Learning to fly
The Cavalier Daily must find its niche among other local papers
How many times have you found yourself stuck in the class-transition time crowd, moving slower than students leaving the Corner at 2 a.m. on a Friday? Have you ever, in that moment, looked up toward the sky, your destination tantalizingly in sight, and felt that distinct desire for the ability to fly? All that unoccupied space right above you — and no way whatsoever to use it. Frustrating, isn’t it?
That delectable empty space represents the unoccupied niche. Or, at least, less occupied — after all, how many I-66 skyways full of restless honking birds do you see? And, in evolutionary terms, finding the unoccupied niche is the Darwinian goal: filling that niche means survival. Each of us, like any animal emerging into its food web, must search for that empty space waiting to be claimed and used for something new.
For The Cavalier Daily, identifying and occupying this niche underpins the success of the paper: produced entirely by students, the paper must exude at once the courage demanded by its impressive history and the humility appropriate to a university publication. It must weave itself into the gaps of UVa Today, The Daily Progress, and C-Ville Weekly, avoiding simple repetition.
Margaret Sullivan, public editor for the New York Times, wrote an intriguing post to this idea (“What Front-Page Choices Say About The Times’s Priorities,” Feb. 20).
Comparing four major metropolitan newspapers, she praises the Times’ audience-targeting. I quote her column here and urge The Cavalier Daily to consider this as a mission statement for itself: “‘It’s not a move away from hard news, but more about something that is ‘only in The New York Times,’” [Dean Baquet] said. ‘It has more to do with … a sophisticated reader. you can’t get away with giving that reader something they’re already aware of, unless you bring analysis or a different approach.’”
So, that begs the question: how can The Cavalier Daily cater to its audience in a way that shouts “only in The Cavalier Daily”? We’ve seen some strong examples. Opinion editor Katherine Ripley demonstrates an appealing method in her column (“Print culture,” Feb. 28) in which she bounces off a USA Today article, applying it directly to the University. Such an approach recognizes something The Cavalier Daily should prioritize: drawing the University out of its bubble. Andrew Elliot’s article (“University ID system leaves students vulnerable,” Feb. 3) also hits target for a neat investigation unique to The Cavalier Daily.
The news section presents the most difficult challenge. The University’s honor debate made every local paper — as it should have. But while other papers can slide by covering the “what,” The Cavalier Daily has the unique responsibility of reporting the “how” and the “why.” Compare C-Ville Weekly’s “UVA grapples with how to reform its embattled Honor Code” and The Daily Progress’ “Overhaul proposed for honor system” to The Cavalier Daily’s detailed tracking of the debate. A pleasing inclusion among these was Kaelyn Quinn’s article (“FOIA request targets Honor,” Feb. 28). Not only does it flesh out the event itself; it investigates a unique moment of student investment. Every paper quoted Honor Committee chair Stephen Nash; it’s The Cavalier Daily’s job to report the lesser-known, yet distinctive voices of its audience.
On this note, pay attention to the psychological effect one word can have. The phrase “students approve” in the headline “Students approve informed retraction” (Mar. 3), while technically true, rings of a colloquial use that raises the hackles of the more than 3,000 students not in favor of the changes. This wording risks an unintended negative sentiment wherein the paper seems to make an unfair generalization. Consider the difference of something like “Vote to add informed retraction passes.” Filling this particular niche requires rigorous attention toaudience perception: students need to feel they are being fairly represented to an outside community.
I will offer one final warning: an unfortunate tendency of trying to stand with the greats is to feel a need to focus on the negative. Scan through recent headlines: how many offer bad news versus good? Covering the problems of our time is important, sure, but not to the sacrifice of the positive. The University is an amazing place with people achieving amazing things. Find student organizations holding ambitious events, students using their academics to make an impact. Good news goes viral.
I, too, stand to fill a specific niche: as public editor, it is my job to bridge the gap between you, the University population, and the paper that synthesizes and amplifies your collective voice. As a double Hoo with a foot in almost every area of University life, I understand what Hoos want. And you can help this paper learn to fly: send me your questions and constructive comments. I promise to broadcast your voice.
Ashley Stevenson is The Cavalier Daily’s public editor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.