This week we talked with the 2017 Outstanding Young Journalist of the Year Chris Suarez from the Daily Progress. Of Suarez’s work contest judges said, “Suarez’s stories are meticulously reported and clearly written, exhibiting skill beyond his years.”
Below, he talks about how it felt to win the award, how his belief that people need local news was reinforced after Aug. 12, the inspiration he receives from his fellow reporters at the Daily Progress and more.
To start, can you please introduce yourself and give us some personal and professional background info on yourself?
I was born in northern Virginia and grew up in Fairfax County. I attended Catholic schools there and spent a year at Northern Virginia Community College after graduating from high school in 2010. I then enrolled at Virginia Commonwealth University, where I graduated in December 2014 with a B.S. degree in Mass Communications with a concentration in Web/Print Journalism and minors in sociology and political science.
My interest in journalism started toward the end of elementary school. I used to really like reading and looking at magazines, and I always thought it would be neat to be a writer. Who wouldn’t want to be paid for writing about something they have an affinity for?
Later on, I grew more interested in politics and government. I used to work at a coffee shop in high school and would usually pick up a copy of The Washington Post whenever business was slow. I started thinking it would be cool to work for a newspaper. During college, I interned at RVA Magazine and GayRVA in 2013. About a year later, I covered the 2014 General Assembly session for Capital News Service and became a staff writer for The Commonwealth Times, the student-run newspaper at VCU. The Daily Progress hired me just a few weeks before I graduated.
How did it feel to win Outstanding Young Journalist for 2017?
It’s fantastic. I think I’m fortunate to be in Charlottesville right now. There’s a trove of interesting stories to tell about this city, particularly its history and how it’s urbanizing today. I think the traumatic events of this summer kind of eclipsed those narrative, however, so it’s bittersweet to be celebrating a personal triumph when there are people still recovering and figuring out how to move ahead.
I am feeling a bit of ‘imposter syndrome,’ to be honest. There are other very talented reporters in our newsroom and in this community who I think do great work that’s comparable or even better than what I normally produce. I talked about that with a friend recently. He told me I managed to ‘rise to the occassion’ and produce some really great stories last year. I feel fortunate to have a really good beat.
I would chalk it up to luck, but I think I’ve had great editors who have taught me so much in the three years I’ve been with the Progress. I’m proud of my colleagues, too. I sometimes see stories they did that effected a change or had a significant impact, and I think, ‘man, I want to do that. How can I make a difference?’ They inspire me every day to be a better journalist.
“Whenever you approach a story, ask yourself why it’s important and whether it will serve your audience or the general public. Why should they care and how might it impact their daily lives?”
You alluded to something in your response that I wanted to ask you about. How has your reporting changed since Aug. 12? Did writing those stories on that day, and in the rally’s aftermath, change you as a reporter in any way?
I’m not sure I know whether the way I do my job changed after last summer.
I believe there’s always room for improvement, but I think I found my groove before 2017 started and developed a good sense of self-confidence. Perhaps it steeled me and reinforced some of my good reporting habits.
The events of the summer certainly changed me on both a professional and personal level. In the lead up to the events of the summer, it became much more apparent to me that folks really look toward local news organizations to understand what is happening in times like these. There were a few interesting regional and national stories about Charlottesville ahead of the rallies, but those stories didn’t have the same immediacy, I think.
The other thing I found myself grappling with afterward was seeing how the events were portrayed in the national media. That’s not to say I objected to how it was reported. It was just bizarre to live in a place at the center of such a massive story. I never imagined the president would comment on an event I was covering — at least not this soon in my career. How I see myself as a professional and as a resident of this city changed in a profound way.
So the events of last summer kind of reinforced the importance of local reporting to you? How did your perception of yourself as a reporter change after covering those stories?
Absolutely. I think what changed is I don’t necessarily see myself as a fly on the wall when I’m doing my job. What I write does have an impact on how people perceive events, topics and other people. That’s a tremendous responsibility, so I have a deeper appreciation of it now.
I know it might sound ironic to suggest I ever thought otherwise, but there’s no way you can remain even remotely anonymous. There’s no way you can do this job the right way without being out there and making yourself slightly vulnerable.
Do you approach all your stories in the same way, or do you use different approaches for different stories? What is your goal with each story you write, whether its about the Aug. 12 rally or a Kmart shutting down?
Obviously, there are time and space constraints for each story. I try to show care for every story I write, though, whether it be meeting event coverage or a story about an ongoing issue or development. The ultimate goal is to inform and serve readers
What advice do you have for young reporters?
Whenever you approach a story, ask yourself why it’s important and whether it will serve your audience or the general public. Why should they care and how might it impact their daily lives? Think about purpose. Also, get to know the people on your beat. Make phone calls and meet with sources or officials whenever possible — don’t over rely on email and press releases.
Follow Suarez on Twitter: @Suarez_CM
Read his stories here.