The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Q&A with Ben Swanson, associate editor at DenverBroncos.com

Ben Swanson is associate editor at DenverBroncos.com, the official site of that NFL team. A 2013 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill, he previously covered the Charlotte Bobcats basketball team. In this interview, conducted by email, Swanson talks about his work with the Broncos, how he got into sports journalism and how the two teams will fare in their respective seasons.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical workweek like?

A. Right now the typical work week has a bit of a rhythm to it. Game days are the baseline, our center of the week. Stories lead up to them, and after they finish, we recap and break down the action and look forward to what’s next.

We have recurring features to keep our readers coming back from week to week, including film analysis, a rundown of how our divisional opponents fared that week, a podcast and plenty more. It’s a hectic schedule this time of year, as you might imagine.

Taking care of all the bases and media availability can stretch you thin some days, like Wednesday when Wes Welker made his return to practice and spoke at the podium while Seahawks PR had Richard Sherman available via conference call in the media workroom. Naturally, it also requires extremely good communication between departments since we’re also responsible not only for just stories, but also updating website information for other departments.

As creators of our written content, we also have the responsibility for what goes in our Gameday Magazine publication, which is handed out to fans at the stadium at home games. Our terrific graphics, marketing, community relations and public relations departments come together to contribute what goes in (statistics, coaches bios, community stories, magazine layout and design) and our digital media department adds in editorial content: the cover story and Q&As with a player and a coach. We also proofread and edit the magazine before it goes to print.

This all goes on during the season, by the way. Mismanaging your time can really put you in a tough spot, but sometimes you can do everything perfectly and still find yourself in a crunch to put things together.

All that said, a lot of things don’t necessarily work out in that rhythm. We spend bus rides from the stadium after an away game to a waiting red-eye flight transcribing post-game interviews and sharing them amongst ourselves via email, flash drive or Dropbox, and then we write our stories on the flight.

Also, we too can get caught off-guard by breaking news. You’ve got to be ready for anything sometimes.

It’s a very trying work schedule, but an extremely fun and rewarding one.

Q. You established yourself in sports journalism with a blog about the Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets) of the NBA. How did that experience help you get your job with the Broncos?

A. Covering the Bobcats, though small-time, allowed me to cut my teeth and find my voice and stand out in a smaller market. I started covering the team while I was a sophomore at UNC, which meant I was learning about covering the team, writing in a consistent style and carving a groove as a unique writer covering the Bobcats, who had an extremely small media spotlight already.

Before I was the managing editor of the SB Nation blog, I had written for the Bobcats’ team blog after being named one of their winners in a contest, and months later after I had landed the SBN editor spot, I was the Bobcats’ digital media intern, which gave me plenty of experience and insight into the workings of the franchise from the team side.

The other major component is that running the blog gave me important experience in a number of ways. I began hiring writers to contribute to the site a few years ago, which got me more comfortable with addressing writers’ stylistic or grammatical issues head on. Communication is so key when talking through concerns about writing or in regards to things that cross departments.

In regards to time management, managing the blog was a crash course. I mentioned earlier that I started running the site when I was a sophomore, and it wasn’t an easy transition because I was by myself at that point. When you cover NBA basketball from the East Coast and the team makes a West Coast road trip where they spend a couple of nights with 10:30 p.m. tipoff times, sleep becomes what you sacrifice. I would spend mornings in class and nights watching basketball, leaving myself to unintentionally fall asleep during classes.

As time went by, I realized I needed more help and reached out to a couple of fellow young writers. In the couple of years since, I learned to set a schedule on a weekly basis, assigning stories, game previews and recaps to our writers. Still, even with better preparation, I had to take some things on the fly, writing breaking news stories during some classes or getting game previews our writers might have forgotten written and pushed out in the morning of my 9 a.m. media theory class.

With over three years of experience cultivating my writing and voice as one of the most prominent covering the Bobcats, I’d learned a solid all-around skill set. I knew social media; I could write straight news, a feature story or a column with knowledge of multiple perspectives; and I knew how to communicate up or down the ladder and how to manage my time.

Q. Sports franchises and leagues are no longer reliant on outside media for coverage. They can cover themselves. Do you see a difference between writing and editing for the Broncos official site vs. doing that at the Denver Post?

A. The distinction is harder to make these days, and we’re no exception.

We’re present at the same locker room availability sessions, press conferences and everything. We have a columnist in Andrew Mason who can write independent editorials and we have people who write straight features like profiles or normal stories.

Contrary to what you might think, it’s not all rose-colored glasses, though we do focus on who plays well for the most part. The Post, of course, is on a different level as an independent outlet compared to us, but we’re not all that different.

Q. Which team will go further this season: the Broncos or the Hornets?

A. Honestly, I’d say the Broncos. I’m extremely excited to see how the Hornets’ offseason moves come to fruition, but the Broncos went to the Super Bowl last year and the Hornets (Bobcats) got bounced in a first-round sweep.

With Denver already proving they can get to the deepest parts of the postseason and the Hornets still relatively unproven, I’ve got to go with the Broncos. But I’d be absolutely ticked pink if the Hornets somehow got to the Finals. I’d be there with bells on.

No time for trolls

troll

A troll can be annoying in role-playing games and on social media.

Twitter can be great for exchanging ideas and sharing links. It’s my favorite news source, a sort of wire service that I can customize and interact with.

It has its downsides, too. A big one is the problem of trolls — people who seek to harass, badger and engage in straw-man arguments. They’ve been an issue online for a long time, including in comment areas on news websites.

I’ve fallen into trolling traps on Twitter a few times over the years. Lately, I’ve been working on ignoring and, in some cases, blocking trolls. Here’s how I decide whether to respond to someone on Twitter:

  • How many followers does the person have? Less than 100 means it may be a troll.
  • Does the account have a profile photo and a link to more about the person elsewhere online? An egg avatar and lack of a link mean it may be a troll.
  • What is the name on the account? Is there a first and last name, or name of an organization? If not, it may be a troll.
  • What are the account’s other tweets like? If they are mostly replies to other accounts that take a hostile tone, it may be a troll.

I like chatting with people on Twitter. I’m open to constructive criticism and civil discussion. But I have no time for trolls.

Student editors deserve to be paid

In recent weeks, I have received two requests from authors looking for journalism students to edit book manuscripts. Neither writer, however, offered to pay them.

One author proposed mentioning the student editor in the foreword and, if the book made a lot of money, perhaps sharing some of those royalties. I responded that I would only help recruit a student to work on the project if it included compensation when the editing was complete.

Editing is a skill. It requires time and effort. But how much is it worth?

The short answer, according to freelance editors I know: It depends. Is the writer looking for copy editing or proofreading? Is fact checking involved? Does the writer want feedback on issues of story structure and plot?

My freelance friends charge from $25 to $60 an hour, depending on the job. (You can see more on editorial rates in this chart on the Editorial Freelancers Association site.) For a student editor with less experience, I would suggest $15 to $20 an hour.

Authors, we respect and appreciate what you do. We’re glad that you are interested in having editors work on your manuscripts. But our hard work deserves payment. Thanks.

Q&A with Sarah Sessoms, community relations coordinator for the Carolina Hurricanes

Sarah Sessoms is community relations coordinator for the Carolina Hurricanes hockey team. She has also worked for IMG and the athletics department at UNC-Chapel Hill. In this interview, conducted by email, Sessoms talks about her job and careers in sports communication.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like?

A. My job varies from day to day, and I have to wear a lot of different hats throughout the year. In a nutshell, I am an event planner, a writer, a planner, a PR person and a nonprofit worker in one.

A regular day consists of a lot of emails, phone calls and meetings with the Promotions and Hockey Operations team, as well as with fans and nonprofit groups. During the off-season (April to September), I am planning, researching putting the finishing touches on our in-season activities. For example, we have the Canes 5k on September 14th, and a charity golf tournament on the 22nd. I have been working to put together the plans and all of the final touches with my co-workers on these events.

In-season, I do a bit of everything. On a regular day, I will help fill donations for charitable organizations throughout North Carolina, send tickets to groups, or work on other projects. On game days, I work on filling the charity suites (donated by players such as Eric Staal), and finalize meet-and-greets with the players.

Q. You graduated from the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill with a reporting/editing focus. How have your news skills translated to your current job, and what new abilities have you had to pick up since then?

A. My skills from the j-school are consistently used every day. While I may not be the one producing the news, many of the things we do end up in the news, and it is very helpful to have a news background.

Writing and editing are crucial to my job here at the Canes. We are constantly writing items for the website, for press releases, Twitter and everywhere you can imagine.

The reporting sequence taught me how to write effectively — and it is something that definitely carries over. All of the material that we generate needs to be well-written, succinct and edited before it can be pushed out to the fans and the community.

I had a very strong base coming into this job, but had to pick up a few skills. For one, being the person interviewed, instead of the interviewee, was a new challenge for me. Luckily, our in-game host also comes from a journalism and news background and was able to coach me on how to be a good interview.

Other skills I’ve learned vary from new social media skills to being able to read autographs. It sounds funny, but being able to identify autographs with one look is really helpful here.

A final skill learned is working closely with the players and staff. Taking a player and explaining to them what is going on — whether at a community event or through a meet-and-greet with a kid from Duke Hospitals — is crucial. Prepping them for what’s coming makes it easier for them to relate to the fans. Prepping them well for everything is a skill, and something I was not quite good at until recently.

Q. Many students in journalism programs are looking for careers in sports communication. What advice do you have for them?

A. Working in sports is a blast all the time, but it’s not easy. If you want a career in sports communication, be prepared for long hours and bizarre things.

No two days here are the same, and I’ll wager it’s the same at any sports job.  Be willing to jump in and volunteer for everything and realize that no job in sports is a bad one.

If you want a job as a public relations person with a team but there’s only an opening in a different department, apply for it. Work in the other job and talk to the people who have the job you want. Getting a foot in the door and working toward your goal is a great way to land the job you want.

Q. Hockey season is about a month away. Any predictions on how the Canes will do this year?

A. The Hurricanes organization went through a lot of changes this summer. We have a new general manager, Ron Francis, and a new head coach, Bill Peters.

Our changes to the team are going to translate and show up well with the play on the ice this year, with a fast, high-energy team. It should be a very exciting year with a great new home atmosphere (we’ve changed a few things about the in-game experience) and with the new coach.

I’m thinking that we have a really great chance at a playoff run with this new era of Hurricanes hockey!

But it’s OK to start a sentence with a conjunction

A link to this article by Steven Pinker landed in my email inbox last week. The sender of the email bemoaned Pinker’s view that some grammar rules can be bent or even broken. Where are the guardians of the language?

Skimming through Pinker’s list, I saw the usual grammar flashpoints: split infinitives, that/which, who/whom and prepositions at the end of sentences. But another caught my eye: starting a sentence with a conjunction.

That topic had come up recently at an editing bootcamp in Montreal sponsored by the American Copy Editors Society. A participant at the workshop asked whether it is acceptable to start a sentence with “and” or “but.”

One of my co-presenters, Fred Vultee of Wayne State University, said yes, it is. He cited one of the most-read pieces of writing in world history: the Book of Genesis.

Indeed, the second sentence of the Bible has a sentence that starts with a conjunction: “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”

And no one seems to have a problem with that.

Q&A with Katie Jansen, Dow Jones News Fund editing intern

Katie Jansen is a recent graduate of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. This summer, she had a Dow Jones News Fund editing internship at the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia. In this interview, conducted by email, Jansen talks about what she learned over the summer and what’s next for her.

Q. Describe your internship experience. What was your typical day like?

A. My internship experience was very valuable. On my first day, I was shown the computer program and thrown right into the thick of things, where I was expected to write headlines, deckheads and cutlines.

I normally only did first reads so that someone more experienced could read behind me, but I really felt myself growing throughout the internship. I worked Monday through Friday from 3:30 to 11:30 p.m., and by the third or fourth week I was already being trusted with some A1 copy.

It was always a thrill for me when I made a good catch or asked a question someone else hadn’t thought of. I once found a mistake in which the AP had written the entirely wrong country, and the slot editor called the AP and got them to issue a write-thru.

Also, I feel like it’s worth noting that everyone treated me with the utmost respect. They acted like I was a colleague instead of just some goofy college grad.

Q. What was the biggest challenge of the internship, and what was the greatest reward?

A. The biggest challenge was probably just getting into the flow of what copy needed to be read when as well as trying to figure out which advance copy needed to be read first. Some times of the night we wouldn’t be very busy, but I tried to do things that would be as helpful as possible. That just took time and asking questions so I could learn about which sections had deadlines first, etc.

The greatest reward was definitely stepping up my headline game and seeing a lot of my heads in print. Every time I wrote a headline, I jotted it down, and then at the end of the night after deadline, I would check to see which heads had been kept and which had been changed. As the summer progressed, I became a stronger headline writer, and more of my headlines survived.

Q. What advice would you give to students considering applying for a Dow Jones News Fund internship?

A. I would say studying for the test is the most important. I kind of took the test on a whim and didn’t think I’d land the internship, but I did study for it because I was interested in improving my craft. The application process may seem kind of mystifying, but if you study for the test and make it into the program, they teach you so much from there.

My weeklong residency before my internship was a great professional experience. It gave me the opportunity to learn from professionals in the field, and I felt like I was improving as a journalist every day.

Q. So what’s next for you?

A. I have moved back to reporting for the time being. I got a job with The Herald-Sun in Durham, N.C., and I have officially been on the job for a week and a half. It’s going well so far but keeping me really busy.

I don’t want to say I’m done with copy editing, though. I’m sure I’ll find my way back to it sometime in my career. Even so, the Dow Jones training has also made me a stronger writer because now I’m more aware of things like transitions, repetitive words and what pieces need to be in a story to make it complete.

Telling the story of poverty in words and images

A Business Insider story has been bouncing around in my Twitter and Facebook feeds for the past day or so. The article focuses on the increase of poverty in North Carolina.

The topic is certainly newsworthy and worth discussion on social media. This state and others have struggled economically since the Great Recession hit in 2007.

The BI story cites a Brookings Institution report and another from the Pew Charitable Trusts. It quotes Gene Nichol, director of the UNC’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. More sources would add context and nuance to the piece, but the ones used are knowledgeable on the topic.

Where the article falls short is in its selection of photographs and captions. Scrolling down the page, the reader sees images of hardscrabble scenes in Charlotte, Raleigh, Winston-Salem and Greensboro.

The photo of downtown Raleigh caught my eye first. It looks outdated, so I asked on Twitter whether anyone could identify when it was taken. Matt Robinson of Metroscenes.com responded that the photo is from 2005. Here’s a more recent photo of the city’s skyline.

The image from Charlotte is also misleading: The “old movie theater” is a music club called The Visulite. The place may not be pretty, but it’s open for business.

Each image appears to have been pulled from Flickr accounts. Not one has a person in it. The bare-bones captions don’t connect the images to the story text.

My colleague Jock Lauterer, who teaches photojournalism and other courses at UNC-Chapel Hill, suggests this approach to the visual side of this story: Find several people from various backgrounds who are struggling with poverty and unemployment. Take portrait-style shots that reflect their daily lives.

“For a documentary photo to be compelling, it must include the human element,” Lauterer said.

Andria Krewson, an editor at mediagazer.com and a Charlotte freelancer and consultant, reacted this way on Twitter:

Maybe it’s time to start teaching photo editing again. 1. Pick up phone 2. Call a local paper. 3. Offer to pay or swap, because Google search and Flickr search for Creative Commons free stuff ain’t cutting it.

I agree with Andria and Jock. Some news stories can be illustrated by drawing from repositories of free images. This isn’t one of them. Poverty is about people, not buildings. We need to see the faces of the problem to fully understand it.

Us and them — and her

Earlier this week, The News & Observer reprinted this editorial from The Charlotte Observer. The topic was judicial elections in North Carolina. It included this paragraph:

Imagine a voter getting toward the bottom of a long ballot and seeing 19 unfamiliar names for Martin’s seat, along with four Supreme Court races, two other contested appeals court races and a slew of district and superior court races. A rational person might just skip over them all and move on with her life, leaving the courts’ fates in the hands of an even smaller percentage of voters.

The last sentence caught the eye of a reader, who wrote a letter to the editor complaining about the use of “her.” The letter writer found it insulting to female voters.

I don’t think the editorial board of the Observer intended to use “her” as a slight. The writer likely intended the opposite: rather than use “him” as the default pronoun for a hypothetical voter, use “her” for balance. A quick edit to “pluralize” the sentence could avoid that issue, of course:

Rational people might just skip over them all and move on with their lives, leaving the courts’ fates in the hands of an even smaller percentage of voters.

That would have been my choice if I had been writing or editing that editorial. At the same time, I am increasingly open to the singular they in these situations. Most of us use it in conversation, and I have no objection to it in informal writing such as email.

Then again, I also like the royal we.

Blog break

This blog will be quiet for the next two weeks as I will be busy with other tasks. While taking a break from blogging, I plan to stay active on Twitter.

Next week, I will be in Montreal for the national conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. There, I will be an instructor at an “editing bootcamp” sponsored by the American Copy Editors Society, and I will serve as host for the Breakfast of Editing Champions.

The following week, I will be back on campus to get ready for the fall semester, which starts Aug. 20. That includes making final touches on syllabuses and assignments. I’ll also attend a faculty retreat as well as student orientations for our MATC and certificate programs.

Thanks, as always, for reading. See you in mid-August.

Q&A with Caroline McMillan Portillo of Bizwomen.com

Caroline McMillan Portillo is a reporter for the website Bizwomen.com. She previously worked at The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, Portillo discusses how reporting and editing work at Bizwomen.com, and how majoring in journalism prepared her for her career.

Q. What is Bizwomen about? What are the site’s objectives?

A. Bizwomen is a national news website about and for women in business. We cover everything from the women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies to leading entrepreneurs in the startup scene. Just this week, I had an exclusive interview with billionaire fashion designer Tory Burch, which was really cool.

The site was launched in April by American City Business Journals, a company that owns nearly 45 different business journals around the country (including the Triangle Business Journal). So we’re a young publication with a well-established brand behind us, which has been a nice extra boost.

Q. Describe your role there. What do you do on a typical workday?

A. Right now, the reporters on the Bizwomen team are each posting about three stories a day. The goal is to get to four.

I come into the office around 9 a.m. (ACBJ is headquartered in Charlotte), and usually leave around 7 p.m. When I come in, I immediately start combing other sites and Twitter for any big news in the world of women in business. This could be earnings for a Fortune 500 company with a female CEO, a tech giant’s diversity report or buzz around a high-profile controversy. These early-morning posts are quick hits, and it’s OK if they’re short. The goal is to make sure that we always have fresh content and are staying on top of the biggest stories.

Around 10:30 a.m., we have our morning editorial meeting, where we discuss what we’re working on, including what we expect to file that day and any longer pieces we’re working on. Right now, our official Bizwomen team is quite small — just me, another reporter and our editor — but we also have freelancers and can pull stories from all of the ACBJ publications around the country for our site. It’s similar to how newspapers can use wire copy from other papers in their chain.

That doesn’t mean we’ll never cover those stories ourselves. But if another market already has a story written on a topic we’re covering, we can post it and then figure out another way to extend the story in a different way, often getting multiple posts out of the same story line.

For example, when a bunch of girl-power ads came out around the same time, everyone was talking about how resonant they were. So I called Always and Pantene — the companies that produced the most popular videos — and did a piece on “The 7 things you didn’t know about those girl-power ads from Pantene and Always.” Then I spoke with two advertising and marketing experts (including one from UNC) to talk about the strategy behind the videos, which didn’t really have anything to do with the products the companies sell. With their insight, I did another post about whether these ads make good business sense.

Q. How does story editing work at the site?

A. The editing process works like this: I write the story, as well as a headline for the website, one for SEO (lots of keywords) and one for mobile devices. This is all done in our content management system.

I send it along to my editor, and she combs through the story and headlines. She’ll make changes and then will talk with me if she sees any holes in the story or wants to approach it from a different way. Depending on how much work it needs, we’ll either resolve it side by side, or I’ll work on it more and resubmit.

Q. What about headline writing?

A. Lately in our editorial meetings, we’ve been pitching stories by the headline. It was a little weird at first, but it makes for a more efficient meeting and helps us reporters focus a story before we sit down to write. Then we can massage the headline and story angle as a team.

I heard an editor at Quartz speak at the 2014 conference for the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, and he said they ask their reporters to think of their stories in terms of tweets. It took a little getting used to, but it’s actually a great strategy, particularly for a digital-only publication.

People won’t see our great content if we don’t have great headlines to draw them in. And on the Web, there’s a lot of competition.

Q. You graduated from the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill five years ago. What skills from your time there are most important in your work?

A. A few months after graduating, I was hired as a reporter with The Charlotte Observer — first as a community news reporter and then as the paper’s small business and entrepreneurship reporter. When you work for a daily newspaper, you’re expected to write a lot, to write fast and not to make mistakes while you’re doing it. The years I spent in the j-school were so critical in helping with all three.

In News Writing and News Editing, I learned how important it is to read and re-read your story, looking for typos, grammatical errors and misspelled proper nouns. Editors always have suggestions for how to make a sentence better, and they enjoy working with you on that. But if you make them spend time correcting dumb little mistakes, you could have a fantastic story and still lose some of their confidence in your ability.

I still remember getting a 50 on a news writing story because I spelled “Hillary Clinton” with only one “l.” I thought it was really harsh at the time, but now I get it. And if a mistake somehow gets past your editor and makes it on the paper or online, rest assured, you’ll get some vitriolic emails from readers. Then you’ll have to write an embarrassing correction that will be read by even more people.

The j-school also taught me about storytelling — how to ask for details that reward the reader for choosing your story — and why it’s good to spend time reading stories by writers you admire. Tommy Tomlinson, a former beloved Observer columnist and Pulitzer finalist, has been a great mentor for me, and I used to search through the archives just to read old stories and columns he’d written.

And I still think about little tricks of the trade Paul O’Connor taught me in my first reporting class, such as “draw a line down the middle of your notepad and write in columns.” (It’s faster because your hand doesn’t have to travel all the way across the page.)

Q. What skills have you had to learn since then?

A. The biggest thing I’ve had to learn since is how to really build a beat. When you first start, editors will feed you stories, but once you’ve been on the job for a little while, they expect you to find the majority of your stories. And you better not miss big news on your beat.

When I covered south Charlotte as a community news reporter, I was responsible for breaking news on school controversies, road projects, rezoning proposals and politics. So I really had to build sources, which is much harder than it sounds. It’s not like it was when newspapers were the only source of news people had, and thus the only place people sent tips to.

These days, you have to work hard to earn those story tips. People have to like you, they have to trust your abilities, and you have to keep in touch with sources regularly so they know that you care about them and not just the information they give you. That’s the only way you’ll get information first.

I used to get breakfast with some big figures in the south Charlotte community, including the city council representative, every single Wednesday around 7:30 a.m. So early. But so necessary.

When I became a business reporter, I had to get used to asking people about finances, which can be incredibly personal. How much did you lose when your business went under? How much did this investor give you to get started? What mistakes did you make that led you into bankruptcy? How much do you have to spend on x, y and z? It’s touchy stuff, but those details make your reporting stronger.

Read Caroline McMillan Portillo’s stories on the Bizwomen site and follow her on Twitter.

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