Tennessean executive editor speaks to communication students

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Accuracy, work ethic and commitment to values are more important for young journalists in the digital age than ever before. So a group of Lipscomb University communications students learned on Monday from one of Nashville’s top-ranking journalists.  

Maria De Varenne, executive editor and vice president of news at Nashville’s daily newspaper The Tennessean, spoke at the annual Media Masters Lecture, describing how the publication has adapted to the digital age and how new journalists can also adapt in a rapidly changing career field.

Whether it is read in print or on smartphones, news is still a crucial part of everyday life, and The Tennessean is serving Middle Tennessee consumers by providing news based on when, how and where they want the information.

“While many people think print is dead, we don’t think they’re right,” De Varenne said. “For the past few years, we also deliver our stories, photos and other content on digital platforms. We deliver more local news and information than any other source in the market.”

Since many local and national news outlets also deliver news via digital channels, what makes the Tennessean stand out?

“Watchdog journalism and community leadership,” De Varenne said. “We not only have the area’s largest news staff, but we dedicate the most time, space and attention to local issues.”

Watchdog journalism, or investigative journalism, has won The Tennessean several awards in the past. It was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for its coverage of the 2010 Nashville flood.

De Varenne handed out a few tips for young journalists.

“A good journalist is honest and trustworthy, curious and relentless about double-checking facts,” De Varenne said. “Those characteristics haven’t changed in our technology transformation. They’re actually even more important. It’s so easy to get information out now digitally. Just because you’re first, doesn’t mean it’s right. Make sure your facts are right.”

Once any information is out on social media, it is permanent, De Varenne noted. Failure to check facts could lead to misinformation and loss of validity as a news source.

De Varenne offered more tips specifically on social media, a type of communication that didn’t exist a few years ago.

“Don’t do anything or post anything on social media that you wouldn’t want on Google for the rest of your life,” De Varenne said. “If it’s out on social media, we’ll be able to find it. That’s what we do when we check job applications. Social media leaves a lasting digital imprint of everything you do in your life, and it says a lot about who you are as a person.

“Never take a job for the money. Take a job because you think you can add value, or if you think you can make a difference. If you work hard and contribute to the team, people will reward you and take care of you.”

With her current success at The Tennessean, which has more than 900,000 weekly readers, it is hard to believe De Varenne didn’t initially plan on a career in journalism.

“I had a music scholarship in college and I took art classes,” De Varenne said. “I signed up for an intro to journalism class and I got hooked. My first reporting job was at my college newspaper.”

After graduation, De Varenne moved on to bigger news publications in Florida, Texas, California and Pennsylvania.

“At 23, I was in Daytona Beach as a general assignment reporter covering spring break and the Daytona 500,” De Varenne said. “I learned quickly that it wasn’t always glamorous and it wasn’t always fun.”

Through perseverance and hard work, De Varenne was able to impress her editors and move up the journalism ladder.

“I had to fill in on a police beat one day, and my editor sent me out by myself to go door to door in a rough neighborhood to get comments about a man who had been shot. I was scared, but I came back with some great quotes about the dead man and a description of what the neighborhood looked like, and he liked my work, so I got a veteran assignment the next day,” she added.

In the end, De Varenne said, good work ethic and long hours were two things that pushed her to the top.

“I was lucky to work with some grizzled veterans along the way who helped me and gave me advice,” De Varenne said. “In Texas, I learned that there was no job too big or too small that you could be asked to do.

“In California, I had editors who believed in me. They gave me training, rigorous assignments, and they gave me promotions. A lot of that is because of the work ethic I had. I didn’t complain, and I did what I was asked.”