WILKES-BARRE — Journalists typically ask questions. On Friday, several members of the Times Leader staff were among a group of media professionals on the other side of the notebooks and cameras.
High school students were given the opportunity to grill reporters, editors, photographers and others during the 18th annual Tom Bigler Journalism Conference, held at Wilkes University. The event is named for the late Tom Bigler, a longtime executive at WBRE-TV who began his career in radio.
Keynote speaker was New York Times reporter Kenneth P. Vogel, whose previous roles included reporting positions at Politico and the Times Leader.
Students also heard from WBRE lead investigative reporter Andy Mehalshick, as well as representatives of Coal Creative, Cumulus Communications, WNEP-TV and other area media outlets.
Times Leader photographers Aimee Dilger and Sean McKeag spoke to about 100 students during an early morning session. One of them asked Dilger how covering tragedies affects her personally.
“You see people at their worst times, and yes, you feel bad taking pictures of it, but you’re doing it for an important reason,” said Dilger, who has been with the paper for 14 years.
Dilger did acknowledge that seeing so many tragedies, such as fires, has raised her awareness of safety — she is religious about installing smoke detectors at home and changing the batteries, for example.
“You’re more sensitive to the bad things that are out there,” Dilger said.
McKeag was asked how he got into the business.
“I genuinely care about people’s lives,” said McKeag, who paired a love of photography with wandering around his native Pittsburgh talking to strangers and taking their photos.
“Then I went to school for photojournalism, and it was a match made in heaven,” said McKeag, a Point Park University graduate who has been with the Times Leader for about two-and-a-half years.
Times Leader Executive Editor Joe Soprano, who started his career with the paper in 1988, spoke with another group about changes in the newspaper industry since that time, and how the internet and social media have transformed the job.
“Before the internet, we basically decided what everyone would see. We decided what was news,” Soprano recalled.
“All of a sudden, you then have a wealth of information available to everyone, and it really changed how we think about what is and is not news, and how we present it,” he said.
For example, during a recent snowstorm, the Times Leader was one of the first media outlets on the East Coast to report on a widespread service outage affecting Verizon customers. The story attracted widespread attention online, Soprano explained, followed by a print story the next day.
Today, direct feedback from readers — through web hits and comments — help editors understand what readers want to see, he explained, and that is a major change.
“Maybe 20 years ago, if there was a phone outage affecting only one group of people served by one company, we might not even have considered that a story for the newspaper,” Soprano said.
Allison Scherger, a senior at North Pocono High School in Lackawanna County who attended the conference, said she developed a passion for journalism at a young age, and wants to be able to tell people’s stories. That’s why she wants to work in broadcast journalism.
In this era of highly politicized discussions about news and events, Scherger had praise for community media, but has concerns about what she sees at the higher levels.
“Locally, I am impressed. I see a lot of positive stories,” she said. “At the national level, it often feels like there’s nothing but negativity.”
Michael Botting, a sophomore at GAR Memorial High School in Wilkes-Barre, said he wants to work in the print media and feels strongly about truth, accuracy and supporting communities. Like Scherger, he sees more positivity at the local level than in national media.
“People need to hear the truth, but there also needs to be positivity,” Botting said. “I see too much about bringing people down.”