Former Student Wins Pulitzer Prize With Tweets Even Without J-School Instruction on Twitter

Even without formal instruction from my multimedia journalism course, Tuscaloosa News’ Wayne Grayson figured out how to make Twitter a critical part of breaking news coverage, which won the news organization a Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting.

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Something happened on Monday that has never happened in my nine-year career as a full-time journalism instructor:  a former student of not one, but two of my journalism classes won a Pulitzer Prize for his role on a news staff recognized for covering breaking news.

When I saw the announcement Monday, the first thing I could think to do was to send out a congratulatory tweet on Twitter.

In his Gadgetron newspaper column in today’s Tuscaloosa News, Wayne Grayson, credited his use of that microblogging service with helping him and his fellow staff members secure the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting.

Wayne Grayson in 2008 when he was a student in my Reporting and Writing Across Media class. This month he is part of the news team that won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting.

Four years ago this week, Wayne Grayson completed my Reporting and Writing Across Media course here at the University of Alabama in the Spring 2008 semester.  Little did he know that three years later, he would be covering  Alabama’s worst natural disaster, the EF-4 tornado that destroyed multiple communities here in Tuscaloosa alone.

As I read today’s newspaper column, I wondered HOW MUCH DID MY JN 325 MULTIMEDIA REPORTING CLASS PREPARE HIM FOR THIS ROLE?

I would never take credit for Grayson’s preparation to produce Pulitzer prize-winning work.     But, positioning our students to be able to cover a story like last April’s deadly tornado outbreak is what it’s all about, right?

Isn’t that why we journalists leave the newsroom and assume second careers full-time in the college classroom?    Often on days like last April 27, 2011, many of us long to be back in the thick of producing breaking news coverage.

Instead, we’re on the sidelines consuming and commenting on the great work that our graduates like Grayson are able to produce.

Social Media Required of a Pulitzer Winner

From Grayson’s newspaper column, I learned that this was the first year that the Pulitzer committee stressed the inclusion of social media as a part of submission for the Breaking News Reporting award.

“I am proud that it played a part in our winning,” Grayson wrote. “If you had told me that would happen a few months prior to the tornado, I would have laughed,” a reference to the Twitter skeptics in the T-News newsroom.

We all know about those skeptics of Twitter and other social media outlets, especially among the faculty teaching journalism and mass communication today.

Unlike my cross-media reporting class today,  Grayson’s class in 2008 did not have to use social media to meet course requirements.   His French Fry Filosophy blog was what Grayson used in conjunction with a multimedia reporting package and team-reporting experience to finish the course.

Now I require every student in that JN 325 course to have a Twitter account and do news gathering exercises using 140-character tweets promoting their updates on their blogs.    But, how much do those exercises REALLY help in preparing them to do what Grayson did last April 27th?

The Limits of Formal Social Media Instruction

As I noted in an earlier post here last summer, requiring Twitter use in some media classes just doesn’t work as many students only do what is needed to pass the class.

Even now, I’m not certain undergraduate students take seriously the importance of learning how to use social media as a necessary reporting tool for either producing news or strategic communication messages.

Certainly, I could start by making Grayson’s column required reading in my basic reporting class this summer.  Also, there’s the piece by the Poynter Institute’s Jeff Sonderman on  “How The Tuscaloosa News’ post-tornado tweeting helped bring home a Pulitzer Prize.”

I could also let the students study the 21 pages of Tweets that were submitted as part of the T-News Pulitzer Prize submission.

Can we really simulate the “tweeting words and pictures incessantly” that Grayson recalled doing in the immediate aftermath of the tornado coming through this town a year ago?

In my basic reporting class this summer, I will have mostly students preparing for work in public relations.   But,  as Ellen East, a former journalist  who now works in PR told us earlier this year,  social media outlets are absolutely critical for PR practitioners to know how to use too.

But there’s only so much we can TEACH in a class, especially when there are as many students who never plan to step foot in a newsroom as there are students like Wayne Grayson.

The fact is the Dothan native, who was just 25 years old when he covered the April 27th tornado, arrived in my class in January 2008 already blogging.

He was a technology enthusiast then and leveraged that interest to start The Gadgetron blog, to which he posts several times a day.  His Gadgetron newspaper column is for Sunday print edition readers of  The Tuscaloosa News like me.

So I think that’s enough proof my JN 325 had nothing to do with what he did April 27, 2012.

As journalism professors, we have to acknowledge the limited role of  our formal instruction, which has to focus on the journalism basics.  In 15 weeks, we  provide nuts and bolts learning experiences on which a graduate can build when he or she gets out there in the real world.

Even for a Pulitzer Prize-winning news staff, sometimes typographical errors can make it onto one's web site (I'm sure there are some on this blog). I wonder how long "EXLPORING" has been on the Gadgetron site. As journalism instructors, we probably give more attention to these kinds of basics than we do how to tweet on breaking story.

What Now?

Even if it doesn’t mean incessant tweeting or posting, my social media requirement is designed to help students crawl before they walk, especially when they’re still learning how to produce an accurate, complete news narrative on multiple platforms.

Wayne Grayson and his colleagues at the T-News winning journalism’s top prize, in part because of their use of social media, makes arguing for WHY we require social media of our students a little bit easier.

Author: George Daniels

George L. Daniels is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Alabama. After spending eight years in the local television newsroom working as a producer at stations in Richmond, Virginia; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Atlanta, Georgia, Daniels moved from the newsroom to the classroom. He’s conducted research on diversity issues in the media workplace and change in the television newsroom as well as media convergence. Before going to work in television news, Daniels worked briefly as a freelance writer for The Richmond Free Press in his hometown of Richmond, Va.

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