This week we talked with higher education and health reporter for the Daily Progress, Ruth Smith.
Smith talks about what makes higher education a unique beat, how she works with reluctant sources to help them understand their perspective is valuable, how the Unite the Right Rally changed the every-day life of journalists in Charlottesville and more.
Please introduce yourself.
I’m currently the health and higher education reporter for the Daily Progress in Charlottesville. I’ve been passionate about higher education coverage since I covered graduate student and anti-racist protests at the University of Missouri in 2015. My husband and I met at Mizzou and I’m a proud graduate of the School of Journalism. I’m originally from Oklahoma City.
Covering higher education in Charlottesville sounds like a tall order considering the weight that UVa carries. How do you see higher-ed reporting differing from other beats in the newsroom?
It’s practically a bit different, in that there are fewer board meetings and a lot of departments, events and administrators to keep track of. UVa is also very determined to preserve a particular brand and has implemented a big press office that I sometimes butt heads with.
Education beats are sometimes looked down-upon as fluffy and feature-heavy, but I see mine as an important chance to hold a big institution accountable. I use FOIA a lot and, because there are fewer meetings and less public signaling of plans, I depend on sources to help me know when issues arise.
More importantly, many of the people on Grounds every day — students and faculty are transient and not necessarily invested in the school as an institution. Some employees also feel like UVa ignores them and community issues. It can sometimes be difficult to help sources understand why I want to know about their work and projects and concerns and, conversely, it can be tough to convince readers that those concerns matter.
My goal is to help people affected by the university, whether students, staff, faculty, neighbors, alumni or taxpayers, understand what it’s up to, how it’s using their time and money, and how they can make their voices heard if they disagree with those investments. Even if the UVa sources don’t subscribe to the Daily Progress and won’t live here long, I want to help them understand the role of the press in an engaged public.
How do you try and make a source understand why you want to talk to them and why their perspective is valuable to a given story?
Sometimes it’s just news; “This just happened and I want to learn more about it.”
Sometimes, though, I try to give an explanation of why I’m interested — that I see their voice as a new perspective, or think they can answer an interesting question, or that their research or teaching or activism offers a solution to a problem. Once people understand why I’m interested, they’re typically willing to talk. It also gives people a chance to push back and let me know if they think I’m approaching a story from a bad angle.
Do you think the job of being a journalist in Charlottesville changed after the Aug. 12 Unite the Right Rally (A12)?
That’s a great question. It’s important to say that I started working here right after A12, so I only really know the aftermath. We don’t see our actual job as being different— the ethics and rules are still the same.
But the events changed the everyday life of journalists here, sure. There are massive divisions in Charlottesville about A12 — who felt affected, who thinks it’s connected to bigger problems, and who thinks it’s time to move on. How do we cover that discussion and underlying issues in a helpful and healthy way while remaining objective?
Then there’s safety. Some journalists here are on an Antifa List, which is kind of a joke, sure, but still unsettling. You just work through it, but it sucks to read vile comments about your reporting online or get threatened outside of a courthouse. I take safety a lot more seriously than I did before I worked here.
“…The events (on A12) changed the everyday life of journalists here, sure. There are massive divisions in Charlottesville about A12 — who felt affected, who thinks it’s connected to bigger problems, and who thinks it’s time to move on. How do we cover that discussion and underlying issues in a helpful and healthy way while remaining objective?”
I wanted to ask you about your newsletter, “In Other Words,” which focuses on higher education. Do you think it has helped generate an audience for your reporting and allowed you to present your voice in a different way?
Yes, definitely. Several people have told me they have subscribed because of the newsletter and I have gotten more questions and engagement from readers since starting it. It’s more accessible than reading a newspaper. Many more people care about UVa than read the Daily Progress or subscribe to it, so I want to give them some news about UVa but also encourage them to read and subscribe to the newspaper! It’s worked great.
What are some other ways you think newspapers can connect what they do to a larger, more robust, audience? What role do you see reporters playing in that?
Newspapers historically did have a large audience, but it was chipped away by bad platforms, a proliferation of other outlets and campaigns of misinformation and mistrust. I don’t think all of those changes are bad — I think more ways to receive new and more attention to equity and diversity are great! — but many people don’t get news on a print newspaper’s terms anymore and don’t realize that print journalists are also writing and producing content online. I think reporters can play a role in regaining audience and deepening engagement by reminding readers of the people and process behind the news and remaining true to the basic ethics and practice of journalism.
“I think reporters can play a role in regaining audience and deepening engagement by reminding readers of the people and process behind the news and remaining true to the basic ethics and practice of journalism.”
Do you prefer writing or reporting more? What’s your process look like with a bigger story from its beginning to its end?
I like both. I know that’s not a real answer, but my two favorite parts of working on a story are realizing I have an answer to a question and realizing I have enough material to craft it into an awesome lede and can see the narrative shape of a story.
Longer stories are just filling in more pieces of that. I keep lots of lists and post it notes. I try to plan out records requests and try to blanket a lot of sources to make sure I’m getting a variety of views. I usually end up starting a draft when I’m halfway through reporting to make sure I’m making progress on answering my story’s inherent question, and then rewrite that story multiple times as I get more information.
Why does narrative matter to you in news writing?
Everyone is drawn to a story!
What’s one thing a story has to have to grab you as a reader and as a writer?
A story has to have a compelling central narrative and a compelling central character. Anything that helps me understand what makes a person tick. I’m also a big fan of wacky history pieces.
What has kept you wanting to work in newspapers?
I really love getting to do something different every day, getting to talk to all types of people, and feeling like I’m working in the public interest. As long as those things are true, I want to stick with it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.