Devroy Forum 2016: foresight and reflection

Washington Post editor challenges the notion that news is dying in the social media age

Amidst the memories, lessons and reflections of UW-Eau Claire’s most prominent journalist, the 19th annual Ann Devroy Memorial Forum offered not only a look at the past, but a glimpse into the future.

University faculty, residents of Eau Claire and members of the department of communications and journalism — both past and present — congregated in Schofield Auditorium Thursday night for an intimate seminar and discussion with Terence Samuel, a decorated journalist and the politics editor at the Washington Post.

Samuel spoke at length regarding journalism and its place in a social media-driven world.

Contrary to an opinion shared by many journalists, journalism is not in a crisis as a result of the internet and social media — at least not a crisis the profession can’t overcome, Samuel told the forum. The methods which journalists use to transmit news may change, he said, but the core, fundamental mission of every journalist must stay the same: the devotion to uncovering the truth.

While Samuel admitted he never knew Ann Devroy, he said she embodied this mission and her exceptional career left a lasting legacy at the Washington Post and political journalism as a whole. Her determination to uncover the truth set her apart.

Ann Devroy, originally of Green Bay, was a 1970 graduate of the UW-Eau Claire journalism program. Her career led to her prestigious position as a White House correspondent, covering  the Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations. She worked in this capacity for fifteen years until her untimely death from cancer in 1997 at the age of 49.

“As the editor at the Washington Post responsible for the coverage of the White House, I live with the idea of Ann Devroy every day,” Samuel said. “To this day, almost two decades after she left, she remains the standard we live up to, how we honor the public trust that is serious journalism.”

Samuel identified three main challenges journalists face in the modern, social media environment.

He said surfing the internet is to access a larger bank of information than ever before, which leads to the audience being inundated with too much information.  Ultimately, it may obscure what is important or relevant to readers versus what is not.

“Your job of uncovering the truth becomes harder because what used to require a little digging now requires an excavation,” Samuel said.

With sites such as Facebook and Twitter becoming the main sources of news for a large portion of the population, publications like the Washington Post are given the same space and relative importance as any other content on the web, Samuel said. This means news is facing an unprecedented level of competition for people’s attention.

“Pulitzer Prize-winning work is sharing the exact same space on your phone with my mother’s seafood, Caribbean soup,” Samuel said. “We are doing battle with everyone.”

These “battles” are further complicated the accessibility of social and sophistication of the modern audience, Samuel said. He said that while over six million people are followers of the Washington Post on Twitter, every individual has access to virtually all the same tools and platforms as the national paper.

The job of the modern journalist then, Samuel said, is no longer just to inform, but to distinguish what is truly news from the “mass of content.”

“We have the greater responsibility than simply to spread the news,” he said. “We have to find it.”

Cody Corthell, a junior English education student, said he gained a new respect for the idealistic principles of journalism as a result of the forum.

“Truth has to be a priority over entertainment,” Corthell said, “getting rid of the fluff and getting down to hard facts.”

During her career, her peers lauded Devroy as one of the most effective journalists of her time. The Washington Post and Eau Claire established the Ann Devroy Memorial Forum in 1998 to commemorate her memory and to promote the journalistic values she exemplified. Previous speakers include Gwen Ifill, Bob Woodward and Andrea Mitchell.