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Reporters Visit UNH to Reflect on Tech Changes in News

Brandon T. Bisceglia

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Three veteran journalists from around Connecticut visited UNH Wednesday evening for a panel discussion with students about the challenges and opportunities that new

Professional journalists speak to students in the Vlock Center for Convergent Media Wednesday about the ways that their work has been changed by new technologies. L to R: Hartford Courant Reporter Christine Dempsey, Connecticut Post Columnist MariAn Gail Brown, Madison, CT Patch.com Editor Patricia McNerney. Photograph by Brandon T. Bisceglia.

technologies have brought to their field.

Hartford Courant Reporter Christine Dempsey, Connecticut Post Columnist MariAn Gail Brown, and Madison, CT Patch.com Editor Patricia McNerney shared their experiences and fielded questions from a packed audience in the Laurel Vlock Center for Convergent Media in Maxcy Hall.

The two-hour discussion was titled “News Writing and Editing for Traditional and Social Media,” and was hosted by Adjunct Professor of Communication Michael Bazinet as part of the Copy Editing course he is teaching this semester. Students from other journalism courses also attended.

Dempsey described how the process of reporting had changed dramatically in the 25 years she has been doing it. She said that when she used to arrive on the scene of a breaking story, she would have to look around for a pay phone to call her editor. “Now they have these smart phones that can do anything but slice bread,” she said.

McNerney, whose publication exists entirely online, agreed that mobile devices have altered her reporting practices. She said she had “the most amazing experience in journalism” during Hurricane Irene this summer, because she was able to report on what was happening in her hometown of Madison while staying at a friend’s house in Wallingford by using information other residents posted or sent her.

McNerney said volunteers are key information sources for her. “The readers start to tell you what to report,” she said. Brown pointed out that the Internet had “invigorated” print newspapers too, by helping them to keep up with television and radio. “Because of the Internet and our websites,” she said, “we’re constantly updating our stories, which are rejuvenating our papers.”

The panelists warned, however, that not all of the changes brought about by new technologies have been positive. Brown noticed a disturbing pattern while covering the trial of Steven Hayes, who was given the death penalty in 2010 for a brutal home invasion and murder in Cheshire. Whenever reporters heard something they thought was newsworthy, they would tweet it, often in unison. She said the furious tweeting of reporters could send a visual signal to jury members to pay more attention to certain parts of the trial, possibly affecting the way they thought about the case.

For Dempsey, the increasing pressure to get news out as quickly as possible sometimes makes her uncomfortable that she might not have checked her facts thoroughly enough first. She said she had not made any major blunders she knew of. But, she added, “I’ve felt like I was walking a tightrope sometimes.”

McNerney said that, in the face of a faster news cycle, reporters need to continually remind themselves that they have a mission beyond entertainment, as society’s watchdogs. “Are we fulfilling our traditional role as the fourth estate?” she asked.

Despite all of the changes, the panelists agreed that many of the fundamental aspects of their profession remain the same. Dempsey said that strong writing skills were still absolutely essential. McNerney concurred, noting that Patch.com requires prospective reporters to take a writing test, just like traditional newspapers.

She recommended that journalism students avoid focusing only on print, broadcast, or web content. “Don’t think of yourself as a one-dimensional reporter,” she said.

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Reporters Visit UNH to Reflect on Tech Changes in News