Making the news

The Cavalier Daily was correct not to cover a news story outside of its journalistic purview.

Newspapers, individually and as an industry, have done some stupid things.

Way back in the day, USA Today set a trend, limiting the length of stories and prohibiting them from jumping from one page to another; substituting factoids, briefs, charts and graphs for actual stories; adding lots of color and weather maps and big photos. Virtually every newspaper in the United States that could afford to do it copied the style. They were trying — really, people said this — to make newspapers look more like television. And they were just like television except for the motion, the sound and the immediacy. It was like marrying the shallowness of bad television reporting with the sluggish delivery required by the print and delivery processes of dead-tree newspaper production. And people wondered why readership fell.

When the Internet came along, many newspapers recognized it as an information superhighway to the future and rushed to join in. Only they rarely had the expertise to make much of a site. They did not know anything about audio or video or the new medium, so they used what some folks called shovelware, shoveling the contents of their papers onto the web exactly as it had appeared in the paper — except when some glitch made it look worse or made it incomplete. And they wondered why readership fell.

They did not charge for the service, such as it was, and they wondered why this new whizbang medium was not making any money.

Papers have withdrawn reporters from coverage areas, trading on-the-ground observation for the kind of parachute reporting that sends a reporter to a town only when there is some big disaster or scandal. And they did it in community after community in what the papers’ bosses used to call the publications’ “core coverage area.” And they wondered why readership in those communities fell.

A friend of mine recently told me the joke in his newsroom now is the paper’s core coverage area is whatever they can see from the newsroom window.

Newspapers also have a habit of following whatever salacious and sensational story comes along. No matter that the paper has nothing to add to the story. No matter that the sensational story is in a place or on a beat the paper hardly notices. If it is the big juicy story of the moment, the paper has to jump in. That is not really reporting. It is a waste of resources.

So here is some tentative praise to The Cavalier Daily for something it did not do.

Albemarle County Supervisor Chris Dumler has been charged with forcible sodomy. Dumler is — or was — a rising political star. He got a law degree from the University’s law school. Some people wonder why The Cavalier Daily has not written about the case. Conspiracy theorists being what they are, some are probably convinced it is because Dumler is a Democrat and all media is biased in favor of Democrats. Others may think The Cavalier Daily is ignoring the Dumler story out of deference to the powers at the University and the University’s spin machine.


Or maybe the paper does not usually write about Albemarle County government, does not have much of value to add to the story and the paper’s management does not think chasing the story would be an effective use of resources.

Here is what Joseph Liss, the senior news associate, whose beat comes closest to the Dumler story wrote in an email: “As City Council beat reporter, I have some familiarity with City functions, services and personalities, but I have done no previous reporting on nor had any previous interaction with the Board of Supervisors save one story last semester about a large sum of money given by the County of Albemarle to the City of Charlottesville annually that a legislator was attempting to do away with via state budget and taxation law. Consequently, the more reasoned course of action was to avoid the rehashing of the story lines of the Daily Progress, NBC 29, Newsplex and others in order to cover more news that is more interesting to and more applicable to students, staff and faculty around the University.”

That makes some sense.

A quick search for Liss’ byline turned up an Albemarle County story — Donald Trump’s purchase of what used to be John Kluge’s mansion. According to the story, Kluge donated $63 million and nearly 7,400 acres to the University, which gives the story a connection to Grounds. But Dumler is connected to the University, too. The paper should be checking to see if anything in Dumler’s time at the University has any connection to the case. If Dumler has made significant contributions to the University or if he has been a frequent speaker on Grounds, readers of The Cavalier Daily should know. The Cavalier Daily should not be ignoring the story altogether, but if all the paper can do is rehash what other media are reporting, spending time on other topics is not such a bad idea.

Tim Thornton is the ombudsman of The Cavalier Daily.

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