Pulitzer Prize-winning Daily alum discuss diversity and tech in journalism

George Hastings, a retired judge, speaks alongside distinguished Michigan Daily alumni speak in Rackham Auditorium on Friday.

George Hastings, a retired judge, speaks alongside distinguished Michigan Daily alumni speak in Rackham Auditorium on Friday. Buy this photo
Robert Buechler/Daily

 

Sunday, September 17, 2017 - 3:44pm

Alumni of The Michigan Daily, several of whom are Pulitzer Prize winners, participated in panels on sports journalism’s role in the 21st century, diversity for women and minorities in the newsroom, alternative career paths from a journalism background and the role of student publications Friday afternoon in Rackham Auditorium. About 200 students, faculty and University of Michigan alumni attended the panels throughout the day. 

Celebrating its 127th year of operation, the Daily invited alumni back to campus for a weekend of reunion and reminiscing about their past Daily experiences. Many former Daily staff members pointed to the recent digitization of University newspapers from the past 125 years by the Bentley Historical Library as a way to connect with the history of the Daily, the University and the world.

The event was co-sponsored by the University’s Office of Student Publications and Wallace House, home of the Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellowship and The Livingston Awards for Young Journalists.

Lisa Powers, event coordinator and Student Publications Development /Alumni Relations Director, said the panel and weekend sought to connect alumni with current students and forge relationships over a mutual respect for the Daily.

“I wanted to bring as many alumni and students together and celebrate everything that makes the Daily relevant and past, present and future, it all comes together,” Powers said. “We want our alumni events and our student recognition to happen at the same time whenever possible so this was an opportunity to do that.”

A discussion on sports journalism and how the genre has changed with the introduction and widespread usage of social media kicked off the panel series. Moderated by Leba Hertz, the arts and entertainment editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, the panel featured prominent figures in sports media, more recent University graduates and Laney Byler, current Daily senior sports editor.

Ken Davidoff, sports journalist for the New York Post, said he leans heavily on Twitter for his work and it forces normally long-winded journalists to be concise and direct with their reporting.

“I think tweeting is an art form,” Davidoff said. “I love tweeting. I’m all about brevity and efficiency … I think anyone who tweets twice in a row should pay a fine. Anything you can’t communicate in 140 characters on Twitter is not worth communicating. I think social media has made me a better writer because it’s made me more efficient.”

With the increased amount of social media in sports journalism comes the added price of gender discrimination from behind a screen according to Shannon Lynch, recent alum and social media coordinator at MLB.com. She said women are still highly scrutinized in sports journalism, especially in the digital age due to increased anonymity online.

“I think it’s no secret that women on Twitter who work in sports are a target of a different kind of hatred and misunderstanding I would say,” Lynch said. “The internet unfortunately gives people that platform to say whatever they feel without dealing with the consequences of it.”

Byler echoed Lynch’s statements as a panelist and said some individuals online have questioned her coverage because she is a woman reporting on sports.

“I definitely think there is a little bit of extra (pressure),” Byler said. “We have to prove ourselves a little bit more. … People would tweet ‘Are you sure? Are you sure you know what you’re talking about?’ and yes, I do. I know as much as the next person, but there is that little bit of skepticism.”

The following panel, featuring three Pulitzer Prize winners, expanded upon Lynch’s and Byler’s comments on women in sports and focused on diversity for women and underrepresented minorities in journalism today.

Eugene Robinson, columnist at the Washington Post and MSNBC commentator, was co-editor in chief of the Daily in 1973. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2009 for his columns on the election of former President Barack Obama. He also currently serves on the Pulitzer Prize Board.

According to the American Society of News Editors 2016 Diversity Survey, 17 percent of the workforce in newsrooms are minority journalists. The same survey reported about 33 percent of newsroom employees are women. Robinson said he has seen the entire arc of newsroom diversity in his career, from being one of the first four African-American reporters at the Post to seeing the recent dip in newsroom diversity even at the Post.

“Things got a lot better and now they’re starting to get worse,” Robinson said. “If you look at the (Washington Post’s) overall numbers, in terms of minorities, the Post newsroom is something like 31 percent minority, which is a lot better than it appears right now. However, if you look at our masthead, it’s way whiter and more male than it was just a few years ago and I think that is true when you look around at who’s running the various sections.”

Lisa Pollak, former Daily news editor, won the 1997 Pulitzer for Feature Writing while writing for The Baltimore Sun for her story on a baseball umpire whose son died of a genetic disease. She said journalists miss stories without adequate diversity and she is still seeing the same issues with a lack of minority representation in journalism today as she was when she was on staff at the Daily in the late ’80s.

“I’m struck by how 30 years ago at the Daily, we were talking at the Daily about how to increase the number of non-white students who were on staff and everywhere I’ve worked, I feel like in 30 years, at newspapers and public radio or a startup, it is the same problem and that is not what I would have expected and it’s unfortunate,” Pollak said.

Ann Marie Lipinski, co-editor in chief of the Daily in 1977 and curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, was part of the team at The Chicago Tribune that was awarded a Pulitzer in 1988 for Investigative Reporting on issues of self-interest in Chicago’s city council. She said while it is possible to reprimand specific instances of sexism and racism in articles and in the newsroom, the larger systemic issues of diversity are difficult to change.

“I think it’s easier, in a lot of ways, for people to get fired or suspended, and I’ve seen that in newsrooms for particularly egregious activities or comments, but I think the more fundamental issues are so much harder to solve and that is why haven’t we built newsrooms that are capable of embracing the full range of diversity,” Lipinski said.

Robert Yoon, a current Knight-Wallace Fellow and former CNN political journalist, said we must start with reforming applicant pools so we can both hire qualified candidates and improve diversity.

“From my experience in the TV world, a lot of the issue comes down to recruitment, not if you’re considering hiring people of color or women for positions but if you don’t have an applicant pool that’s diverse, chances are you’re not going to pick a fine candidate who is someone from a diverse background so it’s a step that has to work upstream,” Yoon said.

The third panel featured former Daily journalists who altered their career paths from straight journalism but used the skills they polished in the newsroom to be successful in their new fields. Some positions included producing documentaries and films and economics positions.

Robert Shiller, economist and American Nobel Laureate, participated in the panel and said the Daily’s commitment to finding the facts and uncovering the truth helped him with his future work as an economist and taught him he didn’t have to pick one career path for the rest of his life.

“My history with the Daily stems from a panic when I reached my second year that I had to decide on a major which struck me as the end of all of my fancies,” Shiller said. “I had to pick one thing and I didn’t want to do that. … The Daily has changed my life even though I was a minor figure but I did enough of it.”

Featuring a representative from seven decades of the Daily, four of whom were Pulitzer Prize winners, the final panel looked back on the Daily’s history and pondered what the future of student publications will consist of. When asked what the defining story of their decade at the Daily, the panelists cited the announcement of the Polio vaccine, the beginning of the Teach-In protest movement, President Nixon resigning after the Watergate scandal, the University Code of Conduct implementation in the ’80s, student protests of the University’s investments in South Africa, the 9/11 terror attacks and the #BBUM viral movement as instrumental to the history of the paper.

Dan Biddle, who won a Pulitzer in 1987 for Investigative Reporting on “transgressions of justice in the Philadelphia courts,” recalled seeing fellow panelist Roger Rapoport’s portrait in the newsroom with the caption “He got a Regent” written in orange grease pencil below the picture, in reference to Rapoport’s work on exposing corruption in the Board of Regents during his tenure on staff in the ’60s. Biddle said the Daily continues to be successful and train amazing journalists and people because of the former students who cared about the Daily’s legacy.

“A great thing about the Daily is that you always stand on the shoulders of people who came before and built this great tradition,” Biddle said.