Highs and lows

The Cavalier Daily has a niche it needs to take advantage of to produce good journalism

This is my last column for The Cavalier Daily. I’ve been the paper’s ombudsman for more than four years, offering critiques and advice to the staff and trying to explain journalism to readers. Most of the time, I’ve tried to cut the staff some slack. First of all, they’re not exactly overpaid. They aren’t paid at all, actually. It’s hard to be hard on volunteers. More than that, they’re students. They’re learning about journalism in a very public way.

The Cavalier Daily staff has produced some really good work, the kind that informs readers and wins awards. They’ve also turned out some really bad stuff. It’s interesting to me that what’s probably the best work I’ve seen from The Cavalier Daily and what’s certainly the worst happened so close together.

Last March, the Managing Board wrote and published an editorial about what turned out to be not a fundraiser for the One Love Foundation. It was horrible. Insensitive. And not even accurate. At the time, I wrote that the paper had “clearly failed in its responsibility to fairness, to accuracy, to decency and to its community.”

Matt Cameron, The Cavalier Daily’s editor-in-chief back then, admitted it was bad journalism. “Basic reporting was neglected in the rush to get the editorial into print,” Cameron said in an email, “and I think the lesson we take away from this is that it would be better to withhold publication for a day or two if that’s what it takes to get the facts right.”

It was a very low point.

Then came the summer and the tragic farce of the Board of Visitors’ failed scheme to end Teresa Sullivan’s term as the University’s president.

Though it was summer, when the paper’s staff and production are reduced, The Cavalier Daily’s tweets and The Cavalier Daily’s website were the best sources for information about what was happening.

Then it got better. The Cavalier Daily used Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act to get emails from, to and among members of the Board of Visitors that turned out to be very revealing. George Orwell said journalism means publishing something that someone doesn’t want published. The Cavalier Daily’s coverage of the Board of Visitors’ debacle was very good journalism done very well.

In November, Matt Cameron accepted an award from the Virginia Coalition for Open Government for the staff’s work on that story. The coalition described it this way: “The staff of the Cavalier Daily, the student paper at the University of Virginia, was quick to file FOIA requests for emails and records that would help shed light on the abrupt resignation of the school’s president forced by just a small number of members on the powerful Board of Visitors. The emails became the ‘smoking gun’ that brought the campus to a frenzy of protest and intensified the political pressure that forced the Board into retreat.”

It was old school journalism, being on the scene, asking questions, finding and using documents. But it was delivered with new tools. That’s part of a big trend in journalism, of course. BH Media Group, part of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, has been buying newspapers, most recently in Greensboro, N.C. In the story reporting its own sale, the Greensboro News & Record quoted Terry Kroeger, the president and CEO of BH Media, saying that readers want their news by computer, smartphone and iPad, so BH Media plans to deliver news that way.

But Buffett is an old school guy. He doesn’t go in for trendy stuff. Though BH Media plans to use what old journalists still call new media, Buffett and his company see newspapers’ value rooted in very old school values. Here’s how the News & Record explained it:

“For several years, experts have said the survivors among newspapers likely would be local papers that are strongly involved in their communities.

Kroeger said that newspapers in the largest cities — Los Angeles, Chicago, New York — are complicated operations with dozens of smaller communities to cover.

The News & Record is focused on Guilford and Rockingham counties, and BH Media expects to keep that focus and make it even sharper.

‘It’s all about content,” Kroeger said. “We think this kind of marketplace really fits that model well.’”

Focus. Focus on a small, well-defined community. That’s what The Cavalier Daily is doing, focusing on the community on Grounds, serving that community as well as the staff can do it. No doubt, that staff will fall short from time to time. But they’ll also do surprisingly well sometimes, too.

I only hope people appreciate what they have in The Cavalier Daily, a bunch of bright, hard-working, flawed students serving their community and demonstrating in a unique way the power and the potential of student self-governance and the value of a free and sometimes irritating press.

Tim Thornton is the ombudsman for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at ombud@cavalierdaily.com.

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