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Journalists know the feeling – that once-in-a-lifetime rush you get when the story you’re working on is big. REALLY big. And important. REALLY important.
Gabriel Dance had that feeling in 2013 while working for Guardian U.S., the web-only American branch of iconic British newspaper The Guardian. Dance, a CSU alumnus (B.S., Computer Science, B.A., Technical Journalism, ’04) who calls himself an interactive journalist, was on the team that helped break down the explosive story of the National Security Agency’s surveillance practices.
Dance and his team spent nearly three months gathering and breaking down information for “NSA Files: Decoded.” The story, which included groundbreaking use of video and graphics, won a Pulitzer Prize.
“It was an amazing and intense experience,” Dance said. “It was a ton of work and very stressful, but it was also exhilarating. I hope it’s not the story of my career, but if it is I would be always proud of what we created.”
Dance, now managing editor for the nonprofit Marshall Project, said journalism has been forced to evolve. With his computer science and journalism degrees from CSU, Dance was one of the few reporters ready for the challenge when the digital world forever changed traditional journalism.
The habits of those looking for news have changed, too. Traditional printed newspapers have experienced rapidly declining circulation as the public gravitates toward free online news sites that provide more immediate and in-depth coverage.
“I still receive the New York Times Sunday edition at home – it makes me feel good – but I get most of my news from Facebook now,” said Rosa Martey, an assistant professor of journalism at CSU. “Facebook is a place where I know I’ll find interesting news – but it’s also mixed in with baby pictures and stories about what people had for breakfast.”
Martey said CSU is committed to keeping up with the ever-changing world of journalism, and recently added graduate and Ph.D. programs. CSU will continue to emphasize reporting skills, but current students already are comfortable with modern communications.
“Once you free yourself from the medium you can focus more on the content and the way you tell your story,” she said. “That’s modern journalism, and it will continue to evolve in that way.”
One significant problem: Traditional media outlets did not evolve as quickly as the technology that has made reporting so much more immediate and vivid. As a result, some newspapers have shut down completely. Others continue to trim their reporting staffs – particularly of higher-paid but more experienced journalists – in an effort to keep their financial heads above water.
The byproduct of the cutbacks is less coverage of local news – traditionally the bread-and-butter for newspapers and local TV.
“Let’s say someone is polluting the Poudre River,” said Steven Outing (B.A., Technical Journalism ’78), who describes himself as a media futurist and digital news consultant. “If there aren’t enough journalists, who covers that story? That’s where citizen journalism comes in. Most people carry smartphones these days, which means we’re essentially carrying a multimedia device in our pockets. Once citizens report things they’ve seen or experienced, traditional reporters can pick up the story and take it from there.”
Dance, who was an original member of the New York Times digital media team, said journalists are just beginning to understand how to best utilize new platforms in their storytelling.
“Your quiver has so many more story-telling arrows than before,” he said”
Still, the basics of good journalism – careful reporting, interesting story lines and accuracy – are very important. Even though everyday people can start the ball rolling when it comes to reporting a story, thoughtful journalism still gives the story credibility.
And writing – the most basic of journalistic platforms – remains as relevant today as it was when the first printed newspapers appeared in the early 17th century. Dance points to “NSA Files: Decoded” as an example of a story that is enhanced by digital tools but anchored by compelling writing.
“The ability to leverage all of the digital storytelling tools – from video to photography to graphics – is coming to be seen by all news organizations as a much more robust way to tell stories,” Dance said. “I don’t mean to infer in any way that writing is inferior – it remains by far the best way to tell stories. If I had to choose one I would almost always choose writing. The good news is that you don’t have to choose one. That’s what makes the future so exciting.”