Matt Waite returned to the Blair High School classroom where he honed his journalism skills before attending the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and beginning his career as a successful reporter.
On Thursday, Waite, a professor in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's College of Journalism and a 1993 BHS graduate, spoke with students in Courtney Archer's journalism class, sharing stories from his career and offering tips for the students to improve their writing.
“I have so many memories in this room,” Waite said. “It's hard to talk to them and be rolling over all of this in my head. Just that it was in this room just makes it that much more special. Being in a room like this, being around students, it's so much fun for me. That I get to do it at all is a gift, that I get to do it here in Blair is amazing.”
Waite began his career at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, covering police and breaking news, including deadly tornadoes and the crash of an American Airlines flight in 1999.
In 2000, he moved to the St. Petersburg Times in Florida, covering crime and city government before moving to the newspaper's metro staff and later its investigative staff.
Waite won a Pulitzer Prize for his work with PolitiFact, a website that fact checks what politicians say. The site became the first website awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.
“I'm here to tell you that is a surreal experience,” Waite told the students. “If you're a journalist, you dream of winning a Pulitzer some day. When it actually happens, it doesn't feel real. It doesn't even feel real to me now.”
In 2011, Waite returned to UNL as a professor. He teaches reporting and digital product development. He also founded the college's Drone Journalism Lab, which is designed to explore how drones could be used for reporting.
Archer said she jumped at the chance to have Waite speak to her students.
“I think it's pretty cool that they can see that somebody who started in the same room, doing the same things they're doing now has gone on and done so many amazing stories. I think it gives them perspective that even though it's small town Nebraska, they can do the same thing,” she said. “It helps for them to hear the same things I teach them from a different voice.”
Though he didn't touch on it with the high school students, Waite said he often tells his college students that they will face setbacks given the uncertainty in journalism today.
“You're going to do a lot of different stuff, but it's clear that the world doesn't need less journalism, it needs more,” he said. “The problems we have right now is figuring out how we're going to pay for it. How the people who do it are going to get paid. As long as there is an audience, as long as there is a need, there will be a need for journalists.”
Today's journalists, he said, need to have an entrepreneurial spirit.
“Not only are you thinking about the story, but thinking about how can I get this audience, how can I get them interested, how can I get them engaged, what else can I do to get things into people's minds and consciousness and into the public sphere,” he said.