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The Daily Tar Heel

Farewell column: Reflecting on my complicated relationship with the DTH

Maydha Devarajan is the Elevate Editor for the 2021-2022 school year. Maydha is a senior majoring in journalism and medical anthropology from Cary, N.C.

I’ve dreaded writing this column since senior year began.

Finding the words to sum up four years of reporting, frustration and friendships — all the while sounding poetic and poignant — seems an impossible task.

In both my introduction column as Elevate editor and my first column of this year, I wrote about my complicated feelings about the paper. I wish I had a more elegant parting note but when I reflect back on my relationship with The Daily Tar Heel, there's one that comes to mind: It’s been complicated.

I joined during fall semester my first year at UNC in 2018. I’d gone back and forth on applying, with a distinct desire to not let my extracurriculars become my entire life and with concerns after reading Leah Asmelash’s own farewell column on the office’s systemic race issues.

I remember sitting on the grass of the quad during orientation — which had been led by three white female editors — with the rest of the University Desk, wondering what my experiences would be like.

I’ve known I wanted to be a journalist since I was 15 — a seed planted from time spent working on my high school’s newspaper, where I was often given free rein to write about whatever I wanted.

But if writing for my high school’s paper was where I learned to be creative and express myself, working at the DTH taught me how to be a journalist — how to ask tough questions and be persistent, to get over yourself when you make mistakes and do better, to understand that you aren’t owed anyone’s story, to think critically as a reporter and look for stories in most anything.

I had opportunities to participate in truly important coverage because of the DTH. I covered the first major protest in Raleigh after George Floyd’s murder; I was able to write alongside professional news outlets to capture the moment the Board of Trustees overturned a 16-year ban on renaming campus buildings; I edited stories that documented both the University’s fumbled plan of bringing students back to Chapel Hill during COVID-19 and the repeated warnings from campus members on why doing so would be a terrible idea.

Undoubtedly, the reason why I received certain professional development opportunities over the past four years is because of the work I did at the DTH. 

I had the confidence to be the co-editor for Monsoon, UNC’s South Asian affairs magazine, because of the summer I spent editing stories as University Desk editor. My time pursuing enterprise and investigative stories on UNC’s administration prepared me for a metro reporting internship at The News & Observer last summer. 

But despite all that I’ve gained because of the DTH, I also recognize its flaws — flaws that run deep throughout the newsroom. 

Around the time I accepted my current position as Elevate editor, UNC’s Black Congress released a statement that outlined harmful reporting errors made by the DTH, stating they would no longer do interviews with staff writers. The statement made me reflect on my concerns with the DTH and journalism as a whole.

How can a newsroom accurately and genuinely cover its entire community when the diversity of its staff doesn’t reflect readership? How can reporters give agency and extend care to sources when the 24-hour news cycle doesn’t necessarily allow the resources for that? How can we begin to repair relationships and improve coverage and make it evident that it’s because we see an absolute necessity to do this work, not because of a desire to virtue signal or prove a point? How can we ensure that diversity, equity and inclusion efforts do not rest entirely on the shoulders of the few remaining people of color on staff?

Most of my first years at the DTH were marked by memories of feeling like I didn’t quite belong or that I wasn’t good enough. I could count the number of editors of color on one hand. I essentially had no friends on staff. I felt overworked, burned out and underappreciated.  

Every week that I turned in a story during my first year at the DTH, I contemplated quitting. I fantasized about all I would do with my free time, the Sundays I would have to myself instead of sitting in my room in Ehringhaus, transcribing and writing furiously to meet my deadline.

Now looking back, I really have no idea whether I would do it all again.

I’m incredibly proud of the work that we have done this year to improve our coverage. As I mentioned in my column, I know that changing the DTH’s diversity, equity and inclusion standards won’t happen overnight, especially if we want those changes to be sustainable. We’ve led workshops and talked candidly with staff members about reporting mistakes and the DTH’s history of causing harm to underrepresented communities.

But I also know there is still much to be done. There are places we fell short this year, stories and coverage that didn’t happen, relationships and trust still left broken. I’ve also seen the diversity of our editing staff slide backwards, and I can only hope that won’t dissuade future passionate reporters of color from joining the paper.

Still, I know I am a better journalist and editor because of the DTH.

Thank you to Praveena, for being an incredibly thoughtful leader and friend this year, for prioritizing Elevate and for stepping in during moments when I was unable to. Thank you to Clay, for being a wonderful partner in this work and always lending a critical editing eye. 

I am especially grateful to Allie, Brianna and Liv for taking such care to consistently incorporate Elevate into University Desk, the place where I started my DTH journey. And thank you to Rajee, Chris, Jeremiah, PJ, Olivia, Heidi, Guillermo and so many others who finally gave me the DTH friends I’d hoped for these past four years.

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To any students of color or from underrepresented groups considering joining the DTH, I would encourage you to try it out. But I’d also emphasize that it’s okay to set boundaries and to say no to things.

It can feel like life or death sometimes, but at the end of the day, it’s not your job to fix all of the DTH’s issues. Take the best things you can from it and hold those experiences close — I know I will.