other members of the staff and said, ‘How quickly can you get over here?'”

Staffers Alexis Gravel and Daniel Hoerauf arrived and everyone threw themselves into the mix, even as people were twirling torches and chanting. (News Editor Anna Higgins joined the group on Saturday as the team covered the events downtown.) Dodson said the staff members were not only working on telling stories but also watching out for each other as mob’s frenzy grew.

“I was looking down on (the crowd) from a balcony area and if there’s one word for it, it would be chaotic…” he said. “We knew there was a high potential for violence and we knew it was going to be a mess the next day.”

 

 

 

“Learn how to bullshit” (and other great tips to becoming better at journalism)

I often tell students that I don’t know everything (big surprise) but if I don’t know something, I’ll tell the students I don’t know it and then I’ll go ask people who do. This includes fact-based things such as what the GNP of Peru is in a given year and experience-based items such as how to get a difficult interview subject to loosen up.

This week, I asked a group of experienced journalists what they saw as the most important skills young journalists could pick up that go beyond what you read in a textbook (farther vs. further, how many words to put in a lead etc.). In reading through the answers, here are the themes that emerged:

  • Break out of your comfort zone: People often fail to differentiate among not liking something, not being able to do something and being uncomfortable doing something. I don’t like eating broccoli, but I am able to do it. It doesn’t make me uncomfortable, unless I’m eating it at a friend’s house and his wife or mother says, “So how do you like the broccoli?” and I am forced to lie: “It’s great!”
    I am unable to dunk a basketball. I would like to do it and it would not make me uncomfortable if I could do it. I just physically can’t propel my 5-foot-9, middle-age frame up to the edge of the rim and throw down.
    The point is that in most cases, we don’t like doing something because it makes us uncomfortable, so we say we can’t do it. The truth is, especially in journalism, the more you break out of your comfort zone, the more you will be able to do something because you will experience less discomfort in doing it. Or as one journalist recalled about a summer internship experience:

    I was asked if there was anything I didn’t like to do. I said man-on-the-street stuff. Guess what I did all summer long? It wasn’t punishment, it was a way to get over the bad habit of only talking to people who were paid to talk to me. So many young journos are afraid to cold-call or just go up to someone, and you just have to do it until it doesn’t suck as much or you stop caring about someone saying no or thinking you’re stupid.

  • Learn by doing: Even things you don’t mind doing aren’t always easy, but they become more natural if you practice them over and over again. This is a lot like playing a sport or a musical instrument: It’s easy for people to marvel at the end result when that’s all they see, but a ton of behind-the-scenes work went into making the performance incredible. Michael Jordan and LeBron James didn’t wake up at age 22 and become incredible basketball players just because they felt like it. Pavarotti didn’t nail every note in La boheme the first time he tried it.
    One of the biggest problems in media writing is that most people feel they’ve been writing their whole lives. They HAVE practiced repeatedly at this craft, so it becomes incredibly frustrating when this writing doesn’t come out as easily or flawlessly as the other writing they have done. The main problem with that is in the underlying assumption that all writing is the same. It’s not. This kind of writing requires different skills and alternative approaches, so it forces you to zig instead of zag. To draw from an earlier example, Michael Jordan was the best basketball player in the world in the early 1990s, but found that all those skills didn’t make him the best baseball player in the world.
    You need to practice on the field of your sport, so to speak. Or as a journalist with international experience put it:

    At the risk of making an overly obvious point, I’d recommend just writing as much as possible. Take the Ichiro-in-batting-practice approach and do as much work as you possibly can. I work with a fair number of young, recent grad writers, and I’m always amazed at the gulf between the ones who put in a lot of hours with their student paper and the ones who didn’t. The former are just so much sharper. With them, I’m working with a journalist, not someone who has written a bit and is trying to become a journalist.

  • Employ empathy: Either because we’ve all watched way too much TV or because we’re scared to death of doing interviews, the “helicopter” approach to interacting with sources can become our resting pulse. We want to fly over to a source, get in, get what we need and get out of there as fast as possible. A lot of this can be overcome with practice, as others mentioned earlier. However, it’s not just that practice makes perfect (or close to it), but perfect practice makes perfect. In other words, if you’re going to do it, you might as well do it right.
    This is where the issue of empathy comes in. If you see the person you are about to interview as basically a jar full of answers you need to open up and dig into, you’re going to have a lousy experience with the source. Instead, if you treat that person with dignity, respect and interest, you start to see the human being behind the story you need to tell. In turn, the source will start to see you as a human being as well, instead of a mosquito that is nothing more than a blood-sucking pest. As one sports journalist put it:

    When I first started, my trepidation in building sources is I didn’t know how to start the conversation. I can’t just walk up to an “off-limit source” I’ve never spoken to and expect them to answer a hard-hitting question. Start with what they did on summer vacation. Or if they have any plans for their upcoming down time… It breaks the ice and gets the source comfortable, because now they’re talking to a person, not a reporter. Wish I knew that when I first started.

    Or put more succinctly:

    Learn how to bullshit. Practice it.

Not every tip here will work in every situation and  you will likely find your own way through various experiences in the field. Some sources just want you to cut to the chase. Others will never like you no matter how much you effort you put into cultivating them and working with them. In some cases, no matter how much you practice, you will never come to like or enjoy certain aspects of the job. It’s all part of learning and developing skills.

Speaking of skill development, here’s something to consider from a journalist who has worked in print, web, blogs, PR and marketing. I didn’t know where to put, but I just couldn’t leave it out, so I guess I’ll end with it:

Learn to read upside down. Can’t tell you how many times that comes in handy.

Transferable Skills: Catching up with Eric Deutsch

In revamping the “Dynamics of Media Writing” book for a second edition, I had the opportunity to check back in with the professionals I interviewed for our “Professional Thoughts” segments in each chapter. It was great to get back in touch with everyone who was so generous with their time and to see how things were going in their neck of the woods.

One of the things I needed to explain better at the front of the book was why I chose these specific pros. A reviewer for the second edition asked why I didn’t get “famous” people or seek people at the upper echelon of “famous” publications. The reason was that these people all met a need that was much more valuable than those kinds of folks could have offered.

In each chapter, the pro had an expertise in something specific that attached itself to that area. Ashley Messenger, for example, now works as an attorney for National Public Radio, but she had also spent time as a sales rep and a radio talk-show host. Alex Hummel had worked for a newspaper, did public relations for a domestic-abuse-services organization and ran the integrated marketing and communications department for a university. In these cases, and every other one I picked, the person typified one of the underlying tenets of the book: The concept of transferable skills.

The media writing courses for which this book is meant will likely contain students from all areas and disciplines of media. Regardless of if you come to class as a PR student, an advertising major, a broadcaster or a print/web journalist, the core skills you learn will benefit you. In short, these skills will transfer from job to job, regardless of if you are selling soap or cleaning up city hall.

Eric Deutsch spent much of his early career in media as a radio reporter, a job he coveted since he was in high school. When that job was cut, he went into the PR sector and found that a lot of what made him great on the air also made him great working for the New York City Housing Authority. His work history and ability to move seamlessly between fields made him perfect for this book.

When I reached out to Eric this time, I found out he was still with the NYCHA, but he had taken on a much different job. I was worried that he might need to drop out of the book because of this. However, here’s what he had to say:

“I changed jobs shortly after the last version. Same agency, but very different department/position. (After reviewing what I said for the first edition), the incredible thing about it is how minimal the edits had to be, thus proving your whole point that these skills can transfer from one job to another!”

Score one for transferable skills.