Askville: New-school journalist

To hear the old guard tell it — and a host of industry studies — print journalism as we've long known it is dying. With the rise of digitally delivered news, newspapers are shrinking and, in some cities, disappearing altogether. So what's a young reporter to think about what the future holds?

Photo by Jonathan Welch

"I think it's a really cool time to be going into journalism; it doesn't scare me," says Jon Walczak, a 21-year-old from Cary, N.C., who completed a bachelor's degree in mass communication at UNCA in December and now works as a general-assignments reporter at the Asheville Citizen-Times. Walczak has good reason for optimism, at least about his own prospects: He was recently accepted by three of the country's most prestigious graduate journalism programs — at Columbia, New York and Northwestern universities.

And for one so young, he's already a somewhat-seasoned journalist: Walczak spent five semesters working for The Blue Banner, UNCA's student newspaper, moving up through the ranks from staff reporter to assistant news editor to news editor to managing editor to editor. During his tenure there, the Banner evolved from a rough-around-the-edges rag to a much-read source of hard-hitting campus news.

Xpress sat down with Walczak last week to hear how he views the current media landscape. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

Mountain Xpress: What sparked your interest in journalism?
Jon Walczak:
It was 9/11: I turned 13 three days before the 9/11 attacks, and that sort of changed everything for me. I started paying attention to the news. I went to Ground Zero that December; I'd been to the World Trade Center the year before. Then the war in Iraq, the Bush presidency — it was just an interesting time to grow up and pay attention to the news.

You're aware that there's a high level of nervousness in the news industry, with newspapers closing and downsizing in the face of the digital revolution. How do you feel about the future of the profession as you step into it?
I think it's a really, really exciting time to go in, because obviously the traditional model is crashing and burning and going up in flames, but with that comes the opportunity for innovation and to completely redo and rethink the way we do things. … I think there are a lot of depressive people in this industry. Rather than running around and yelling about how bad things are, I think people need to focus their energy on being creative and coming up with new solutions.

You've had a good run in print media so far, at The Blue Banner.
I really enjoyed the Banner, because it's a lot easier to make big changes and do something really creative and cool at a small college paper than at somewhere like [UNC-Chapel Hill's student newspaper] The Daily Tar Heel. We put out a really good paper based on our love and our hard work; we didn't really get paid anything or have a lot of funds. … We had a really good time, and we transformed the paper from something that had 40 errors an issue in just 12 pages of copy to something that had as few as four errors with double the copy. It's because we worked really hard and cared about what we were doing.

When I was roughly your age and training in journalism, 15 years ago, the field looked totally different than it does today, and some of us so-called veterans have found the changes daunting. You've had the luxury — or the curse — of learning the trade as it's shape-shifting.
Well, if you think about the tools, like social media, that have emerged, I think they make my job easier. It's a good way to find sources: I've already used Facebook to help me track people down for stories. … You still have the print pieces to anchor the paper, but you have to draw people to your Web site, because that's where they're going to go anyway, and you have to keep their attention. So we train in audio slide shows, social media, video pieces for articles, etc., instead of just writing articles.

What was your favorite story at The Blue Banner?
Last year, I did my senior seminar project with my friend Emily Gray on the oldest cold-case murder in Buncombe County. We worked with the Sheriff's Department and became friends with the victim's family. We wanted to see it through and help them push that case forward. I think the Banner has moved away from being a fluffy, events-based paper to one that breaks hard news and has really good writing. … We also looked into some of the deep financial decisions at the university and developed a strong editorial voice about matters at the school. And we really turned the Banner into something respectable.

What kind of journalism do you most want to do after grad school?
I really like investigative journalism; I like being able to focus on longer-term projects and write more in-depth articles, rather than working a daily beat. I'm also interested to try international reporting, because I got into journalism — maybe it's naive, not having done it before — really wanting to do war reporting and conflict journalism. I remember, after 9/11, wanting to go to New York, and after Katrina, wanting to go to New Orleans. I was thinking, "Everybody's running one way, but I want to run toward the disasters, so maybe I should find a profession where I can do that."

What was your least-favorite part about being a journalist?
[Long pause.] I don't know. If I didn't like it, I wouldn't have kept doing it.

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About Jon Elliston
An Asheville-based mountain journalist: Former Mountain Xpress managing editor. Investigations and open government editor at Carolina Public Press. Senior contributing editor at WNC magazine.

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