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10 questions with David Waters of the Institute for Public Service Reporting

David Waters

David Waters retired recently from The Commercial Appeal, but that didn’t mark the end of his journalism career or his impact on journalism in Memphis.

A 1981 graduate of then-Memphis State University, Waters has joined the University of Memphis‘ newly created Institute for Public Service Reporting, where he will serve as associate director.

Waters explained his new role at the U of M and his thoughts on journalism’s future.

Q: You have a long and respected career in journalism, especially here in Memphis. Why did you decide to join the Institute for Public Service Reporting?

A: First, it’s here at my alma mater, the University of Memphis. I love this place. I love this city. I love this work. What could be better? Second, its dedication to local journalism, which has taken a big hit all across the country during the past decade. The for-profit business model is struggling — and in many places failing — to support and sustain local journalism. We need to find new ways, new models, to support the vital work of local reporters, editors, photographers. I think a university can and should play a major role in local journalism, not only by educating and training future journalists but also by producing high-level journalism now. Colleges and universities provide and protect freedom of inquiry. They educate the public by informing, exploring, explaining, enlightening. They foster creativity and open discussion, raise public awareness, address societal challenges, speak truth to power, give voice for the voiceless, help people make better-informed decisions, work for the common good, keep democracy strong. Good journalism does all of that, too.

Q: Your profession is undergoing seismic and difficult changes for myriad reasons. Describe the state of journalism in Memphis in 2019.

A: A couple of years ago, I would have called it a failing state. But a lot has changed in the past year or so and mostly for the better. The impressive launch of The Daily Memphian, and The Commercial Appeal’s strong response, nearly doubled the number of local journalists working here. Add the important new work being done by the Institute for Public Service Reporting, Chalkbeat, and Wendi Thomas and MLK50. Add that to the good and important work still being done by the New Tri-State Defender, the Flyer, Memphis Business Journal, Memphis magazine, Smart City, High Ground News, WKNO, local TV, campus and suburban and neighborhood news outlets. It’s encouraging. Local journalism is still below the staffing levels of the 1980s and 1990s, but it’s recovering in new and interesting ways.

Q: You’ve held different editing and writing jobs in journalism. Which one have you preferred, and why?

A: To quote the great West Tennessean T.G. Sheppard, ‘I’ve loved ’em every one.’ Some more than others. Whenever I’ve been an editor, I’d often realize that I’d rather be writing. I’ve enjoyed various forms of editing, but I always go back to reporting and writing. At the Institute for Public Service Reporting, I will spend most of my time reporting and writing. That’s the reason I became a journalist.

Q: You are joining the staff of The Daily Memphian. What will be your role there? Is that online-only model the future for newspaper journalism?

A: Marc Perrusquia (the director) and I work for the Institute as journalists and for the University of Memphis as faculty members. The local journalism we produce will be published online by The Daily Memphian and we will work closely with editors there. Print journalism isn’t dead but it has chronic and possibly fatal problems. Digital forms of publishing are the present and future of journalism. The for-profit business model is having trouble making the transition from print to digital. We believe this university-based model can help journalism find another way to make the transition.

Q: What can the Institute for Public Service Reporting do for journalism students at the University of Memphis?

A: We hope the Institute will support and enhance the U of M’s journalism program, especially the graduate program, which already is one of the best in the country. The Institute isn’t a classroom. It’s a professional newsroom dedicated to producing robust, independent investigative reporting, in-depth explanatory journalism, and multidisciplinary academic work. Marc is one of the best investigative reporters in the country. I’ve spent a lot of time reporting, writing and editing stories that explain complex issues. Journalism is art and craft. You learn by doing. We believe the Institute will attract graduate students who want to enhance their academic studies by working in a professional newsroom.

Q: How did you become so adept at reporting on religion?

A: At first I was inept. Truly. I didn’t have a clue about how to cover such a deep and broad and subjective beat. Most beats have a focal point — a building, a board, an agency, a team, a topic with a particular form or function. Religion is all over the place, especially in a place like Memphis. Eventually it dawned on me that I shouldn’t try to cover religion. I should try to cover faith and the impact faith has on people, places and things, including religion. That’s what I did. Religion is institutional. Faith is public and personal and a lot more interesting.

Q: What do you remember about your time as a student at then-Memphis State University?

A: Being tired and hungry. I worked full-time at The Commercial Appeal while I took a full load of classes. It made for very long days but it was worth it. What I was learning in the morning in the classroom I was experiencing in the afternoon and evening at the newspaper. I also worked for the Helmsman and the Statesman, which was the journalism department’s laboratory news magazine. As I said, journalism is art and craft. You learn by doing. Being a student here offered me the opportunity to do that. That’s the sort of learning experience I want to help create at the Institute.

Q: What are your thoughts about the student press, which nationally has struggled with many of the same issues as its professional colleagues?

A: Honestly, I think the student press has a better chance than legacy media to save journalism in America. It’s a big job but someone has to do it. I’m a digital immigrant. But today’s college students are digital natives. They are part of a generation that would never pick up a print product, that chooses news via social media, that reads, hears or watches it on smartphones. I want to challenge the student press, and in particular our graduate students, to develop new forms of journalism that engage this generation. The need for good journalism hasn’t changed. The principles and practices of good reporting haven’t changed. We need to create and constantly upgrade the delivery systems.

Q: National surveys this year show a continued decline in Americans’ trust of the media. Why is that happening, and how can it be reversed?

A: That’s a subject for a doctoral dissertation. Or at least a Bill Moyers special. So many reasons. Technology and finance have shattered the mass media into countless micro-media with widely varying motives and methods and standards. Digital immediacy and competition have lured the news media away from responsible reflection to instant reaction. Our polarizing politics has blurred or erased the line between reporting and commentary. There’s a general failure to understand and be aware of the distinction between entertainment media and news media, broadcast media and print media, information and opinion, and real news and fake news — especially on social media. I could go on. The news media must work harder than ever to do its job — to find the truth and report it accurately, fairly and thoroughly. That requires time, space and intention. That’s what we hope to provide at the Institute.

Q: If you were recruiting students for the Institute for Public Service Reporting, what would be your biggest selling point?

A: Memphis itself. There are bigger cities but none offer a college student a better opportunity to make a big impact. We need all hands on deck here. We need students who want to learn by doing, by getting directly involved in the daily and daunting challenges facing this community. This university offers countless ways to do that. Journalism and public service reporting cover them all.

— Phillip Tutor, CCFA media coordinator,

Published inInstitute for Public Service Reporting

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