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Cronkite 2.0

By Gillette Vaira

The brisk December air hit me as I walked out of the journalism building and onto a campus sidewalk. I had just finished moderating the Rethink08 debate with my classmates, and I felt like I was floating. We had worked together as a news team, covering important and timely information. We had served the community, gaining insight from various perspectives. I felt like I had just experienced what I could possibly do one day in my news career, and I was exhilarated.

But the passersby reminded me of reality out there. They had no idea what a group of graduate students had just accomplished. Most of them probably hadn’t heard of Rethink08, let alone viewed our lively online debate. I thought of Walter Cronkite’s advice, as recapped by Tom Brokaw in Time magazine.

“There will be nights,” Cronkite said, “when you think you’ve done a brilliant job on a big story. You’ll leave the studio with the echoes of praise from your colleagues ringing in your ears. And once outside in New York, you’ll realize there are millions of people in this city alone who didn’t watch and who don’t give a damn what you just did.”

Across the continent from New York City, in Missoula, Mont., I felt that the same concept applied to my experience.

Through Rethink08, we created an interactive online community for young Missoulians to express themselves. In the process, we also discovered trends that are impacting the roles of reporters. The project demonstrated how journalism’s role in society has changed.

Connecting with the audience

As journalists, we communicated with the public by using social networking sites like Facebook that allowed us to tap into online communities and engage more people. Facebook has countless groups and fan pages, so it was difficult for our Web site to stand out. Still, it was a driving force in developing a following for Rethink08.

Facebook reflected a change in the expectations of journalists. We, the professionals-in-progress, used our personal accounts to invite friends to view the Rethink08 Web site. Just as journalists like Barbara Walters and Erica Hill update their followers on Twitter about their personal activities, we stepped over a boundary between our personal and professional lives to gain more attention for our own purpose. This type of online interaction is only the beginning for our generation of journalists, as we discover where to find our audience.

Gillette Vaira and Passang Norbu pore over comments, during the Dec. 4, 2009, Rethink08 debate. Photo: Carmen Irish


Journalists of past eras were the gatekeepers of news, telling viewers the daily essentials. Today, we must still research and report, but members of the public expect to take a more active role in deciding what constitutes news. This is partially due to widespread Internet access. For instance, it was easy for people from anywhere in the world to participate in the Rethink08 online discussion. Journalists have made it simpler for people to take ownership of the news.

The Internet has also allowed individuals to convey their feelings about those who report the news. The Rethink08 debate exemplified the challenges of facilitating public input. We, as journalists, must be critical of our surroundings, but we are also criticized. We must be the watchdogs, but we are also watched. We put ourselves on the line for criticism because we are in the public eye. We may report controversial issues and search for input from all angles, but this also puts us in the position to be judged by our audiences.

Rethink08 allowed me to delve into the realities of the news industry. We explored issues, interacted with the public and reported information. We pursued the creation of informed discussions. We acknowledged the changing roles of journalists by using current technologies, yet we maintained traditional journalistic approaches.

In retrospect, it doesn’t matter that many of my peers on the University of Montana campus weren’t aware of the Rethink08 debate. It doesn’t matter how many people view the news I report. Instead, it matters that stories are being told, so the public has the freedom to choose to be informed. In my news career, I may try to follow in Walter Cronkite’s footsteps or create a new route for myself. No matter my future in this industry, the news will be waiting to be reported, and I will be documenting it one day at a time.

Read Gillette Vaira’s profile of Allie Harrison

Listen to Gillette Vaira’s Rethink08 Remix:

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