Cavalier Daily news editor Krista Pedersen (Col '13) was camped out in the Rotunda, just outside the room where the Board of Visitors was meeting in an emergency closed executive session on June 18. After nearly four hours, she turned to her laptop to compose another in a series of tweets:
#UVA Board has not been served dinner, still deliberating
A crowd had gathered on the Lawn, and through the nearest window, Pedersen watched them peek at their smartphones and react to each update. Some looked up at the Rotunda, already eager for more tweets, keen to know what was going on inside.
"So many people wanted to be in that room," says Cavalier Daily multimedia coordinator Veronica Manuel (Engr '14). Everyone wanted information and the Cavalier Daily was poised to provide it.
It would be a long night for the Board and those covering the proceedings. After 11 hours of deliberation, at 2:30 a.m., the Board announced Carl Zeithaml would be appointed interim president.
The student paper scooped the pros.
Using the #UVA Twitter hashtag, the editors built a steady following, keeping their readers informed of breaking news. They were the first to file a Freedom of Information Act request with the University's Office of Public Affairs.
The Virginia FOIA grants residents access to records in the custody of public body officers. Some records are classified and cannot be released, but a significant amount of information—such as that in a public official's email account—is fair game.
Charlie Tyson (Col '14), assistant managing editor, thought that emails exchanged between Rector Helen Dragas and former Vice Rector Mark Kington might offer clues to the reasons behind Sullivan's resignation. On June 12, Tyson and Matt Cameron (Col '13), Cavalier Daily editor in chief, requested access to all emails sent to and from Dragas and Kington in the preceding six weeks.
"It was within our mission to find out what was going on," says Tyson. The Cavalier Daily aims to keep the University community in the know, and this situation was no different. It also operates independently of the University—when emails obtained through the FOIA arrived a week later, on June 19, the editors chose what information to publish and how to share it.
Pedersen and Cameron read through each email and tweeted, in 140-character segments, the most noteworthy facts. Operations manager Greg Lewis (Col '15) contributed background information on each Board member.
"I had to analyze the data and the timeline to compose each tweet. And the [emails contained] more info than I thought," says Pedersen.
The FOIA email posts provoked so much discussion on June 19 that the hashtag #cavalierdaily was trending on Twitter, a measure of the subject's popularity. Other papers had filed requests, but the Cavalier Daily got the story first. Around midnight, the editors rushed to scan the printed emails and post them on the Cavalier Daily website.
Social media proved to be the most useful tool in the Cavalier Daily's bag of tricks. Scattered for summer break, the six Cavalier Daily journalists worked from Charlottesville, New York, Chapel Hill and Fredericksburg, keeping tabs on the action on Grounds and contributing round the clock to the paper's Twitter account.
They also filmed and uploaded raw footage of meetings and rallies to the Cavalier Daily YouTube channel, adhering to the basic journalistic principle of reporting the facts fast. "People want information quickly and accurately, and they want to interpret it in their own way," says Cameron.
Twitter and YouTube allowed them to share news instantly and track reactions. Shortly after the FOIA e-mails were released, the Cavalier Daily's Twitter following increased from 2,000 to more than 5,000; of the 14,962 total views on their YouTube channel, 14,368 are of June's footage.
Like any newspaper, the Cavalier Daily offered editorials in addition to news coverage. The managing board called for Sullivan's reinstatement, Dragas' resignation and stronger student leadership. "Maybe I don't embody the student opinion," says executive editor Aaron Eisen (Col '13). "[But I wanted to express] what this meant for students who aren't necessarily concerned with debates in higher education or other aspects outside of their experience at the University."
June's events became a national news story, covered by the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education. But the Cavalier Daily more than held its own against the industry's biggest names.
The Cavalier Daily received widespread praise from professional journalists, and national media outlets picked up on their reporting—the FOIA emails became the subject of a June 20 Washington Post article.
"We felt a certain ownership of the topic," says Pedersen. "The pros are great, but they don't go to school here."