When the head of one of North Carolina’s largest and most tech-savvy news organizations speaks up about the role of the Internet in the newsroom, people tend to notice.
While taking one of his scarce breaks during the final week of publication for the semester, Daily Tar Heel Editor in Chief Andrew Dunn shot off a reflective tweet to his more than 1,500 followers:
andrew_dunn: I’m going to put something out there: I think new reporters should be forbidden from using the Internet for research.
It was a bold statement. It’s also influential, considering the fact that Dunn is one of hundreds of college newsroom managers responsible for some of the first and best training American journalists receive.
You can debate the pros, cons and more cons of journalism school all day long, but at the end of the day, you’re writing, shooting or editing for one person — a professor. In the college newsroom — whether it’s print, radio, or television — you’re writing for thousands.
The value there is clear. And Dunn seems to agree.
When I caught up with him over the phone Friday afternoon, he said he was cognizant of the important role college newsrooms play in training budding journalists.
“We pride ourselves on the fact that we’re going to give you a better journalism education than a journalism class,” Dunn said. “We’re more like a learning lab that produces a product that brings in $1.4 million a year.”
Given the Internet-loving demographic on Twitter, responses to Dunn’s tweet were pretty diverse.
Some agreed and retweeted. Others wanted to know more:
To the hilarious:
“It seems like a lot of journalists are latching onto skills that young people are expected to know,” Dunn said. “The old-school shoeleather reporting skills may get lost in the shuffle.”
But Dunn said he doesn’t want to teach reporters that the Internet is a bad thing. The key is how to use it responsibly.
“I was trying to draw attention to using the Internet as a crutch,” Dunn said. “The Internet is a great tool, but I want to make sure we use it as a tool.”
One of Dunn’s concerns is that reporters may become too dependent on Internet research and social networking and fail to accurately reflect what’s happening on campus. That concern has grown even more acute among the staff as the DTH plans to move from its office in the student union to a new location half a mile away.
But Dunn says he thinks the move will force staff members to get out to campus more often instead of assuming they have their fingers on the pulse of readers.
“Every edition of the [college] newspaper should show you are in the middle of campus,” Dunn said.
Contrary to popular belief, the use of the Internet and social media can definitely help in that regard. A recent study by the Internet and American Life Project found that “Internet use in general and use of social networking services such as Facebook in particular are associated with having a more diverse social network.” That diversity of sources is even more likely for the college journalist, who can count on a largely homogeneous and relatively tech-savvy readership.
But the danger comes when they take those digital skills out into the larger populace, where they may lose sight of the offline forest for the wired trees. After all, more than 25 percent of the U.S. population doesn’t use the Internet.
College is the time to learn the balance between skills in new media and traditional reporting, and it’s imperative for editors like Dunn to constantly reexamine how those skills are put into practice.
“I don’t want to tell people that the Internet is bad,” Dunn said. “I think it’s important to teach reporters both sides of it.”