Q&A with Kathy Blackwell of the Austin American-Statesman
Kathy Blackwell is executive features editor at the Austin American-Statesman. Her career includes work as a copy editor at newspapers in Greensboro, N.C., and Orlando, Fla. In this interview, conducted by email, Blackwell discusses her job, changes in features coverage and the emerging role of social media in journalism.
Q. Describe your job. What is your typical workday like?
A. I can never say my title with a straight face — it’s executive features editor, which essentially means that I’m a department head. I oversee the features staff of 17 reporters and four assigning editors, the daily Life section, the Austin360 entertainment tabloid, Statesman Homes and the books content that appears Sunday in Insight & Books — and the corresponding content that appears on our news and entertainment sites.
I also plan and edit Glossy magazine, a high-end niche publication that comes out nine times a year and is delivered to 50,000 subscribers. I report to the managing editor and executive editor.
I haven’t had a typical workday since 2006, quite honestly. I never know what to expect when I come in to the office — or, I should say, when I wake up and plug in to my email, Twitter and Facebook. It took me a while to realize that a highly structured approach to the day can be more of a detriment than an asset, but once I did, this flexible approach really made a difference in my ability to change gears and be able to react to whatever the day or night brings.
Having said that, though, structure is still important. The Life section is a pre-print, and the production desk has shrunk dramatically from when I first took this job in late 2004, so planning is essential, details crucial. It’s really a balancing act — the more you have a grip on things you can control, the better off you’ll be when things you can’t control arise.
I read the paper before I come to work (if I wait to read it at my desk, it will never happen), and I also check the home pages for our news site (statesman.com, where some of my lifestyle material appears) and our entertainment site (austin360.com, where the majority of my content appears). I also take a quick look at Twitter and Facebook feeds to get an idea of what people are talking about.
My days revolve around meetings and emails. I try to deal with them efficiently and get them out of the way so that I can get on to the editing and planning parts of my job.
Every morning I attend the 10 a.m. news meeting, where all the department heads discuss what did/didn’t work in that day’s paper, go over what’s online on the major area news sites and what’s doing well on ours, and then go over what each department is planning for the next day. We have another news meeting at 3:30 focusing on just the next day’s paper, going over updates and changes. I or one of my assigning editors does a daily “standup” meeting at the page designer’s desk around 10:45 to go over our Life sections for the next two days and see what we’re missing, what isn’t working, that kind of thing.
I meet with my assigning editors, the photo editor and the online and production heads on Mondays and Fridays to go over my story budget for the next three weeks. The department heads also meet every Tuesday to discuss the next few weeks and weekends, focusing especially on Sundays.
As for emails, I typically get between 300 and 400 a day during the week. They come from staffers, readers, PR people, bands looking for stories, freelancers looking for work, almost everything you can think of. If I don’t deal with them quickly, they can easily take over. This doesn’t include the reaching out that happens on Twitter and Facebook. I’ve tried to train people to communicate with me directly via email. I would say I spend a total of about two hours on email.
Ideally, the rest of the day would be spent doing a combination of looking at all of our copy for the next few days’ worth of sections and any big stories that are in, talking to reporters or editors about what they’re working on, going over the story budget to make sure we don’t have any holes and that photos and online components are being thought of, monitoring the dozens of blogs and other content we do for online (as well as what other news outlets are doing) to make sure we’re not missing print opportunities and trying to maintain a presence on Twitter. I also try to spend some time on the magazine, either editing or planning.
The rest of the time can be spent dealing with personnel issues, meeting with marketing to discuss event opportunities and meeting with members of the community. I try to accept invitations to events when I can, whether it’s lunch with an arts leader or a fundraiser for the film festival. Social media is more effective when you’re actually social.
Q. Your background is rooted in editing more than reporting. How does that affect the way you do your job?
A. I was a copy editor and page designer from 1991 to 1999, when I became a section editor and writer for the Orlando Sentinel. Then I came to Austin as a business copy editor and page designer but didn’t do that for long. The editors here knew my interest in features, so they moved me over to features as the wire editor, which I did for about a year until becoming copy chief, which didn’t really excite me.
I was eager to be more on the content editing and planning side of things, which was encouraged by the Statesman management. They came up with the idea to put me in a reporting role so that I would be better prepared to become an assigning editor. So I became the suburban schools reporter for the metro desk, and I loved it. I learned so much doing that and can’t imagine doing my current role without that experience.
When an assigning editing job opened up in Features, I filled that slot and then became features editor just a few months later when the editor was promoted to the new role of AME for online. Because I’ve held all those roles, I think I have a really clear understanding of what it takes to put out the paper and produce great stories and packages.
Q. Austin has a lot going on culturally. How does the American-Statesman decide what to focus on?
A. It can be overwhelming, that’s for certain. We try to focus on local stories, which isn’t as cut and dried as it sounds.
For example, Tony Bennett isn’t from Austin, but when he comes to perform here, then it’s local. So another way to look at is that we put the priority on copy that only we can really do, so we’re getting away from having the staff do what you can call commodity copy: reviews of movies without local connections or strong local interest, stories about television shows or musicians without local connections. For that, we ignore or use wire.
We rely on blogs and listings in our entertainment tab and on our daily Best Bets page in the Life section to at least mention the events and news that we feel our readers need to know about. Beyond that, we look for subjects that either make for good stories or are a way to shed light on our way of life here.
We also want to help advance the discussion of issues that are important, whether it be about the need for a film incubator or whether South by Southwest is too big for our town (it’s not, by the way). We want to be reflective of the community — it’s the capital, a college town, a music town, a tech town, a foodie town and a movies town, but we also have a lot of readers in the suburbs who could care less about what’s happening on 6th Street but do want to know about the rodeo or the family fair at the Wildflower Center.
Adding another layer of complexity is the fact that we now compete with dozens of niche online publications who are eager to tell Austinites about music, food trailers, arts exhibits, local film news, etc. For years, our biggest challenge was that we had a modest staff covering large swaths of A&E, which meant that a reporter would be both a critic and a reporter. If the criticism wasn’t favorable, it would sometimes cost us a source. This has become less of a problem as we’ve gotten away from criticism and into what we call authoritative reporting, which works really well in the blogosphere.
Q. We’ve seen tremendous changes in the media in the past few years. What does the transition to digital news mean for features coverage?
A. I’m really lucky to be at the Statesman. When I came here in 2000, I was surprised to see that we didn’t have a big digital staff like the one I had left behind in Orlando. Instead, it was a small operation that relied on the newsroom for content.
This ended up being really smart, because the newsroom has always felt a part of the website (unlike in Orlando, where it was basically a separate universe), and most of the staff can barely remember a time when online wasn’t part of their daily routine. So when we did develop production desks for the news and entertainment sites, the reporters and editors were already on board. They didn’t need to be sold on the value of getting their stories up quickly.
We’ve been winning national and state awards for our sites for years now. The majority of my staff is also very tech-savvy; in fact, personal tech reporter Omar Gallaga has been doing NPR’s “All Tech Considered” for three years. He and food writer Addie Broyles quickly jumped on to Twitter (which really got its start at SXSW here a few years ago), so by the time the majority of Twitter users got into their groove, Addie, Omar and other staffers had several thousand followers.
One of our online staffers ended up creating his role as our social media editor, which was essential to our success with using social media to drive traffic. Almost all of the features writers are actively engaged in our community now because of social media and public appearances, and that leads to better, more informed stories.
With our niche competition, we’re driven to stay on top of the important areas and be first to break news, whether it’s an announcement of a new restaurant or the lineup of a music festival. However, what sets us apart is our credibility and our trustworthiness. We’ve seen many others lose sight of that in their drive to be the first. After a while, savvy online readers pick up on who’s going to get it right versus who’s just trying to get traffic.
Follow Kathy Blackwell on Twitter.