Q&A: Tim Dodson, The Cavalier Daily

By | 2018-12-06T13:14:31+00:00 December 5th, 2018|

It’s always great to talk with young journalists and editors and that’s what we did this week. Our Q&A is with Tim Dodson, editor-in-chief for the Cavalier Daily at the University of Virginia. Dodson has had bylines for Charlottesville Tomorrow and the Richmond Times-Dispatch. 

In the interview, Dodson talks about running the Cavalier Daily, what he says when people ask him why he’s in journalism, majoring in newspaper and more.

To start, please introduce yourself and tell us a little about where you work, what you do there and how long you’ve been at it.

I’m Tim Dodson, the editor-in-chief of The Cavalier Daily, the student newspaper at the University of Virginia. We publish a print edition each week and update our website daily, and we’re also the oldest news publication in Charlottesville — we were founded in 1890 under the name “College Topics.”

I’ve lived in Charlottesville my entire life, but UVA presented an amazing opportunity and I’ve been fortunate to be here for undergrad, where I’m double majoring in media studies and government. I did not anticipate I would become heavily involved in journalism and joined The Cavalier Daily as a way to make friends my first semester of college. However, I soon found myself immersed in a group of people passionate about serving the university community and was bit by the “news bug.”  I started as a news writer and over my three-and-a-half years on the paper, I’ve gone on to serve as our news editor, managing editor and editor-in-chief.

This past summer, I worked as a breaking news intern at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and before that I reported for Charlottesville Tomorrow over two summers, where I mostly focused on land use and development-related issues.

I work part-time at Monticello Media, a radio station group in Charlottesville. I’ll be graduating this coming May and I’m still figuring out my next steps.

What do you tell people when they ask why as a younger person you would want to work in newspapers (and journalism in general)? I’m sure it’s a question you’ve fielded at least a couple times.  

What I love about journalism is that you’re doing something new pretty much every day, whether that’s tackling a breaking story, covering a community event or working on a longer-term project. Reporters get paid to be curious and learn new things, which I think is a pretty good deal.

That said, the newspaper industry is obviously changing and there’s a lot of uncertainty about how the news business will evolve and become sustainable. My hope is that journalism’s core mission of community service will survive these shifts (and that reporters will be properly compensated for their work).Cav

As editor in chief of a college newspaper, what are some challenges that you feel are exclusive just to student newspapers? How do deal with them?

The biggest challenge for a student newspaper is the turnover. While a large number of our staff returns each semester, we are constantly bringing new folks on to our team and members of the paper graduate each spring. We also elect new editors to lead our staff each year, so there’s frequent changes in the leadership as well. This is a great opportunity to bring in fresh perspectives, but because most editors won’t serve for more than a year or two, we can also face some obstacles with limited institutional memory and difficulty planning long-term projects that take a number of years to implement.

It’s essential that we have a strong transition process for the paper’s leadership, so after our annual staff elections each December, we take about a month for editors to train their successors, who start in mid-January.

The other challenge is that we are student journalists. Most of The Cavalier Daily’s staff members are full-time students, so we’re balancing the responsibilities of our course loads and running a news publication. There isn’t an easy solution to dealing with this, but I generally recommend people carve out time in their schedules specifically for school work and hold themselves to that. We also try to set up assignments and deadlines to work with reporters’ course schedules, and most of our editing and production routines take place in the evenings so that staff members can attend classes and get their school work done during the day.

“…Who has a voice and who doesn’t? Who operates in positions of privilege and what systemic barriers prevent people from engaging with government? What is the role of media in all this? These are some of the kinds of questions we need to be grappling with as journalists thinking about how we can best serve our communities.

UVA doesn’t have a traditional journalism department. How do you think what you study plays into your work as a journalist?

That’s correct — UVA does not have any sort of formal J-School or department. I jokingly tell people I’m “majoring in Cav Daily” because the CD is essentially the journalism program at UVA (although we are financially and editorially independent of the University).

As a media studies and government double major, I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about how people communicate — whether that’s politicians speaking to voters or members of the public showing up at a meeting and voicing their concerns. My coursework has also pushed me to think more critically about power in our society — who has a voice and who doesn’t? Who operates in positions of privilege and what systemic barriers prevent people from engaging with government? What is the role of media in all this?

These are some of the kinds of questions we need to be grappling with as journalists thinking about how we can best serve our communities. This means we need to do our best to bring diverse perspectives into our newsrooms and our stories. It also means that we need to be willing to tell truths about our communities that may be uncomfortable to people who hold power or are comfortable with the status quo.

What’s an example of a story you’ve done that got at an uncomfortable truth in the coverage area, whether in Charlottesville or Richmond?  

I haven’t done as much writing in my editing roles for the CD, but one project we worked on this fall that I’m proud of was a three-part series on the experiences of Hispanic/Latinx students at UVA and some of the challenges they’ve encountered at the University. UVA has taken important steps to create a more diverse student body, but students from minority communities were telling us that the University has failed to provide them with some of the resources and faculty mentorship that they need in order to truly feel included and supported at UVA.

One aspect of this that we wrote about is that UVA has not previously offered translated versions of its financial aid documents — this presented a barrier for students from families who may not speak English as their first language, and who have then had to navigate the complex financial aid process largely on their own. We published the article in both English and Spanish, both in print and online.

In an open letter this fall, student leaders in the Hispanic/Latino community also focused on the need for translated documents, and we’re starting to see the University take steps toward providing translated versions of its policies.

You’re a young journalist at the beginning of a career. What excites you about being in journalism right now? 

I’m really excited about the tools we have available for telling stories in interesting ways. I’ve slowly gotten into podcasts and have become an avid listener of “The Daily” (the NYT’s podcast) and Vox’s “Today, Explained.” The Cavalier Daily has dabbled in some podcasting projects, but I’d love to see more locally-focused news podcasting and learn more about what models have worked in different communities.