Student guest post: The question of removing news after publication

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the second of those posts. Tyler Confoy is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill studying reporting and philosophy. In the future, she hopes to write features for a monthly, biweekly or weekly publication.

Should editors remove controversial material after it’s been published?

I’ve encountered this question twice in the past few months. Both times, it was posed as a hypothetical, meant to get journalism students thinking about what they might do in a real-world situation.

Many times the question is an ethical one. If no legal problem is involved, the question becomes “Should we remove this?” instead of “Do we have to remove this?” Ultimately, it’s up to the publication.

I’ve encountered journalists who are steadfast in their belief that accuracy is accuracy and that things should rarely be taken down. I’ve heard it explained this way: “If it happened, it happened.” Personally, I tend to side with these journalists. My reasoning is that if you compromise one post, you might start compromising other posts.

I’d like to look into a case that’s been of wide public interest recently. Soon after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting Dec. 14, The Journal News, a newspaper covering New York’s Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties, published interactive maps showing the locations and names of permit holders licensed by Westchester and Rockland counties to own a handgun. The Journal News was able to do this under New York’s Freedom of Information Law.

Responses to the maps were both positive and negative. Many said they were an invasion of permit holders’ privacy. On Jan. 15, New York passed the NY SAFE Act, putting tighter obligations on gun ownership but also allowing more privacy for gun permit holders. On Jan. 18, Janet Hasson, publisher of The Journal News, released a letter saying that the website had removed the maps. (Snapshots of the maps< remain on The Journal News website.)

In the letter, Hasson wrote, “As a news organization, we are constantly defending the public’s right to know. Consequently we do not endorse the way the legislature has chosen to limit public access to gun permit data. … But we are not deaf to voices who have said that new rules should be set for gun permit data.”

Politico reported that in a statement released also on Jan. 18, Hasson said, “While the new law does not require us to remove the data, we believe that doing so complies with its spirit. … We remain committed to our mission of providing the critical public service of championing free speech and open records.”

These two viewpoints put forth by Hasson don’t quite match up. Why would The Journal News believe in complying with the legislation’s spirit — in fact with the portion of the legislation that protects permit holders’ privacy — if it does not agree with limited public access to data concerning permit holders?

In addition to pointing out the new legislation, Hasson defended the maps’ removal by writing that they had already been seen by those who wanted to see them and that eventually the data presented in the maps would change anyway. This seems logical: If the maps were national news, surely they’d been seen by local folks, and surely information changes.

But it seems more like an excuse. Most journalists don’t take something down within a month just because most people who care have seen it, and it’s understood that information changes with time. These maps were a historical part of the Journal News coverage in the midst of a national gun crisis, and they could have remained online.

It is certainly hard to blame Hasson. The Journal News’ writers were being threatened. Home addresses were published. And maybe the new legislation just pressured Hasson to recognize the ethical dilemma that had been there all along (if not by law, at least in theory): the struggle between freedom of the press and the right to privacy. But ultimately this struggle should have been recognized beforehand.

Having the ability to remove published information is a nice safety net, but journalists and publishers should look at every angle of possible reception and take a definite stance before they publish anything — and perhaps especially before they publish something clearly controversial.

The Journal News initially stood by its decision to post the maps. Then it removed the maps. Will it compromise something else next?

Q&A with Carol Carpenter, copy editor at the Times-Picayune

Carol Carpenter is a copy editor at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. In this interview, conducted by email, she discusses recent changes at the newspaper and how those changes have affected her work.

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

A. I’m not sure I have a typical day! A lot of things have changed since the paper went to fewer days a week.

All of our local copy hits the website first, and it comes to us, the print team, on a wire feed. The reporters — oops, I mean the content creators — photographers and most editors — now called managing producers — who make up the online team now work in a different building. Only the print team (about 20 people), a business office of two and the presses remain in our building. Our schedule has changed as well; we work four 10-hour days a week.

On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I select stories from NOLA.com (I am called a curator) and repackage them for print, for the Lagniappe entertainment tab that comes out of Fridays. I search for art, which sometimes involves gentle reminders to the online team that I need a high-res version for print.

I supervise a designer who makes up all the pages. I write headlines, edit and trim copy. I set the pages to the press and make sure they are all received. Many times only I and the designer lay eyes on the pages — scary.

Other days I might work on the op-ed pages, doing basically the same curation/art search duties, as well as editing. On those days I also serve as the rim for all the A1 stories.

Or I might curate the wire pages, and the sections are much bigger since we made the switch. Or I might curate the zoned metro sections, one for the north shore and one for the south shore.

The metro section and the wire section have page producers, who make up the pages as well as edit the stories and write headlines. I also gather stories and art for the religion page and sometimes for the travel section.

The duties are mostly the same, but the focus changes.

Q. Last year, the Times-Picayune’s print edition went from daily to three times a week. How does this transition toward digital affect you and other editors?

A. As I mentioned above, not only have the duties changed but so have our titles. We are still getting used to many new things, new employees, new ways of doing things.

One thing is, of course, that there is not a paper every day. But during the Saints season, we issue the Black and Gold tab on game day Mondays (strictly game coverage, no other news). We have a paper on Wednesday and Friday, and on Saturday we have an “early Sunday” edition that we call the pup. That paper is partly remade for Sunday. So it is really more than three days a week as far as working goes.

Probably the most difficult thing for me is trying to weigh coverage of events that happened between papers, for example between Sunday’s and Wednesday’s paper. Many news events can’t be ignored, but at the same time they are old.

We have a new feature called a Trends column in each section that was designed to highlight these “old” news items in a briefed format, but sometimes an event is too important for a brief — the inauguration, for one. There is also a lot of give and take between the Living and the Lagniappe sections about which stories go where — sometimes (not often) we both run the same items.

Now that reporters have no print deadlines or length restrictions, stories are a little iffier, the budget is more laissez-faire and the stories can be much longer than our pages permit. I find myself trimming stories a lot more.

Q. New Orleans often plays host to big events like the Super Bowl. What is it like to report and edit that kind of coverage?

A. Just like the police in New Orleans are world-renowned for crowd control because of Carnival, I believe that our staff is terrific at letting readers know what is going on in our town.

We are used to big events, and we have an experienced team covering all the angles. Jazzfest, Carnival, Essence Fest, Final Four, Voodoo Fest and the Sugar Bowl bring hundreds of thousands of people to town. We are used to it. We have a routine that works.

Q. You are a native of New Orleans. What is your favorite thing about the city and about the Times-Picayune?

A. Gosh, just one thing? I guess I would have to say what I love most about the city is its people’s creativity and determination to survive and thrive, no matter what hits us.

Within months after Hurricane Katrina, there were innumerable locally written, locally produced and locally acted theater shows about the storm. We come up with satirical themes for individual Carnival costumes and for entire parades. (the FEMA jokes after Katrina were scathing.) We celebrate precisely because we know that life is precious and must be thoroughly lived.

When the Times-Picayune’s owners announced that the paper would cut production, there were protests. Not just protests. Yard signs. Letters to the editor. Three different T-shirts with clever newspaper sayings were sold (The SomeTimes-Picayune). An organization was created to help those who were laid off, and a party (of course) was held to raise money for them.

One of the most revered philanthropists in town started an organization to get the owners to sell, enlisting the mayor, the archbishop, many luminaries. They passed around a petition signed by every favorite son you could think of, celebrities, some 10,000 people. It was a scary time but also a very heartening time to see how much people in New Orleans cherish the Times-Picayune.

And the Times-Picayune is staffed by those people, those creative and determined New Orleanians. People do amazing things for this paper because they know it’s important and because they know New Orleans needs and appreciates us. I love the tradition (175 years), the smart investigations and the snappy writing, the modern design, but mostly my co-workers.

Student guest post: Ensuring accuracy off the field

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the first of those posts. Alexa Burrell is a senior majoring in editing and graphic design. She is from Aurora, Colo., and is interested in working in sports communication after graduation from UNC-Chapel Hill.

It was tough week for sports journalists.

Not only did Lance Armstrong admit to doping after years of denial, but Deadspin also uncovered that the heartwarming and inspirational story of Manti Te’o and his deceased girlfriend was a hoax. During the college football season, several reliable journalists and publications continued to spread the story, seemingly without checking the facts. As the story continues to unfold, one of the biggest questions is, how did journalists and editors not catch this?

Sports journalism differs from other types of journalism because of its high entertainment value. Sports writers often look for stories or narratives that can turn a simple game into a display of an individual’s passion and personal struggle. While those stories are captivating, accuracy still needs to take precedence when writing and editing pieces.

Here are some of my tips as a sports journalist for keeping the narrative, but maintaining accuracy:

Back up your sources’ claims with documentation. Most of what was reported about Lennay Kekua could have been checked with documentation. Documents could have — and should have — been recovered for everything from where she attended school, to her tragic car accident and even her death. No other writer seemed to think to do what Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey did — check the sources. A couple of Google searches, phone calls to Stanford University and requests for records let the Deadspin writers have what is an even “juicer” story than the alleged tragedy.

Talk to teammates. As the story continued to develop, it was revealed that several teammates knew Kekua was not Te’o’s girlfriend. Why weren’t the teammates asked about her in the first place? Not only would a teammate’s perspective enhance the narrative, but reporters might find out more information by asking the locker room how a particular event has affected and individual’s play and, perhaps, personal life.

Be skeptical. When reporting on a game, sports journalists have it easy. There are replays, statistics and detailed records for each player’s performance on the field. However, off the playing field is a different story, and every bit of information presented can’t be taken as fact.  If anything, the magnitude of attention and criticism the media has garnered from this incident will hopefully increase journalists’ skepticism and efforts when checking for accuracy.

Bring it back to the basics. In the digital age of journalism, not all journalists are trained to adhere to news values. But it was a blog that broke the hoax in the first place. Even though sports journalism is not as “serious” as other types of reporting, remember to maintain and adhere to news values.

The story of Te’o shook the world of sports journalism this week. The failure to check for accuracy has become a story of a much larger magnitude than the original narrative, and from this, sports journalists should remember accuracy is important in any type of reporting.

Q&A with Reid Serozi of Triangle Wiki

Reid Serozi is a project organizer of Triangle Wiki, an encyclopedia-style website about the Research Triangle region of North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, Serozi discusses what’s behind the project and how Triangle residents can contribute to it.

Q. What is the purpose of Triangle Wiki, and what is your role in it?

A. Triangle Wiki is a grassroots, open-source movement powered by LocalWiki software to provide a free, openly editable, community-centric website for local history, media, opinions, interesting characters and everything else about the Triangle region (Raleigh-Durham).

Triangle Wiki may seem old school as it provides a single place on the Web where local knowledge can be documented and preserved for the future. By no means does the Triangle Wiki Web platform feel old school with the powerful editing capabilities and beautiful editable maps that give a sense of place to each wiki page.

My involvement with Triangle Wiki started in 2011 as a project organizer when I pitched the idea to start a local wiki effort to group of talented Raleigh civic geeks. My responsibilities today are spread across contributing content, actively managing an online wiki community, developing marketing campaigns and planting new local wiki communities in the many different towns and universities within the Triangle region.

Q. What advice do you have for people who want to contribute as writers and editors?

A. Ask yourself what things, places or people do you value the most in your community. Those are potential wiki pages you might find yourself having the greatest knowledge of and desire to contribute toward.

Don’t worry about being formal, asking for permission or producing structured content at first. Visit the wiki and make a few edits on existing wiki pages to get your feet wet.

If a page doesn’t exist, then create one and add a photo or a few lines of content to get the page seeded. Share the page with friends and ask them to contribute what they know.

Don’t focus on high-level contributions like a page about Durham. Triangle Wiki is place to capture the many unique, hidden and wonderful things that make the Triangle what it is.

Q. On occasion, Wikipedia has faced criticism regarding its credibility and accuracy. How does Triangle Wiki ensure that it’s a reliable, trustworthy resource?

A. For starters, did I mention anyone can edit Triangle Wiki?

The criticism we hear the most about Wikipedia is the barriers to entry are too high and the contributors are not even from the local area. You will see Raleigh’s Pullen Park Wikipedia page being updated from people in Chicago.

Triangle Wiki is taking a different approach to making sure it’s a reliable resource, which means allowing content to be subject to a crowdsourced hyperlocal forum. The visitors and contributors are gonna be mainly people from the local community. These are your neighbors, public servants and the same people you stop along a greenway to ask for directions. This same audience is going to have a greater incentive to make sure information about their community is helpful for others.

Q. With the rise of social media, we live in an increasingly crowded world of online information. What is the future of the wiki format fit in that environment?

A. Today, local knowledge is easily shared by the minute within a community in the form of fragmented small digital bits for a short attention span audience. The majority of that local knowledge is shared globally across commercially driven digital media services.

The local wiki is noncommercial and built for the long term by local contributors who love their communities. The local wiki space will eventually fill a void for existing and future hyperlocal blog content.

Generally, hyperlocal blogs are geared toward niche audiences focused around a city, town or neighborhood district that tends to be operated by one or two local volunteers. The hyperlocal blog model is not always sustainable.

There is a tremendous amount of work that goes into a frequent published blog, and the authors eventually move on in life. What happens to those outstanding retired online resources? What if we could shift those publishers toward an open, local wiki model where the content and collaborative contributors will continue for life?

Follow Triangle Wiki on Twitter and contribute to the site.

UPDATE: Triangle Wiki is now LocalWiki Raleigh, but it still has entries about places and people throughout the Triangle region.

Q&A with Ariel Zirulnick, Middle East editor at the Christian Science Monitor

Ariel Zirulnick is Middle East editor at The Christian Science Monitor. In this interview, conducted by email, she discusses her job, the editing process at the Monitor and how to land a job in international journalism.

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

A. I work from our Boston headquarters, editing copy from a slew of staff writers and freelancers living in North Africa and the Middle East, and occasionally reporting and writing myself.

On a typical day, I wake up around 6 a.m. and immediately check my work email to see if any of my reporters, who are anywhere from 6 to 8 hours ahead of us, have emerging stories or other time-sensitive things on which they need a response. Since they’re already halfway through their day at that point, it’s critical to get them an answer ASAP.

The international desk editors get in to the office at 7:30 a.m. and spend the first couple hours of the day assigning and editing stories, planning coverage, tracking news in our regions, etc. The afternoon, when our reporters are done for the day and heading for bed, is typically the time to catch up on more long-term work, whether it’s magazine stories, non-time sensitive stories for the Web, or just organizational and administrative things, like handling our reporters’ reimbursements for work-related trips.

We spend a lot of time tracking what is rising and falling on Google and Yahoo! news. It isn’t the only thing that dictates our coverage, but it does influence our decisions and it certainly influences the way we write our headlines.

Q. How does story editing and headline writing work at the Monitor?

A. Every story for CSMonitor.com receives two edits.

The first is almost always done by the relevant regional editor, who will edit not only for spelling and grammar, but also for content – ideas, analysis, etc. The first edit is sent back to the reporter for him to answer any questions that came up and to read over the editor’s changes to ensure nothing was changed in such a way that it became incorrect.

Then they send back a fresh file incorporating all the editor’s changes and questions. That version then gets a read from another editor on the international desk – this time mostly for grammar, style, readability, etc. – before being published to the website. Stories for our weekly magazine go through one additional layer of editing with a designated copy editor.

The international desk editors write the headlines for stories on CSMonitor.com. Typically it’s the editor doing the first edit who writes a headline, making sure to incorporate the so-called “key phrases” that Google News clusters are built around in order to get the story into that cluster and get traffic. We run our suggested headline by either the international editor or the deputy international editor, who gives the final stamp of approval.

Q. Readers often see bias in coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. How do you handle such criticism?

A. I receive more complaints on this than anything else in my region by a landslide. The fact is, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it can be impossible to satisfy critics – sometimes their objection is not grounded in fact and they will read whatever bias they want to into the piece.

It’s not rare to get two e-mails bashing the same story, one for being too sympathetic to Israelis, one for being too sympathetic to Palestinians. The only thing that’s different is the lens through which each reader is reading the piece. That’s what makes it so hard to satisfy everyone, or even most readers.

We do try to respond to all complaints because we want to make sure readers know we’re paying attention to their comments. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of pointing out to the reader the different voices in the piece to show that the reporter did her due diligence by using sources from across the political spectrum.

If the criticism seems valid – perhaps we forgot to include some background about a source’s political affiliation, or cast something in a certain light that seemed misleading – we will typically write to the person and ask them to provide us with their own sources to back up their claims. Sometimes we find that they can’t, sometimes they can and we file either a correction or, if it doesn’t warrant that, assure them that we will take that into account in future stories on the topic. Often readers are just happy to get an acknowledgement of their complaint, whether or not it prompts any action.

We get complaints the most often when we do a piece on only Israel or only Palestinians, mostly from readers angry that we “ignored” one half of the conflict. In that case, I’ll point them to previous stories that focused exclusively on the other “side.” Even if one piece is not straight down the middle, I can say with confidence that our cumulative work is.

Q. You are a 2010 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What advice do you have for students there to get a job like yours?

A. A second major, preferably something with an international slant, is very important if you want to work in international affairs journalism (I double majored in journalism and international studies, with a Middle East focus).

While outlets like CSM are happy when someone has journalism training, we care less about that and more about the reporter’s ability to thing deeply about the topic at hand, synthesize complex information, and see events in their broader context. Knowledge of the region, including its history, is essential for that, and that comes from studying the region, likely in an academic setting. It can be learned in the field, of course, but it’s unlikely an outlet like CSM will take something from a freelancer if they just arrived in the country and have no prior experience or study there.

Studying abroad, and even getting an internship abroad, will also give you a huge leg-up. Getting an international internship overseas is not as unattainable a goal as it sounds – most countries have an English language publication or a bureau for a major US publication, and it’s often much easier to get an internship there than at a news outlet in the United States.

The catch is that they’ll often be unpaid, since they don’t want to go through the hassle of obtaining a work visa for you, but the j-school has many scholarships specifically for covering students’ expenses while doing unpaid internships. That’s how I funded a summer internship at the Jerusalem Post, which I did on the heels of a semester at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (which I also mostly funded with scholarships, in that case from the Global Ed program).

Also, work for the Daily Tar Heel! My work for them is what I used when I applied to my Jerusalem Post internship, and editors there were amazed at the quality of the student-run publication. UNC journalism students are fortunate enough to have a top-notch news outlet around that takes teaching peers very seriously.

Take advantage of it. No journalism school class can simulate the deadline pressures and real-life experiences that you get from writing for the DTH.

If a student wants first and foremost to be reporting overseas, his best bet is to take the leap and set up shop as a freelancer overseas. Do some research into what countries are undercovered (a tip-off is a dateline from a country other than the one the story is about) and move there! You’ll have to pitch like crazy to a number if outlets before you get a bite, but it’s really the best way to go if being overseas is your first priority.

But if, like me, you aren’t comfortable taking that financial risk (student loans!) or care more about being a part of a team than in getting overseas straightaway and having to work solo, you can look into internships with the international sections of newspapers based in the United States.

I got my foot in the door with CSM by taking a semester-long paid internship with the Monitor after graduating from college. You’ll probably spend most of your time editing, not reporting, but you’ll still have your head in international news all day long, and you’ll learn a ton about a lot of places, which will better prepare for a move overseas in the future and maybe even get you in line for a staff position.

I was fortunate to be interning with CSM when a staff position opened up. A year later the Middle East editor position opened up, and now I’m spending my day reading, writing and editing on the region that has enthralled me for years. I even got to take a reporting trip to Egypt and Lebanon last year, which was incredibly exciting.

The Monitor international desk hires an intern each semester and for the summer. If you are interested, or just want to know more, please be in touch! I need people to watch Carolina basketball with up here.

Follow Ariel Zirulnick on Twitter at @azirulnick.

Paywalls and rebates

Last month, my daily newspaper, The News & Observer of Raleigh, launched what it calls N&O Plus. Most people, however, call it a paywall.

The N&O is among more than 400 U.S. newspapers that charge for online content. As a faithful subscriber to the print edition, I can access its digital offerings as before.

The sharp decline of print advertising has led to cuts in staff and resources at newspapers across the United States; the slow rise of digital advertising on news sites is insufficient to make up for that lost revenue. That’s why some news organizations are turning to paywalls.

I’m torn on this issue. Like anyone, I like getting goods and services at the lowest possible cost. I don’t want to pay for something that was free for many years.

But I know that high-quality journalism is expensive to produce, and I am willing to pay to get it. That’s why I subscribe to the N&O and contribute to WUNC-FM, among other expenditures in my media budget.

As my friend and former colleague John Robinson suggested in a blog post last month, newspapers need to offer unique, engaging content to justify charging readers for access to their sites. I’d add that the stories, slideshows and other material behind paywalls need to be well-edited. Readers notice, after all.

To that end, I propose a rebate program that would allow readers to get money back for various editing glitches. Consider it to be a modest proposal.

For purposes of illustration, I’ll use N&O Plus. The digital subscription costs $70 a year. Under the rebate plan, subscribers would get refunds at the end of each year like so:

  • Picayune style error (such as canceled vs. cancelled): 1 cent
  • Punctuation error: 25 cents
  • Repeated or dropped word: 25 cents
  • Redundancy, cliche or garble: 25 cents
  • Routine spelling error: 50 cents
  • Corporate/military/governmental jargon: $1
  • Missing first reference to a source: $2
  • Misleading chart or map: $3
  • Misspelled proper name: $4
  • Fact error: $5
  • Libel, fabrication or plagiarism: full refund

So how can news sites avoid paying these rebates? Hire more copy editors, and let them do their work.

Q&A with freelance writer Victoria Bouloubasis

Victoria Bouloubasis is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. She is on the food and restaurant beat for the Independent Weekly, an alternative newspaper. In this interview, Bouloubasis talks about her interest in food journalism and what inspires her reporting.

Q. How did you get into writing about food? What attracted you to that topic?

A. I find food culture fascinating. And personal narrative always surrounds food.

When you visit a new place, you always ask a taxi cab driver or a clerk at a mini-mart where to go eat. From there, you are led into a bit of their world, which leads to stories upon stories. And food itself involves so many senses and emotions, colors and sounds, that it provides the perfect backdrop for any story.

Q. The Triangle region of North Carolina has a lively restaurant scene. With so much going on, how do you decide what to write about?

A. I only write about restaurants that serve a cuisine that has influenced my palate and has made me knowledgeable about the food.

It wouldn’t make sense for me to write about types of food I haven’t had enough exposure to or a culinary style that I haven’t even attempted to cook. I don’t need to know how to cook it, but I should at least be familiar, in a kinesthetic way, with its process.

That said, yes, we have an incredibly lively restaurant scene … with lively characters and traditions, old and new. We’ll never tire of the vibrant food culture here, in restaurants and beyond, because it is constantly changing and shaping the place we call home.

Q. You have a blog and are active on social media. Why is that important for freelance writers like yourself?

A. My blog is more like a website to showcase my portfolio. It’s a convenient way to shoot a link over to anyone interested in seeing my work.

On the occasion that I do post something original for the blog, it lets me write in a personal essay style, which is a unique writing practice. And it’s fun to share online! I’ve gotten some great sources through Twitter.

Q. You are a graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. Looking back, what was helpful about that experience, and what are some things you wished you had learned then?

A. Meeting peers in journalism was particularly helpful. I continue to collaborate with fellow JOMC graduates now that we have cultivated ongoing careers as writers, designers, photographers, videographers, etc. UNC gave me a network.

I wish the news-editorial sequence was more comprehensive. I tried to get into a photojournalism class for two or three consecutive semesters and couldn’t because that wasn’t my declared track. From what I hear now, the program provides more options for students.

The courses helped shape my skills as a reporter — sorting through stats, taking the most important bits out of a long meeting and expecting the unexpected during interviews. The constant writing in college makes the crazy schedule of my freelance gigs feel like a breeze.

Read articles by Bouloubasis and follow her on Twitter.