The Daily Tar Heel

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Saturday December 3rd

If you love it, don't give up: DTH alumni reflect on Pulitzer wins

<p>Photo courtesy of Melanie Sill.</p>
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Photo courtesy of Melanie Sill.

From their desks at The Daily Tar Heel, to places like The News & Observer and The New York Times, UNC alumni have left the college newsroom to become successful, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists.

David Zucchino and Melanie Sill are just two of many DTH alumni who have won a Pulitzer Prize, and this weekend they are coming back to where it all began.

Zucchino is a contributing writer for The New York Times, covering foreign and national issues. In his career, he has covered more than two dozen nations and is the author of the books “Thunder Run: The Armored Strike to Capture Baghdad” and “Myth of the Welfare Queen.”

He said his time at the DTH gave him hands-on experience before he launched his professional journalism career. 

“I learned a lot (at the journalism school), but without actually going out and doing it, I mean I would’ve taken my first job without ever having written a newspaper story," Zucchino said. "That’s just incredible to me, I don’t think I could’ve gotten a job without The Daily Tar Heel.”

Zucchino has been nominated for four Pulitzers and won the prize in 1989 for his reporting in South Africa during the closing years of the apartheid era. He worked around press restrictions regarding security topics but said it was important for him to be on the scene, sharing both sides of the story through his work, “Being Black in South Africa.”

But he never thought winning a Pulitzer would happen to him. 

“I was glad that people thought the story was important enough to warrant that certain award,” Zucchino said. “Personally, it was very gratifying because I had worked hard, and I was proud of what I had accomplished. It was a tremendous feeling.”

He said he has seen journalism change significantly through technology. Without the internet, Zucchino developed key reporting skills early in his career. 

“It’s so easy with the internet to do interviews or to collect information on the web and through social media,” Zucchino said. “It’s far, far more important to actually be on the scene and to speak with people on the scene.”

Sill has also seen technological advancements in journalism, but she said the core purpose and need for news is the same. 

“I think for a while there was a period people thought you wouldn’t really need journalists anymore because people could just put out their own information,” Sill said. “But we’re seeing more and more that journalism still plays a really key role in holding people accountable and separating fact from fiction for bringing context.”

Sill works as an independent editor and news consultant — and she's interested in finding ways to make high quality news sustainable long-term. 

A lot of alumni were shaped by the DTH, and Sill said using the alumni as a support group for the paper is a step in the right direction.

“I’m excited about being part of the conversation about how The Daily Tar Heel can continue to thrive going forward,” Sill said.

While Sill recognizes that students should be practical about jobs within the industry, she said new ideas are emerging, and journalism is not at the end of its story.

“If you love it, and you believe in it, don’t give up before you start,” Sill said.

Sill was an editor for an investigative team at the N&O and worked with fellow UNC alumni Pat Stith and Joby Warrick to produce the five-part series, “Boss Hog,” which released key research outlining health and environmental risks induced by the growing hog industry in North Carolina. 

“That contest is so competitive and there’s so much good journalism,” Sill said. “But you know, it was really gratifying when we won, and that it was for community service because I think that’s, to me, the highest kind of journalism.”

But Sill's favorite moments in her career came days after the series was published — when they began receiving appreciative emails and letters from people in Eastern North Carolina.   

“That was just really gratifying to know that the work was really making a difference,” Sill said. “A lot of the things I've found most rewarding is when the journalism you do helps people have more power, people who didn’t have power.”


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