The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: May, 2012

Q&A with Brad Walters, features designer at Washington Post

Brad Walters is an art director and features designer at The Washington Post. He previously worked at The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., and the Herald-Journal in Spartanburg, S.C. In this interview, conducted by email, Walters talks about what it’s like to work at the Post and what’s in store for print designers in an increasingly digital media.

Q. Describe your job. What do you do in a typical workday?

A. In a nutshell, I get paid to draw all day! How cool is that? More specifically, I design and art-direct covers and inside pages for the weekly Health & Science and Local Living sections of the Post.

Part of the job is highly creative — conceptualizing graphics, brainstorming cover concepts from scratch — and part of it is technical and heavily deadline-driven. The features design team is a collaborative group, so we’re constantly bouncing ideas off one another and pitching in to help each other when it’s needed. I sometimes write for the paper as well, but that’s far less typical nowadays.

Q. Your career before The Washington Post included stops in Raleigh and Spartanburg. How is the Post different from the newspapers in those cities, and how does that affect what you do?

A. The biggest difference is that the Post, by virtue of its size, offers resources that smaller papers often can’t. For instance, I’m fortunate enough to have a modest freelance budget with which I can hire illustrators to produce original artwork for certain stories. It’s not something I can do all the time, but it’s a nice way to bring diverse voices and themes to our pages.

As in Raleigh and Spartanburg, the Post is highly focused on growing its local audience, more so now than ever. As Warren Buffett noted in his memo to his newspaper editors and publishers this past week, “newspapers that intensely cover their communities will have a good future.” Let’s hope he’s right.

Q. You’ve worked both as a copy editor and as a designer. Which role do you prefer, and which skills overlap?

A. The primary overlap is that I think both copy editors and designers serve as the gatekeepers and guardians of the interests of readers. In a more practical sense, it’s incredibly useful to be able to write spec headlines for display packages that stand at least a chance of making it into the paper. While everyone is encouraged to weigh in on all aspects of a story, the fact that I was a copy editor in a previous life makes me feel more comfortable doing so.

Q. You’re a print journalist in a media world that’s becoming increasingly digital. What do you see as the future of newspaper design?

If the news out of New Orleans and Alabama is any indication, I think there’s no question we’re moving toward an all-digital media world. Personally, I still read the dead-tree edition of the Post every day and have grown accustomed to how the print product organizes the news, and I think it’ll be a long while before we hit that tipping point where print can no longer wholly sustain itself.

The good news for visual journalists out there is that no matter what the medium – print, web, mobile – the need for smart, clear design and unique visual communication is only getting stronger as the media environment becomes more saturated. Print journalism may eventually die, but visual journalism – and journalism as a whole – is as important as it’s ever been.

My nominee for the best correction ever

What is the best correction ever run in a newspaper? It’s an informal competition, with no objective way to determine a winner.

This one brought “My Little Pony” and The New York Times together to comical effect. And this one about a potentially druggy drummer has made the rounds on social media several times over the past month.

My nominee comes from The News & Observer. Earlier this week, the Raleigh paper published an editorial about bluegrass music. Here’s how the top of the editorial appeared:

The name of the band was the Dillards, not the Dullards. That simple misspelling turns the word into an insult.

It’s a particularly embarrassing error for the N&O because of the North Carolina connection to “The Andy Griffith Show.” The newspaper’s columnists have frequently referred to the show over the years, and Raleigh was mentioned and portrayed in some episodes.

The N&O ran this correction today. It hits the right notes of regret, humility and chagrin. That’s about all you can do with this sort of error: chuckle, correct and move on. A bit of bluegrass courtesy of the Dullards Dillards might help too.

Share your style

Old stylebooks and updates from my days at The News & Observer. I recently donated these materials to a library at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Earlier this week, I stopped by the Park Library at UNC-Chapel Hill to borrow The Bluebook to assist me in a revision of a textbook chapter. The librarian, Stephanie Willen Brown, showed me a nice update to the library’s collection: freshly bound copies of stylebooks from newspapers.

The collection includes stylebooks from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Miami Herald and the San Francisco Chronicle. News services such as Bloomberg, United Press International, the Catholic News Service and The Associated Press are also represented. The oldest item in the set is the 1943 edition of The New York Times stylebook.

Nearly all of the stylebooks are print only, but you can see them at the Park Library and other libraries on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. I’m hoping to spend part of my summer thinking of how these stylebooks could be used for research.

I have several stylebooks in my office, including three from my days at The News & Observer. I’ve donated those to the Park Library. Like many newspaper stylebooks, these are in three-punch folders, so Stephanie will look into getting them bound.

Do you have a stylebook from a newspaper, website, magazine or wire service that you’d like to share? Contact the staff at the Park Library. We can study, save and protect your stylebook, and we’d be grateful for your gift.

Q&A with Elena Rue and Catherine Orr of StoryMineMedia

Elena Rue and Catherine Orr are the founders of StoryMineMedia, a North Carolina company that specializes in documentary storytelling. In 2011, they were among the News21 fellows who produced Coal: A Love Story. In this interview, conducted by email, Rue and Orr talk about their company’s mission, projects and business model.

Q. What is StoryMineMedia, and what do you hope to achieve?

A. StoryMineMedia is a visual storytelling company. We come from a photojournalism background with a focus on documentary-style video stories. We produce independent projects — stories we are passionate about, and are not necessarily getting paid to tell. And through those projects, hope to attract clients who like our style and see the value of using stories to communicate their message.

Q. How do you decide what projects to work on, and how do you go about reporting and editing them?

A. Most of our story ideas come from observing what’s going on around us. What stories aren’t being told, what stories are being told but could use a different perspective? How can we add to the conversation?

We recently released our first independent project, a quirky piece about a middle school student council election. “The Council” follows three eighth-graders as they navigate their way through the challenging landscape of middle school politics. The idea came from the flood of election coverage we’re all experiencing this year.

We wanted to offer a different perspective, and show what it could mean to “govern yourself accordingly.” Needless to say, we could learn a lot from these kids.Once we had the idea, we started contacting schools to learn about their student government systems and gauge interest. We chose a local middle school that was holding its first election in four years.

After meeting with the teachers and administrators, we did a round of pre-interviews with all of the candidates to determine which three we wanted to focus on. We chose Leah, Cara and Ryan because they are great and because they each represented something that added another layer of meaning to the project. (But we don’t want to spoil it, so watch “The Council” to see for yourself).

We filmed in the school and with our three subjects through the two-week campaign period and the election, and then came back for the first council meeting. We edit collaboratively, from identifying which parts of the interview should make the final script, to cutting scenes and choosing music.

In graduate school at UNC-Chapel Hill, professors and peers were constantly critiquing our work. Carrying that kind of constant back-and-forth into our business pushes us to be more creative and do our best work. Plus, it’s a lot more fun that way.

What we love about this startup is that we get to do any kind of story we want. “The Council” was light and quirky, but the next piece we do may be about astrophysics or race relations in college athletics (really).

Since the stories we’ll cover will differ greatly, so will the reporting and editing process. That too will keep us constantly challenged and hopefully mean that our work only gets better from here.

Q. How do you use social media to research your projects and promote them?

A. Viewing good work and seeing different ways of storytelling is essential to our process. Whether it’s a full-length documentary, photo essay, text piece, graphic or oral history, we are always looking for ways to build on our storytelling skills.

Social media is one of the main ways we are exposed to work on a daily basis. It is how we learn about new projects, share work that we find interesting, and follow other people in the field.

We also apply that same principal to promote our own work. Our hope is that other people who are looking for work might find our multimedia pieces interesting.

As a small startup, we rely heavily on word-of-mouth, bloggers and tweeters to share our work beyond our own personal networks. In addition to our visual work, we use our blog to share our experiences as we try to build our company from scratch. We have learned countless lessons from people who have shared experiences with us, and we would like to do the same for people who are also starting out.

One of the beauties of social media is that everybody (who has an account!) has a voice. We of course learn every day from others in our field, but we also recognize that we operate in a relatively small world of multimedia journalists.

One of our goals is to use social media to hear from others who are not in our field. We used crowdsourcing to find our name, choose our logo and develop a launch strategy for “The Council.” We plan to reach out to people for many of our decisions and ideas as we move forward. We know this will make our projects better, and we hope that it will help others feel invested our work.

Q. There’s lots of talk about small startups like yours as part of the future of journalism. What have you learned from the experience so far, and what advice would you give to people considering similar businesses?

A. The most important piece of advice we have for people starting out is to make time for your own work. Our commitment to producing independent projects was made before StoryMineMedia was born. We believe that good work is the best advertising for our skills and our hope is that people who like our independent work, might ask us to do similar projects for their organizations.

In an ideal world, every client would want us to work creatively and push the boundaries. In reality, most organizations have specific needs that don’t always fit into the most creative package. We respect this, but we also believe that we need to push ourselves creatively to be able to grow and keep ourselves engaged. Our independent work allows us to spend as much time as we need on a project and think outside the box.

Thank you, Ruth Walden

Ruth Walden, who teaches media law at UNC-Chapel Hill’s journalism school, is wrapping up the spring semester, and with it, a 31-year career in academia, most of them in North Carolina. At a going-away luncheon this week, Ruth estimated that she has taught 120 courses, or about 4,800 students, while at UNC.

I was one of those students, though I never took a course with her. For me, Ruth was mentor in two important phases of my life, and I’m grateful for her guidance.

GRADUATE SCHOOL

When I was a master’s student in the journalism school in the 1990s, Ruth was my adviser, and she gave excellent advice on coursework and preparation for my thesis. Because of my interest in the First Amendment and media law, she agreed to lead my thesis committee.

Ruth was the ideal adviser for this project, titled “Newspaper Distribution and the First Amendment.” The research centered on legal battles over the placement and appearance of newspaper newsracks, among other issues surrounding newspaper circulation.

From start to finish, I relied on her help to research the topic, organize my findings and present them in a clear, cogent manner. Ruth pored over drafts of each chapter, writing extensive notes and asking probing questions. She was a tough editor.

It was difficult but rewarding work. Ruth’s advice, questions and suggestions made my thesis a significant piece of research that I was able to use to write papers that were accepted at academic conferences. Her rigorous approach also prepared me for the thesis defense, which many graduate students find to be daunting. Thanks to Ruth’s preparation and thorough vetting of my research, the defense was more of a conversation about the topic more than a defense of my thesis. The result was a true exploration of ideas, and it was a wonderful experience.

JUNIOR FACULTY

I joined the faculty of the journalism school in fall 2005, and Ruth became my faculty mentor. Again, she provided invaluable counsel on issues of teaching, research and service.

A few times each semester, Ruth took me to lunch at a Mexican restaurant on Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill so we could discuss my progress in each area. She kindly picked up the tab each time.

The tenure process can have a “doom and gloom” aura, but Ruth made the path to tenure navigable, even enjoyable. She did so by explaining the expectations of the journalism school and the university, and how I could meet them.

Her guidance in this area gave me confidence to not only meet those expectations, but to beat them. I worked hard in each facet of my job, and in each area, Ruth gave me a gentle and steady push in the right direction. In 2010, I was granted tenure and promotion, and to celebrate, Ruth and I returned to the Mexican restaurant. This time, I paid the bill.

Ruth Walden is retiring this year, effective July 1. Although she will no longer be on the faculty, her influence and guidance will continue on via the faculty and students she has mentored here. Now I find myself in the role of mentor, both to graduate students and junior faculty. I’m pleased to pass along the type of assistance that Ruth has given me all these years.

So thank you, Ruth, for being a great mentor, colleague and friend. I will miss your words of wisdom — and your laugh — around Carroll Hall.

Student guest post: Viewing news through a different lens

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 14th of those posts. Emily Nycum is a reporting major and art history minor. After graduation in May 2012, she will expand the professional photography business she started last year, Emily March Photography.

I love photography. Few things on this planet get me as excited as the opportunity to take pictures of a beautiful place or person, and the sound of a shutter is music to my ears. It amazes me how a single image can conjure up a range of emotions. I have always been a very visual person, so what draws me into a story is its photograph.

More than a catchy headline or modern design, a story’s image (if it has one at all) is its hook for me. Have a captivating picture, and I’ll read your story.

With the growth in online media and news, photography has become an essential feature of most stories on the Web. It seems that the vast majority of stories online have some kind of image to go along with them. In many cases (and I love this) the photos are the story.

Slideshows have become an alternative story form that give the reader more to look at than just text. Many news outlets, including The New York Times, have entire sections highlighting unique stories presented through photojournalism. I love the quality and diversity of work seen in this section. Here, photographers have the opportunity to not only share current events visually, but also human interest stories and features that provide additional education to the viewer.

I’ll be honest. I really don’t keep up with current events. You would think that after four years of journalism classes where I’ve learned the importance of media in society that I would have gained some semblance of desire to read the newspaper every once in a while, but no.

Enter the “photos of the day” feature that many newspapers are incorporating into their online platforms. In only a few minutes, I can see what happened in the world that is big, exciting or unique. Plus, I get to learn while feasting my eyes. Features like this are fantastic for people who like to get their news quickly, which is pretty much everyone I know.

Now think about the article you read in this morning’s paper. I don’t know about you, but when I think of the events that have shaped the world during my lifetime, I don’t remember headlines or news articles. I remember images.

Think of Sept. 11, 2001 or the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, what comes to mind? I immediately think of the terrifying sight of the Twin Towers burning and the heart-wrenching scene of a firefighter carrying the limp body of a toddler.

Those scenes have been immortalized because of what they mean to people in light of the events that brought them. Photographs move, inspire and provoke people.  On Sept. 12, 2001, no American could look at pictures of dazed New Yorkers roaming the ash-laden streets of Manhattan and not want to do something about it. I think that Robert Doisneau, an early 20th-century French photographer, put it beautifully: “I don’t usually give out advice or recipes, but you must let the person looking at the photograph go some of the way to finishing it. You should offer them a seed that will grow and open up their minds.”

Pictures have a way of expressing things that words simply cannot. So hats off to the photojournalists who provide a different kind of news, the kind of news that elicits a response, not just an opinion. So maybe a picture is not worth 1,000 words. Perhaps, instead, a picture is worth 1,000 actions.

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