Q&A with Kirk Ross of The Carolina Mercury
Kirk Ross is editor of The Carolina Mercury, a website that focuses on North Carolina news, issues and politics, including the state’s General Assembly. In this interview, conducted by email, Ross talks about the site, his job and online and print journalism.
Q. What is the purpose of The Carolina Mercury as a self-described “filtered aggregator of news with occasional bits of analysis”?
A. Eventually, we want the Mercury to be a mix of longer essays, visual elements (slideshows, video) as well as the shorter posts were doing these days to clue folks about issues and news events. Right now, we’re just trying to keep up with a news cycle that’s in hyperdrive because of the legislative session, so most of our posts are in the shorter style.
I think one of the big problems with aggregators, both the automatic ones and the human-initiated kind, is that they give you little or no context. My favorite new phrase for what we’re trying to do with our shorter posts is “curated aggregation,” and it means not just a link and a pull quote, but adding a reason why the story is important and giving the reader some context by noting previous, related stories as well as doing some taxonomy work.
For the various news feeds and Twitter feeds on the site, we’ve actually done some filtering. The Twitter feeds on the site monitor a mix of individuals, organizations and hashtags. The #NCGA (North Carolina General Assembly) and #NCPOL hashtags can occasionally be dominated by trolls, junk posts and people who keep writing tweet after tweet hyping some ideological view, so we’ve got those tweets filtered out to make the feed a better information tool.
Q. What is your role at the Mercury, and what is your job like from day to day?
A. Like I said, right now it’s a madhouse keeping up with legislation and the General Assembly, so that dominates life at present. I’m covering the legislature for two news organizations, one in the mountains and one on the coast, and have two columns a month on public policy to write as well.
My day starts with seeing what bills have been filed or are on the calendar, reviewing them and letting folks know if there’s something significant coming. The volume is so great at times that it’s all triage.
I either drive to Raleigh or tune into the committee hearings and House and Senate session via the web and blog accordingly. I coordinate with Lucy Butcher, who is the other main reporter/editor at the Mercury, on things that are coming up or what’s breaking. It’s all fairly reactive, which is not my favorite mode to be in, but that’s the news business when things are, well, newsy.
After the session, things will change a bit. I’m going to drive around the state for a while looking for interesting stories that do not include the word “legislation.”
Q. What are some of the challenges of covering the General Assembly and state government in general?
A. Keeping calm and carrying on. No, seriously, that is a big part of it because a lot of important changes are being pushed through.
There’s a temptation to cover something because it is outrageous, but you have to have some discipline. You can’t let yourself get distracted by every crazy piece of legislation that comes along. You have to stay focused on what actually might become law.
The longer I’ve done this, the more I dislike politics and all the noise that comes with it. I much prefer a good policy tussle.
The hardest thing about the NCGA this session is that there are so many new members. More than half of legislators are in either their first or second term, and at times, it really shows. There’s such a rush to change things that there’s not a lot of time for legislators to really understand what policies are now and why they’re in place before being asked to change them.
The rest of state government in this era of supermajority is a strange beast. The addition of three times as many political appointees and years of worry about having one’s budget slashed has taken a toll.
Nobody wants to get on the radar screen, meaning no one wants to say anything to the press that could bring down some heat. There’s a lot of self-censorship, and I’m not seeing any headway on making things more transparent.
Q. The big question with digital media is financial. How can sites like the Mercury become economically viable?
A. Do good journalism. Break some stories. Don’t let the site meter run your life, or you’ll end up chasing celebrities, pumping up scandals and ignoring stories that actually make a difference in people’s lives.
If you can do these things, you can find an economic model that works whether that’s a tip jar, subscriptions or some big grant. Whatever you do, don’t think you can do it through advertising. It’s been tried.
Q. Previously, you were editor of The Carrboro Citizen. What has the transition from a print-centric publication to an exclusively online entity been like for you, and what advice would you have for journalists looking to make a similar transition?
A. I always told people that one of the great advantages the Citizen had was that I got to integrate the web and print versions from the start. That was enlightening because it got us past the idea of adapting or converting and into a combined creative process.
It changes your writing if you know you’re going to be able to put the full text of a bill at the bottom of a story or be able to quote extensively from a report. You have to consider how to format, how people read online and how they share stories with each other.
I learned how to make newspapers when they were still made out of molten lead and you had to know how to count headlines. That shaped the profession long after offset changed everything.
You still see the same short verbs and slang created by clever editors for single-column stories. The mental exercise of composing a headline under those circumstances always helped me better understand the story I was writing.
Thinking about how you’d tweet something or post it to your Facebook page isn’t something you’re forced to do since that the big, mean Internet took your print publication away. It’s how information flows now and, frankly, it smells a hell of a lot better than those old linotype machines.