Student guest post: The Night of the … Journalist?

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the third of those posts. Whitney Harris is a senior editing and graphic design and German literature double major at UNC-Chapel Hill. She enjoys listening to Fleetwood Mac and reading the same Goethe novel repeatedly.

“Perpetrate journalism often, on as many platforms, for as many people has you can. Don’t wait for permission — find your story and prosecute to the fullest.” — David Carr

I’ve always wanted to be a writer. By the time I hit 12 years old, every member of my family knew I wanted to be a journalist one day. I started writing my first book in eighth grade and, despite my best efforts, have yet to find a way to conclude any one of the number of stories I’ve started. But that doesn’t change anything. I still want to be a writer.

Welcome, North Carolina, is a small town near the center of the state. It’s 15 minutes outside of Winston-Salem, an hour and a half from Charlotte, and requires its inhabitants like sweet tea, love Jesus and attend Friday night football games on Palmer Field.

Most kids grew up going to Future Farmers of America meetings, attending church on Sundays and going mudding on the weekends. I was never one of those kids. I liked Charles Bukowski, writing for my school newspaper and sneaking bottles of Arbor Mist onto the baseball field to drink at night with my friends.

Welcome had not yet — and still has not — caught up with the rest of the world, but there was one privilege we were never denied: regular delivery of The New York Times. David Carr wrote for The Times, and he was my idol. I wanted to be a writer, after all.

My admiration for Carr has never faltered, despite his death in February 2015. He embodied everything I want out of a professional career. He was eloquent (albeit vulgar), sometimes abrasive, and witty — all qualities I appreciate.

“Page One: Inside The New York Times,” the documentary released in 2011, stars Carr. Viewers get to see him argue with major players at Vice, set his own deadlines with Media Editor Bruce Headlam and debate over writing a piece about Tribune Company’s bankruptcy (which was published, igniting a fire that contributed to the resignation of Chief Executive Randy Michaels, a win by most accounts).

Carr’s writings, including his memoir “The Night of the Gun,” were inspirational. He was revered, not only for her personality but also for his incredible talent. I often find myself wondering what it would take to become as successful as him, but I also have to ask: Has the media world changed so much in the past decade that this kind of journalism has gone extinct?

It’s an issue that “Page One” and its cast delves deeply into, questioning whether the shift from print to digital will completely rearrange the media landscape as we know, and have known, it for the past hundred years. Is Carr’s nitty-gritty, dirt-under-your-fingernails type of journalism a thing of the past? They certainly didn’t have the answer in 2011. And I still don’t know if we have it now. But there’s something I do know.

I want to be a writer. I want to develop stories that no one else wants to go near, and I want to do it with tact and dexterity. I want to craft pieces that put something good into the world, even if the topics I write about aren’t always great. I want to investigate. I want to write words that make a difference.

We spend a lot of time debating just how the digital shift has changed our landscape and, as someone who is about to graduate from one of the best journalism programs in the nation, I can’t express how scary that can be.

Most of my peers would rather get the news in 140 characters on their smartphones versus picking up the paper. There are strong arguments that traditional journalism has died, and we can either move with the digital shift or get swept away with our print predecessor. I don’t like those arguments.

I don’t believe traditional journalism has died. I don’t believe in Twitter and Facebook as new tests of journalistic merit, but I do believe they’re exciting tools that can be used to reinvigorate my profession. I refuse to compact my story into 140 characters (not to say that I won’t craft a tweet, but you better believe the link in it will lead you to something far greater), and I refuse to think, just because you read it on a computer screen versus in a newspaper, that a story is somehow lesser. The media world has changed. Media itself has not.

Print circulation may be down, you may have to pay for an online subscription of The New York Times and BuzzFeed may be more convenient, but I refuse to give up on something I believe in. If there is one thing I have learned from my admiration of David Carr, it’s that when you want something, you make it happen.

The media world has changed. We, as journalists, have not.