The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: September, 2010

Celebrating the First Amendment at UNC

Thursday is First Amendment Day at UNC-Chapel Hill. Here is what it’s all about:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

For journalists of all types, that means we can gather news, write an article or blog post, edit it and put a headline on it without fear of going to prison. There are limits — we can’t commit libel, for example, without legal consequences. Even so, journalists enjoy freedoms in this country that their counterparts in others do not.

That right and the others in the First Amendment deserve a day of recognition and celebration. The UNC events include a debate about religious freedom, a reading of banned books and a discussion of codes of student conduct.

All are free and open to the public. I hope to see you there.

Q&A with Fiona Morgan on the state of Triangle media

Fiona Morgan is a graduate student seeking a master’s degree in public policy at Duke University. She has more than 10 years of experience as an editor and reporter, most recently at the Independent Weekly in Durham, N.C. As part of her graduate studies, Morgan recently completed an in-depth look at the news media in the Triangle region of North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Morgan discusses her research and conclusions.

Q. What is the purpose of this study, and how did you go about researching it?

A. The idea behind this study was to look as comprehensively as possible at all of the ways in which people who live in the Triangle can access information about their communities, from conventional print and broadcast news to blogs to neighborhood listservs and libraries. The study is a broad, qualitative look at who provides news and public affairs information, where those outlets are, and, as best we can determine, where people get their news.

This study is a project of the Media Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, D.C. The Media Policy Initiative is a relatively new project that kicked off last spring under the broader umbrella of New America’s Open Technology Initiative. The staff and fellows of MPI produce and analyze research on policy and regulatory reforms that can foster media that contributes to a democratic society. The framework of much of this research comes from the Knight Commission Report Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, and the Knight Foundation funds MPI.

The Triangle report is one of several community reports MPI has produced. They’ve also looked at Minneapolis-St. Paul, Seattle, Washington, and Scranton, Pa. Each of these reports presents a unique approach. For instance, the Minneapolis report incorporates a lot of content analysis, which mine does not. The thing that connects them is the idea of looking at a specific community as the unit of analysis.

A lot of discussion about media policy tends to focus on specific policy questions: What should the Federal Communications Commission do about white spaces in the broadcast spectrum? What I really like about MPI’s approach was the idea of looking at all the policies – federal, state, and local – that affect a specific community and examining how they function of a piece.

Most journalism is committed locally, at small newspapers and radio and TV stations. Most Americans are more affected by whether anyone is left to cover the local school board than they are by The New York Times’ financial troubles. That’s why it’s important to remind policymakers in Washington that communities, not the industry itself, are what matters most.

In writing the report, I started with what I knew from my experience as a reporter covering local media for the Independent Weekly, the Triangle’s alternative newsweekly. I had written about the sale of Durham’s hometown newspaper, The Herald-Sun, to the Paxton chain. I had written about layoffs at our metropolitan daily newspaper, The News & Observer.

I also wrote about the state video franchise legislation and its impact on public access channels and broadband Internet competition. I searched the FCC’s web site for every broadcast license in the area, then I used the Internet and phone interviews and reporting produced by other media outlets.

I tried to answer basic questions about each media outlet: Who owns what? Who is the audience? How many readers or viewers do they have? What geographic area do they cover? What sort of stories do they produce? How have the answers to these questions changed over time, and why? If conventional media outlets are producing less news, are blogs or other outlets filling the gaps? Which outlets are struggling with sustainability, and why?

I did not have access to proprietary data, so I relied a lot on interviews, which was very time intensive but a lot of fun.

Q. What are your major findings and recommendations?

I was not surprised to find that our media market is somewhat unusual in the prominence of our locally owned outlets. Not only is WRAL the leading TV station, WRAL.com is also by far the most popular news website in the market. It’s rare for a local TV station to draw a larger audience than the local newspaper online.

I was somewhat surprised to find that print newspapers, particularly those that target small communities, are holding steady in terms of circulation. In fact, there are two print startups, the Carrboro Citizen and the Garner Citizen (no relation, as they say), that seem to be expanding while producing strong local journalism.

There some good quality blogs out there with loyal audiences. Some of those bloggers do it purely out of a sense of civic duty and have no interest in quitting their day jobs, but others are interested in being entrepreneurs. It’s still unclear whether there’s enough potential revenue for them to take the leap.

I was disappointed to find that new media outlets do not reflect the racial and cultural diversity in the Triangle. For instance, it’s astonishing that in Durham, a city with as many African-American residents as white residents and a proud history of racial diversity, there isn’t a greater online presence for the African-American community or a blogger covering local government from that point of view. That’s a case where I hope I missed something.

There’s a long section on UNC-TV in which I discuss the various policies that have led to that station’s current problems. In short, I conclude the station needs more structural and financial independence, and its management needs to decide whether to embrace their role as a news organization. I also consider the way state policies have made it difficult for public access channels to succeed.

I’d like to see the sort of institutions that bolster conventional media’s ability to provide watchdog reporting extended to online entrepreneurs and bloggers. The legal resources provided by the North Carolina Press Association are a huge asset to any newspaper that’s trying to wrest public records from an uncooperative administration. The NCPA and other groups also provided low-cost training and continuing education for reporters.

These are things that could improve the quality of blogs and make them more sustainable. While doing so may seem to counterintuitive, since online outlets ostensibly compete with print outlets, consider that reporters and editors increasingly rely on blogs for tips and even content, to some extent.

It would also be interesting to see if some citizen journalism curriculum could be added to the neighborhood college model. Neighborhood colleges, as I discuss in the report, are opportunities for citizens to learn how their local governments work. The Triangle has a number of programs, which groom local civic leaders. They learn how to mediate between their neighbors and town or city officials. Why not teach them how to communicate more broadly, either as bloggers or as better sources to professional journalists?

Q. You suggest that local ownership makes for better local journalism. Yet media companies such as McClatchy and Media General are consolidating news coverage and creating “editing hubs” that seem to run counter to that idea. What is behind this disconnect?

I think media companies such as those you mention are trying to find the best way to cope with budget cuts and limited resources. With regard to consolidated news coverage, editors are trying to make up for what they provide less of, local on-the-ground reporting, by providing more of what they do have, which is content from other places – I’m thinking of those Charlotte stories in the N&O.

There is a valid case to be made that, given the limitations, it may be best not to send a reporter from each paper to cover the same sporting event, for instance. That case gets weaker when you’re talking about news stories that need local context.

With regard to the “editing hubs,” I’ve heard people point out that managers face a choice: either cut editors and production staff and keep reporters, or keep reporters and production and cut reporters. The message seems to be, wouldn’t you rather keep reporters on the ground?

I guess I agree with that thinking, but I worry that we devalue editors at our peril. First of all, many editors write, especially at local papers. Second, editors are the keepers of a community’s institutional memory. Not only do they keep reporters from making mistakes, good editors know enough of the context to push reporters to ask deeper questions and place a story in context for readers, which is something journalists are in a unique position to do. This is especially important when the reporters are new the community. Every time I hear that a veteran editor or copy editor has left a newspaper, I feel like we’re losing more of a vital information resource.

In a broader sense, the idea that local ownership makes for better local journalism remains an empirical question, but I do think the study’s findings tend to validate the theoretical reasons that would be true: A local owner can distinguish their news product in the marketplace by stressing their local presence, local identity and investment in local content.

That’s certainly true of Curtis Media. When WPTF’s Clear Channel-owned competitor changed to a talk news format and contracted to run Rush Limbaugh’s program, Curtis chose to reconfigure its programming around originally produced state and local news. It will be interesting to see whether WPTF’s experiment is rewarded by the market.

Also, economic theory tells us that news coverage, especially accountability journalism, has positive externalities, which is to say that it benefits the local community in ways that the news organization can’t possibly be compensated for through the market. I benefit from investigative reporting that exposes corruption whether or not I read the story. A local owner reaps some of those benefits because he or she lives in that community; therefore, local ownership provides a bit more incentive.

It’s true that large news organizations have may resources available that are much harder for a small, independent organization to provide. I’m thinking particularly of access to research tools and databases, subscriptions to wire services, etc. There is an economy of scale at work in that regard. However, chain-owned media outlets like The News & Observer are facing the needs of their corporate owners to service a very large debt.

Q. You’re in graduate school to investigate the big question of “how we will pay for journalism and what journalism will look like in the coming years.” What are your thoughts about that after completing this study, and what further research is needed?

A. Well, I’m afraid I still don’t know the answer to either of those questions. But I’ve definitely seen my perspective on these questions evolve since I went to graduate school.

In reporting on how changes in the media and technology industries were playing out on the ground, I got very interested in what sort of policies affected the media and people’s access to it. In the United States, we like to think that the First Amendment means government simply plays no role in the media, or that it should keep its “hands off,” whatever that means.

But the reality is, many policies affect the media: open records and open meetings laws, libel law, broadcast licensing, copyright, even which enterprises the Internal Revenue Service considers legitimately tax-exempt. I also think of both media and policy broadly enough to include the impact of, for instance, public libraries, foundation funding, and the role of public education.

Journalists tend to be proud autodidacts. It’s part of the ethos of our tribe that we’re resourceful; we can jump into an assignment and teach ourselves what we need to know to cover it. But I started to realize, as many journalists do, that if I wanted to seriously pursue these questions, I needed to get a more formal education in economics and government.

Another reason I decided to go to graduate school is a bit more personal. About the tenth or twelfth time I interviewed a reporter who’d just been laid off, I started thinking, “You know, I should probably think about my own future.” I could see the writing on the wall, because I was putting it there.

Ultimately, my thinking was, either a graduate education in something like public policy will make me a much better reporter, or it will give me some additional options in case being a reporter isn’t something I choose to do, or isn’t a choice that’s open to me.

Then I read James Hamilton’s book “All the News That’s Fit to Sell,” which is an economist’s explanation of why the media business functions as it does and why it faces the crisis it does. That book made a huge impression on me and started me down the path toward graduate school. Now Professor Hamilton is my academic advisor, and I’m having the time of my life. I mean, I get very little sleep and all that, but I feel so fortunate to be able to take this time to learn.

Right now we’re getting a lot of feedback on the case, so in version 2.0 I hope to add pieces information and perspectives that may be missing or need fleshing out. I also want to deal with more concrete policy recommendations, which I hope will be informed by this round of feedback and conversation among people in the community. It may also be affected by recommendations and policies that are expected to come out from the FCC and the FTC in the coming months.

For my own research, I want to look more closely at specific communities within the Triangle and examine why some have more accountability coverage than others. I’m curious about what economic factors contribute to that information divide, and what the impact is on the people who live there.

Read the full report (PDF) and follow Fiona Morgan on Twitter.

UPDATE: Morgan is now a researcher with the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy at Duke University.

Remembering copy editor Lou Bonds

I was saddened over the weekend to hear of the death of Lou Bonds, a friend and a former colleague at The News & Observer. He was 60, and the cause of death was cancer.

Lou was a top-notch headline writer and copy editor. He earned a journalism degree from UNC-Chapel Hill and worked at newspapers in Winston-Salem and Durham before coming to the Raleigh paper. He retired in 2009.

A longtime resident of Durham, Lou was a tremendous resource on that city’s politics and history. This knowledge was especially useful in the 1990s, when Lou and another copy editor, Bill Smith, worked in the newspaper’s bureau in downtown Durham.

Here’s what some of Lou’s colleagues said about him on Facebook:

  • “I can’t begin to tell you how valuable he and Bill were to me as a just-landed Yankee reporter trying to survive the night cops beat in Durham. He loved a good story, knew how to make it better and remained funny and endearing when he went off on one of his not too infrequent rants.”
  • “Lou was such a solid editor and such a charming man. I learned a lot from him. He was never flashy; he just did his job and did it well.”
  • “As a reporter and editor at the N&O, you were always glad to find out that Lou Bonds would be copy editing your story. You knew if you slipped, he would catch you.”

Farewell, Lou. You will be missed.

In lieu of flowers, Lou’s family would appreciate memorial gifts to Duke Homecare and Hospice, Suite 101, 4321 Medical Park Drive, Durham, NC 27704.

Editing “Mallard Fillmore”

The News & Observer publishes “Mallard Fillmore” on its comics pages each weekday and on Saturday. The politically oriented strip has been the subject of debate among readers, with many stating that it should be on the editorial pages along with “Doonesbury,” not in the features section.

I won’t step into that broader discussion. I would, however, question the decision to publish one of the “Mallard” strips this week.

On Wednesday, “Mallard” poked fun at Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker. That’s fine, but the strip has three problems:

  • It is ungrammatical. In the text of the first panel, the subject and verb “outrage” and “have” do not agree. (Thanks to Grammar Monkeys for pointing this out.)
  • It does not follow AP style. The strip refers to the “Ground-Zero Mosque.” As the AP recently advised, that is inaccurate. The N&O’s editors use the Associated Press Stylebook as their primary reference.
  • It uses anonymous sources. The N&O shuns anonymous sources. Sure, “Mallard” is using them in an attempt at humor, but is that an exception to N&O policy?

If a story from a wire service or a staff writer landed on an editor’s desk at the N&O in this condition, it would not be published on its news pages. Why was this comic strip?

Q&A with Stephanie Yera, communications associate at the NYT

Stephanie Yera is a communications associate at The New York Times Company. Yera is a 2009 graduate of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. She previously worked as an intern and corporate communications assistant at Dow Jones and Company. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Yera talks about her job duties and journalism education.

Q. Describe your job. What does a communications associate do at The New York Times Company?

A. Every day begins by reading The Times in print and online to see what stories are on deck and which ones are “most viewed” and “most e-mailed” online. Pinning down our most popular news stories determines what newspaper content I’m going to actively pitch to TV and radio producers in an effort to secure interviews for our reporters to discuss their stories on air.

Even without pitching, we get numerous invitations daily from producers for our reporters to appear on their programs, so coordinating interviews is my primary responsibility.

It’s important to be familiar with the paper, its reporters and their beats, because if one reporter on a particular story is unavailable for interviews, I need to try to find another reporter to jump in. If I know The Times is working on an investigative piece or is preparing to break a big story, part of my job is to do advance outreach to producers to reserve air time for reporter interviews and make sure The Times gets credit for the news scoop.

My job also includes copy editing all external communications, writing company press releases and posting to the company’s Twitter feed. In the fall, I’ll be posting to Twitter live from TimesTalks events, part of an ongoing series of celebrity guests interviewed by Times reporters, which I’m especially excited about doing.

Q. You were a student in the news-editorial sequence at UNC-Chapel Hill. How did the skills you learned there help you in your job? What wasn’t taught that should have been?

A. Coming into The Times already knowing how a newsroom works and what kinds of stories make for high interest really helped me find my footing quickly. Because I’m speaking with producers and reporters constantly, I hear industry jargon all the time, and I’m able to keep up despite not having previously worked in a newsroom thanks to my time in the j-school.

The skills I learned in news editing helped me carve out a bigger role for myself in the office because I’m now trusted to copy edit and review corporate communications before they leave our department and to take such precautions as proofreading my Tweet before posting. Volunteering to edit internal communications is how I eventually got to do more writing.

I’m still not a master of the press release, but what helps me write one is the inverted pyramid, the concept I learned my first day in the j-school and which is now second nature when it comes to writing most corporate communications.

News reporting really pushed me outside of my comfort zone, but it was a necessary challenge that taught me a lot about taking initiative, networking and being confident in my writing. Networking isn’t something I’m naturally inclined to do, but putting myself out there as a journalist and getting interviews from sources gave me the nudge I needed to be more comfortable with it and, eventually, come to enjoy it.

I would like to see a j-school class devoted entirely to digital journalism that included lessons in basic HTML, Web design, blogging with video and audio, putting your resume online and attracting people to your Web site, Twitter feed, Facebook, etc. Something I wish had been more ingrained in me is the important habit of keeping up with the latest media industry news. Being up to speed on the gadgets, apps, tech startups and media journalists of the moment is critical if you want to stand out and be ahead of the curve of new media.

Q. You were an intern for the American Copy Editors Society. How did that experience help you in the job you have now?

A. As an intern, I was responsible for setting up interviews with copy editing professionals to discuss their jobs and editing expertise and for interviewing and following up with them without an intermediary, which were experiences that directly relate to what I do now.

For some people, picking up the phone and calling someone they’ve never met is easy, but for me, it took some getting used to, especially because I was nervous I hadn’t prepared the right questions to get enough meat for the stories I’d be writing for the ACES newsletter. Every time, though, I ended up having more than enough to write about, and I hesitated less and less before picking up the phone and conducting my next interview.

The majority of my day is now spent negotiating interviews, cold calling and e-mailing producers and “meeting” reporters on a call or via BlackBerry.

Having ACES on my resume also earned me some credibility with my colleagues when I first started at The Times. They let me have a go at copy editing internal memos and departmental e-mails when I started volunteering myself for the task. After a couple of months, I was asked to assist the company’s speechwriter in editing executive speeches and to copy edit press releases, and now I help write them, as well.

Q. Many college students would love to land an internship or first job like yours. What recommendations do you have for them?

A. Big opportunities can come from unexpected places, so tell people about your ambitions and get to know classmates and professors in and outside of the j-school. The interview for my public relations summer internship with The Wall Street Journal came through a professor in UNC’s peace, war and defense department — an unlikely source who knew I was looking for an opportunity in media. Without that internship, I wouldn’t have met the person who would hire me a year later to work at The Times.

Getting to know your professors can not only lead to job recommendations, but can also be a gateway to important introductions and meaningful support systems. Maintaining relationships with Carolina alumni is also an important step in preserving resources of encouragement and possible job connections. I only really took advantage of University Career Services in my senior year, and that’s something I should have done much sooner. Through UCS, you can find jobs posted by alumni or by organizations where alumni are already employed and find employers looking for Carolina grads.

Skills that will serve you in digital journalism should be kept sharp and up to date, but not at the expense of traditional know-how. I once got a job without an interview because I was the only candidate to not include a spelling or grammar error with my application.

If you haven’t yet had luck in securing a paid job in journalism, seek out volunteer or freelance opportunities to keep you in the game. Even if they don’t pay, they’ll add important value to your resume.

Stormy weather in print

When it comes to covering hurricanes, broadcast media have a tremendous advantage over their print counterparts.

TV can cover the storms live and show their latest locations. Back in the day, Dan Rather could stand on a beach amid wind and rain as viewers sat and watched in their living rooms.

Newspapers, on the other hand, struggle with storms. The latest forecasts that go to print at midnight and land on readers’ driveways at dawn are already out of date. So are the maps that show a hurricane’s location and projected path.

That’s why I was surprised this morning while watching the Weather Channel as I got ready for work. I wanted to get the latest information on Hurricane Earl.

One reporter on North Carolina’s Outer Banks concluded her live coverage by holding up today’s edition of the Virginian-Pilot and pointing out the photo at the top of the page. The next reporter, standing on a sunny beach in Massachusetts, began his story by showing the front page of the Cape Cod newspaper and used it to describe preparations in the area.

At least these broadcasters are giving credit where it’s due. But the image of Weather Channel reporters holding up print newspapers to support their coverage is odd. Can’t they do their own work?

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