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10 questions with U of M journalism grad Paul D’Ambrosio

Paul D’Ambrosio graduated from the University of MemphisDepartment of Journalism and Strategic Media last August — and he’s already been named executive editor of the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey.

The catch? There’s not one. D’Ambrosio (pictured above) is a veteran journalist with 37 years of experience as a reporter and editor in Asbury Park. He earned his master’s degree from the U of M, returning to higher education for more training and knowledge that would assist his already impressive career.

D’Ambrosio, who earlier this month became executive editor of the Press and App.com, recently explained his decision to attend the U of M and offered his opinions about his profession’s future.

Q: Why did you choose the U of M for your graduate degree?

A: I was pointed to U of M by a journalist and professor friend who also graduated from your program. When I looked closer, I liked that the program focused on journalism research and current events in the industry.  

Q: Your thesis was judged the top at the U of M last year. What was its subject, and why did that interest you?

A: My thesis examined the impact of newsroom metrics on the quality of watchdog journalism. As a long-time investigative reporter and editor, I was curious to know if “chasing clicks” in newsrooms was replacing watchdog work with the proverbial cat-in-tree videos. My mix-method study involved a national survey of professional journalists, interviews with reporters across age/experience groups and an analysis of 18 months of detailed story metrics from a major online news outlet. I was pleasantly surprised to find the data supported strong journalism. Reporters are in the business to do public service and they use metrics smartly to find watchdog stories that appeal to the readers. The metrics actually helped focus reporters on the hot topics because of a feedback loop that naturally developed: the reporter sees a story trend from the metrics, digs deeper to develop more stories, and the readers reward the reporter with higher readership numbers. The reporter gets instant feedback from readers and management encourages the work because more clicks mean more revenue. The work also pointed the way to encouraging newsrooms to consider subscription models because watchdog work can lead to strong return visits and readership loyalty.

Q: You have done all sorts of writing. Do you prefer daily journalism or book writing?

A: I’ve published two thriller novels and written hundreds of journalism investigations. I love both formats, but I have to say there is tremendous excitement in pursuing the truth, exposing wrongdoings and getting things fixed. It’s a great privilege to be able to practice the First Amendment every day without fear of political repercussions. Recently, for example, a ranking political figure in the state called to yell at me because he wasn’t too pleased with what we were doing to him. In most other countries I would be writing this from jail. Here, I told the official we weren’t going to change anything and to have a nice day.

Q: You’re a long-time newspaper journalist. Are you bullish on print newspapers’ future? If so, why?

A: I’m bullish on content. “Print” is just one communication format that many still enjoy, but it is not growing in terms of circulation or revenue. Online content is the natural companion to print in that news can be instantly transmitted across the world, accompanied by video, graphics and interactive multimedia, and archived for research. Content innovation is an exciting aspect of journalism and that can only be done on a digital platform.

Q: Your reputation includes several renowned investigative projects. Why do you enjoy that type of journalism, and is there a place for it in today’s world of Twitter, Facebook, etc?

A: My work has won nearly every national journalism award in the nation, including the Selden Ring and Farfel prizes, Online News Association, FOIA and SPJ awards, and been a finalist for the Pulitzer Public Service Gold Medal, one of the rarest honors in the business. Investigative journalism is our way of doing public service. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always been eager to help people. The First Amendment is a powerful tool for getting your point across quickly and righting the wrongs out there. Plus, it’s a lot of fun to watch the bad politicians sweat as you close in around them. There will always be a place for investigative journalism regardless of platform. The conventional wisdom of instant Google gratification and that “people don’t want to read long stories anymore” is false. Consumers don’t want to read boring stories. We’ve published 9,000-plus word investigations and saw an average engagement time of more than 10 minutes from tens of thousands of readers. And that doesn’t count readers who return later to pick up where they left off. I believe people consume media voraciously if it connects to their lives. Our job is to listen to readers to make sure we write stories that provide impact.

Q: Has the impact of social media been a positive or negative for journalists, and why?

A: Social media is the double edge sword we love to hate. Trolls and such aside, social media is a great asset when used correctly by responsible news outlets. Social media allows us to send our stories to disparate groups, engage in two-way conversations with the audience and even get more tips from readers. It’s our job to let readers know we are a fact-based business and that our content has been vetted through high journalism standards. We have to do a better job of distinguishing ourselves from the misinformation across social media.

Q: Why should young people today consider journalism as a career?

A: Journalism is a proud way to serve your community and country. Information is the life-blood of the nation and it’s our job to ensure no one controls it for political, business or selfish purposes. Plus there are few jobs where every day is totally different from the last. If you thrive on the excitement of rushing out to a fire or crime scene, digging through documents and interviewing sources to build a case against evil-doers, or simply crafting eloquent words from a bucket of facts, there is no better professional than journalism. I still get a thrill when I see my name on a story. It’s like an artist signing a portrait.

The Meeman Journalism Building at the University of Memphis.

Q: How will your U of M master’s degree influence you in your career moving forward?

A: I use the knowledge and skills from the U of M every day. When a judge wanted to shut us out of a court hearing, I knew the Supreme Court cases to quote to open the door. I spread my knowledge to the staff on a daily basis, from framing a story to building “surprises” into our marketing efforts as a way to entice readers to keep coming back for more stories. I recently asked my staff to develop a new blueprint for a digital subscription drive and set down frameworks I learned from classes.

Q: What advice would you give aspiring journalists?

A: Love the words and build digital skills. A reporter who knows computer-assisted reporting or video will go farther than a reporter who just writes. This is a multimedia business. Sharp skills in social media, video, data and innovative storytelling techniques are the best way to get people involved in your work. Be creative. The business craves innovators. If you can think of a new idea, find a way to make it a reality. I invented www.DataUniverse.com, a massive searchable database of government records, by simply asking, “Can I put all the databases I have in my computer online?” I knew nothing about online programming. Six months (and a lot of sleepless nights) later, DataUniverse was born. It’s now one of the most popular sites in Gannett, with millions of page views a year.

Q: Do you know any other U of M graduates in Asbury Park?

A: I believe I am the only Tigers fan here.

— Phillip Tutor, CCFA media coordinator, potutor@memphis.edu

 

Published inDepartment of Journalism and Strategic Media

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