Q&A with Ness Shortley, editor of the News of Orange County

Ness Clarke Shortley is the editor of the News of Orange County, a weekly newspaper in Hillsborough, N.C. She previously worked as a copy editor and reporter at The Free Press in Kinston, N.C. In this interview, conducted by email, Shortley discusses her job duties and the outlook for community journalism in the Triangle region of North Carolina.

Q. Describe your job. What do you do on a typical day?

A. Since News of Orange is a weekly, I don’t have a schedule that stays the same day to day. But each week remains more or less the same with Tuesday usually being the craziest day. My weeks go Wednesday to Tuesday since the paper comes out Wednesday.

We have a fairly tiny editorial staff — it’s mainly just me and a staff writer — so I wear multiple hats. I write, edit, take pictures, lay out and proof pages: If it’s done at a newspaper and it’s not advertising related, I do it.

Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays are interview, transcription and writing days. I tend to slog through the insane number of emails I get mostly on those days, too.

Wednesday is great for planning the next week’s paper. The general manager and I meet with my reporter weekly for a budget meeting, and there we’ll talk about what we’ve got going for the week editorially, what advertising — and, therefore, our page count — looks like, and any upcoming special sections that require editorial input either with content or layout.

Over the weekend at home, I edit any photos (in CMYK, greyscale and for the web) or video I took that week and finish writing anything I didn’t get done on Friday. I usually rough edit whatever community submissions I got the week before over the weekend as well.

On Monday, I put together a TMC called the Northern Orange Xtra that gets delivered to residents of the northern part of the county. Our community calendar, one staff-written story and one staff-taken piece of art go into that.

Every other week, I attend the meetings of the Orange County Board of Education, since my beat includes the county school system. I usually put together the community calendar — we call it Word on the Street — and make final edits on community submissions, editorial page content and my reporter’s stories. I tend to write my column on Monday since that type of writing is so different from what I normally do. If I had a board meeting, I transcribe any quotes I didn’t get down accurately and create a rough outline for the story I’ll write the next day.

Tuesday’s production day; I get in early and tend to stay late. I’ll do final edits on any of my reporter’s stories that hadn’t already been edited. I lay out the front and any jumps and the church/social, sports, schools and town/county pages. Erin, my reporter, handles the opinion pages and crime reports.

After laying out pages, we proof them, make corrections, doublecheck to see we didn’t introduce new errors into copy while making corrections and then send them to the press up in Virginia. Before we leave, we set some up some of the Web content for the next day, and I upload the eEdition. We also put out a monthly tab in Durham, so on the third Wednesday of the month, we put that together.

Q. How does headline writing and copy editing work at your paper?

A. Erin and I write our own suggested headlines when we write our stories. Of course, once we get into laying out the pages, the suggested head may not work. It could be too long or too short for the space; it might break in an awkward place, or we might honestly just think of something better. We try not to get too cute with our headlines, and I just don’t like puns, so we try to avoid those, as well.

Copy editing is a multi-stage process here. Since Erin and I write everything and edit everything, we want to make sure we read it multiple times to give ourselves a better chance of catching errors. I tend to read content silently and then out loud for style, content and flow. Then, I read it backward sentence by sentence word by word to try to catch typos and grammatical errors.

After the pages have been put together, we proof hard copies of them. I also have our office manager and general manager look over them just to get extra eyeballs on the pages. Then, Erin and I make corrections.

We print out proofs again and go over our edits again to make sure we didn’t miss anything and to ensure we didn’t introduce new errors. We also doublecheck headlines, cutlines, dates, page names and numbers, and jumps.

Q. You are active on Twitter, and your newspaper has a Facebook page. What are your goals on social media?

A. I think social media is a great place to reach out to the community in a way that’s more informal than what’s allowed in the paper. When I became the editor, I made a concerted effort to be more accessible to people, and it’s a philosophy Erin has embraced as well.

Through News of Orange’s Twitter feed and Facebook page, we can engage with readers and post content that wouldn’t make it into the paper. If we’re at, say, the fifth-grade musical production of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” at Pathways Elementary School, we can tweet a picture or short video to let people know. It gives the community the chance to see what we’re doing, see that we’re out there taking pictures of their kids or covering meetings or just doing our jobs.

When I worked at a daily, there was a conscious push for reporters to remain apart from the people we covered. That ivory tower approach to journalism doesn’t work at a community paper. When people talk to me about the News of Orange, they tell me what they like and dislike about their paper. They feel ownership, and they care about what makes it into its pages.

I made a decision awhile back to allow community members to friend me on Facebook and to unlock my Twitter feed for the same reason. It’s made me feel like a member of the community I cover instead of an outsider.

I’ve had people tell me they have found me more approachable as a result of some of the things I’ve posted. Sure, it means I have to be careful what I put out there. I don’t post anything political or controversial, and I watch what people post on my wall, but I think it’s a fair trade. I’ve been lucky enough to connect with some fantastic people through social media and engage with a more tech-savvy segment of our readership.

There are, of course, pitfalls for newspapers and reporters using social media, but I don’t think not being out there is an option anymore. People expect us to be there, so we muddle through as best we can.

Q. These are tough times for newspapers. In our area, the Carrboro Citizen recently ceased publication, and layoffs have hit newspapers in Durham and Raleigh in recent years. What is the outlook for community newspapers like yours?

A. When I first started at News of Orange back in 2008, the media landscape here was fairly diverse. At school board meetings, there were reporters from the Durham and Raleigh dailies, local radio and TV stations, and even student journalists from The Daily Tar Heel. Now, it’s just me. It’s the same at Hillsborough Town Council meetings. That’s a trend that’s played out in all coverage areas.

I think that’s a strength of community newspapers in general and News of Orange in particular; you can’t find most of what’s in our pages anywhere else. As other newspapers have pulled back, we’ve tried to increase our coverage — though that can be tough to balance with financial considerations; most people don’t seem to understand that the number of pages we get each week is dictated by advertising, not by content.

Even so, we put out our first-ever mass mailing in April, which weighed in at 32 pages (a normal paper for us averages 14 pages); we’ve increased the number of editorially supported special sections on everything from high school sports previews to health and wellness; we took our sports coverage from essentially nothing to having a healthy section every week.

The expanded sports coverage isn’t just the big name sports —football, basketball, wrestling, baseball — but everything. It allows us to get the names and faces of lots of kids in paper each week, and people have really responded to it.

Community newspapers have a place in this changing media landscape; News of Orange certainly does as well. The people who read community papers deserve the same quality product that metro readers get. The editorial department at NOC — such that it is — tries to deliver that every week.

UPDATE: Shortley is now managing editor at another North Carolina newspaper, The Daily Dispatch in Henderson.

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3 thoughts on “Q&A with Ness Shortley, editor of the News of Orange County

  1. Nice interview, Andy. I was particularly interested in her opinions about News of Orange’s engagement in social media and her comments on the role of community newspapers.

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