The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Category: journalism education

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.

Let’s meet for breakfast in Montreal

The Breakfast of Editing Champions returns to the AEJMC national conference in Montreal, on Friday, Aug. 8. I am the organizer and moderator of the event, which was started by the wonderful Deborah Gump.

The breakfast, which will begin at 8:15 a.m., is open to anyone who teaches editing, appreciates editing or just likes to hang out with editing professors.

This year, Craig Silverman, adjunct instructor at The Poynter Institute, will be the breakfast’s featured speaker. Silverman, author of “Regret The Error” and editor of “The Verification Handbook,” will speak on the role of editors in ensuring verification of information and detecting and eliminating plagiarism and fabrication.

Another highlight of the breakfasts has been the Teaching Idea Exchange, in which we swap assignments and strategies. Jill Van Wyke of Drake University will again handle the exchange this year, so send your best teaching idea or tip to her at jill.vanwyke@drake.edu by Friday, Aug 1. Give her a few paragraphs on your idea and be ready to discuss it for a few minutes at the breakfast.

Coffee and tea will be provided. This event is free, but please RSVP by using this simple online form. The deadline is Friday, Aug. 1.

Special thanks to the sponsors of this year’s breakfast:

  • American Copy Editors Society
  • The Dow Jones News Fund
  • Newspaper and Online News Division of AEJMC
  • Scholastic Journalism Division of AEJMC
  • Poynter’s News University

UPDATE: This year’s breakfast went very well. Thanks to Craig for a great talk; he has posted the slides from his presentation. Thanks also to Carrie Buchanan of John Carroll University for her verification rap. See everyone next year in San Francisco.

Student guest post: Writing headlines for smartphones

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing posts for this blog this semester. This is the 12th of those posts. Ashton Sommerville is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in journalism and women’s and gender studies. She plans to take a year off after graduation before pursuing a career in media law, excited to explore and follow the ever-changing mass media landscape. She enjoys coffee, reading and managing her wedding and pop culture blog kissingthecooke.wordpress.com.

Are smartphone-friendly headlines our next step? In the age of new media, many journalism students, like myself, face curriculums that focus less on traditional legacy media and more on how to grow as writers and editors who are producing creative content for an impatient and often fickle audience.

Media consumers in coming generations are proving to be less loyal to brands than generations past and more loyal to convenience, usability and brevity. The Internet has produced a level of media competition unlike any other platform in recent history. With so many options available to users, publications are challenged with being the best, the most interesting, and more importantly, the first.

At UNC-Chapel Hill, part of our copy-editing education involves practice with writing headlines for a number of mediums including print, Web and Twitter. But is that enough? Have we already fallen behind?

In January 2012, a Tumblr account popped up aptly titled Bad Headlines — a collection of publication blunders, the culprits ranging from BBC to The Associated Press. One thing many of the posts have in common is that they are screen shots from the bloggers’ smartphones, and the primary gaffe for each is a headline too long to be communicated via push notification.

Just as bumping headlines can cause confusion for print readers, headlines cut off in awkward places can make for very humorous and unintentional story twists. “Police make third arrest in murder of Colorado socialite” becomes “Police make third arrest in murder of Colorado.” “Romney praises Olympics security, says he won’t run for president” turns into “Romney praises Olympics security, says he won’t run.” The loss of just a few words completely changes the implications of the headline.

While it’s probably safe to say that most readers are wise enough to catch on, the situation remains that credible, revered media companies are being made the subject of a running online joke. So what can editors and educators do to combat this new social media challenge? I suggest two things:

  • Increase the educational focus on the five-second spot: Although the move to writing for an alert, involved Twitter audience is a challenge still being faced by media professionals, 140 characters is still a luxury when fighting for the public’s attention. Add smartphone-friendly headline creation into the curriculum, and encourage your students to prioritize clarity and succinctness when writing for online media that will be pushed to users on their cellphones.
  • Develop a character limit to act as a standard for the newsroom. Do some research and decide where the cutoff is that separates newsworthy from a good laugh. If there is a noun-verb construction in your headline that can’t afford to be separated, include it early to prevent an unfortunate misunderstanding. Create a procedure, and stick to it.

As the media landscape continues to morph and grow, it will be our job as creators and editors to do our best to keep up. Stay alert, stay brief and don’t forget who you’re writing for.

Editing in Hong Kong

Hong Kong

Later this week, I will travel to the University of Hong Kong. I’ll spend a week there a guest lecturer.

My visit is part of an exchange program between HKU and UNC. Earlier this month, Kevin Sites of HKU spent a week in Chapel Hill, meeting with students and speaking on his experiences as a war correspondent.

The journalism program at HKU does not have a full course about editing, so I have been invited to talk about that topic. During my stay, I will meet with students and work with them on story editing, fact checking and headline writing, among other subjects.

It will be my second trip to this part of the world. In 2009, I spent a week in Beijing, working with journalists at an English-language news website. That was a rewarding trip, so I am looking forward to a similar stay in Hong Kong.

The bottom line: Editing is a global experience. I am grateful to be a part of it.

How to get certified in digital media

One of my former colleagues from my time at The News & Observer recently sent me an email. Here’s an excerpt:

I am woefully uninformed when it comes to digital journalism, and I’ve finally decided to try to do something about it. I’ve been putting out print newspapers for 20 years now, but at some point the profession passed me by.

My biggest problem is that I don’t even really know where to begin. It seems like different employers are looking for different things, and I have so little knowledge that I can’t determine where the best place to start would be.

Do you have a suggestion, maybe some basics that I could learn or some areas that I really need to know no matter where I work? Does UNC have a course of study, maybe as continuing education or a certificate program, that would help me?

I was happy to respond: As a matter of fact, we do, and I happen to be its incoming director.

The Certificate in Technology and Communication is aimed at people working in journalism and public relations who want to brush up on their skills and learn new ones. It consists of three courses, all online. I’ve taught one of them, Writing for Digital Media.

To apply for the fall semester, you need to submit a resume, a college transcript and a short statement of purpose describing what you hope to learn. The GRE is not required. The deadline is May 1.

If you have questions about the certificate program, contact me or Maggie Hutaff, program coordinator for e-learning. Perhaps we will see you in class this fall.

Q&A with Josh Awtry, editor of Gannett Carolina region

Josh Awtry is the incoming editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times in North Carolina and The Greenville News in South Carolina. Both newspapers are owned by Gannett. He comes to this job from Fort Collins, Colo., where he was executive editor at The Coloradoan. Awtry started his journalism career as a copy editor at The Independent in Grand Isle, Neb., and he has worked in various roles at newspapers in Utah, Idaho and Myrtle Beach, S.C. In this interview, conducted by email, Awtry talks about his return to the Carolinas and what’s in store at the Citizen-Times and the News.

Q. You’ve spent much of the past 10 years in newspapers in the West. Why the move to the South to lead the Asheville and Greenville newspapers?

A. Great question! I love the West — a lot of who I am was forged in that unique culture of independence and larger-than-life landscape that permeates every aspect of that part of the country.

But, ultimately, I’m a sucker for a fresh challenge. While it’d be presumptuous to string a “mission accomplished” banner up in Fort Collins, we did so many of the things we set out to do a little more than 2 years ago: Readership trends are going phenomenally, revenue is the highest it’s been in years, digital subscriptions are way up, and the community is a true media partner with the Coloradoan. We’ve had civic forums, great engagement and turned the relationship between a community and its news team around. It’s time for someone with fresh ideas to come in and figure out the exciting things that come next.

At the same time, I look at Asheville and Greenville — two communities who are incredibly different, but they share an equally engaged populace — and I can’t help but be excited about the possibilities. I think that there’s a great chance to blend some of what we pioneered in community journalism in Fort Collins with an all-new playbook we’ll invent as we go along.

When my wife and I lived in Myrtle Beach, S.C., we would often vacation up in the Blue Ridge and Smoky mountains (my doughy pastiness lends itself much more to the mountains than the beach). Western North Carolina and the upstate are beautiful, lush parts of the country, and I can’t wait to get my hiking boots muddy this spring.

Screen Shot 2014-02-21 at 9.41.46 AMQ. Asheville and Greenville are about 60 miles apart. How does that affect your day-to-day work activity?

A. I’m a horrible workaholic and have a hard time disconnecting from the endless stream of social feeds and notifications that can detract from deep thinking. That drive between the two communities has given me something I hadn’t expected: a quiet space to formulate strategies and plot courses around obstacles.

Leading two newsrooms across state lines, though, is a unique challenge that’s new to me. Even though the communities are close, the state line bifurcates everything from press associations and politics to sports allegiance.

While there’ll be a chance for the two newsrooms to partner up on regional coverage that doesn’t follow boundaries, I see more opportunities in strategic development. In some ways, the two newsrooms can be the real-world equivalent of A/B testing. Come up with similar ideas, but deploy them in different ways. If one starts succeeding more than the other, roll both news teams over to that approach.

Q. What changes can readers expect in their newspapers?

A. How much space do we have?

If we’re just talking newspapers, I think the changes will be significant, but readers will still recognize their familiar brands. The biggest shift print readers will see is in the caliber of stories we tackle.

Too many papers are reactionary, and they still cover incremental stories without setting up context and depth. They’ve become “a mile wide and an inch deep.” They rarely dig into an underlying issue, and never really explain the community’s big narrative arcs.

Print readers will see a definite shift to daily, dot-connecting enterprise on the front page. Those stories will need to be based around a local issue and involve the synthesis of multiple data points and community voices. They’re “why” stories, and a top priority is having them every day of the week.

Shooting for that every day is admittedly a big check to write. We’ll help give journalists the time to do this by getting off the hamster wheel. We still have a paper to fill, but the focus is going to be on big cover stories coupled with shorter items. Some of the routine “dailies” will be truncated or avoided to give folks the time for the important stuff.

Bigger and more exciting changes will happen outside of the paper, though.

The biggest revolves around service. Engagement is a buzzword, but, somewhere along the line, papers abandoned the notion that they truly serve at the behest of a community. Journalists need to be shoe-leather experts, connecting readers with answers. Our goal will be to answer every question that comes our way. That’s how you turn readers into loyal fans, and that, in turn, helps engender digital subscriptions, which lets us hire more journalists.

That will manifest on social media, of course, but readers will be able to expect “real world” events, too. Community forums that bring noted experts in for Q&A sessions on big community issues should happen frequently. Gatherings of members to speak to the journalists they support could easily follow.

Why be water cooler conversation when you can be the water cooler?

Ultimately — thinking far out, here — my goal is to make people feel a personal connection to the news team they support. Anyone can circumvent a paywall should they desire; my goal is to make sure they don’t pay a monthly fee because they have to, but because they want to. That’s the difference between a subscriber and member, or reader and fan.

It’s exciting stuff, and once you start thinking down that road, you start seeing a clear path out of the malaise in which we’ve put ourselves.

It’s a work in progress, though. That level of civic engagement is the fun part, but we can’t get there until our core journalism skills are strong. Getting journalists to return to an embrace of deeper, investigative stories often requires us to build muscle in many of the classic skills of open records requests, data crunching and narrative technique.

Q. We’re seeing tremendous change in journalism. How do you recommend students prepare themselves for a field in transition?

A. It’s likely nothing students haven’t heard, but I can’t say it enough: Be a journalist equally proficient in all tools.

TV journalists have to be better narrative writers than ever before, print journalists have to be able to think visually. Master all the tools. Increasingly, we don’t send a reporter and photographer out to a breaking news scene — we send a journalist. Be as quick and comfortable with a notepad as you are with pinning a microphone on a source.

But, above any learned skill, be sure you’re curious about the world around you. That’s something you’ll not learn in any classroom setting. The best journalists are those whose inquisitive nature drives them to seek answers without being prompted.

And remember that journalists serve via the patronage of their community. Modern journalism isn’t just about telling the story that you want to tell — it’s about going to bat for your readership, answering their questions and being a resource.

It’s a cliche, but I do really believe it: This is a great time to get into journalism. 40 years ago, there was no reason for disruption; 40 years from now, smart folks will have this all figured out. But right here — right now — we get to make a difference in charting the future of information. And that’s heady stuff.

Student guest post: When wintry weather hits sports

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the fourth of those posts. Aaron Dodson is a junior reporting major and history minor at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is an assistant sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel, and he will be an intern in the sports department at The Baltimore Sun this summer. 

In the past two weeks, many parts of the East Coast have gotten a chance to encounter what some see as the best part of winter and others, like myself as a native of the D.C. area, have come to dread — snow.

Don’t get me wrong: Snow can be beautiful. There’s nothing like a few fresh inches of white powder on the ground. And who doesn’t like a day or two off from work or school?

But not long after the snow first begins to fall, bliss turns into boredom. The snow turns from a pure, white fluff to a brown, muddy slush. People are stuck indoors and get cabin fever.

And the worst part — the snow puts you behind in terms of work and school by restricting your ability to do everyday things such as driving and walking.

For me, however, as a college sportswriter, the show must go on. In the past two weeks, I’ve twice had to battle through the elements to do my job — cover games. And through those two experiences, I like to think I’ve gained the knowledge to answer one question that inspired this post:

How does adverse weather affect sports media coverage?

I’ve determined the complete answer to this question must be broken down into three parts.

Part 1: Determining whether the game will be played.

At the beginning of January, I was assigned by the sports editor of The Daily Tar Heel to cover the North Carolina men’s basketball team’s game at Georgia Tech on Jan. 29.

I was excited. I’d never been to Atlanta, and the general manager of the DTH even got me and my fellow reporter Daniel Wilco plane tickets to go down so we wouldn’t miss too much class.

Then Jan. 28 brought a few inches of snow that many expected. But some cities, like Atlanta, were caught off guard.

Flights were canceled, cars were abandoned on highways and an overall sense of panic resonated through cities along the East Coast.

After being greeted with an email from Delta that said our 2:45 p.m. flight on the day of the game would no longer be taking off, Daniel and I have to ask ourselves: Are we going to cover this game?

In a sense, reporters can’t answer that question by themselves. Similar to a famous line — “If you build it, they will come” — from the 1989 baseball movie “Field of Dreams,” if a game is played, reporters will come.

In our case, Georgia Tech and UNC turned to the following ACC postponement/cancellation policy:

“The only reason a game should be postponed or cancelled is if the conditions affect the safety of the teams or game officials involved. Provided the teams and officials are able to make it to the arena safely, the game will be played.”

With both teams and referees in Atlanta, the game went on. And somehow, Daniel and I made it.

But what if sports writers and media don’t get as lucky as we did? What happens when the elements are too much to overcome and they can’t make it to the game?

These thoughts bring me to part two of the answer.

Part 2: Press row or ghost row?

When we first arrived at McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta, Daniel and I expected to have to fight to get to our seats while saying “excuse me” every five seconds and attempting to avoid bumping into other reporters.

Once we finally got up to press row, however, all we saw was empty seats. Though we weren’t cramped like usual, given I got to spread my things out and my backpack even got its own seat, it was weird being one of only few there.

But the fact of the matter is reporters can’t always make it through harsh weather conditions to get to games. And when this happens, publications have a few different routes they can take to assure their audiences know what happened if the game does go on.

The first option is to employ the help of a trusty freelance writer.

For the Georgia Tech game, UNC sports publication InsideCarolina couldn’t get anyone to Atlanta. So a seasoned sports writer in the area picked up the slack, joking before the news conferences started that it’d been a long time since he’d covered a game.

But in most instances, so it seems like, publications just cut their losses and leave the game uncovered.

That was the case at the North Carolina women’s basketball team’s game, the night after the second snowstorm in two weeks hit. UNC’s opponent, Pittsburgh, somehow made it through the blizzard more than 300 miles to Chapel Hill. So the game went on.

My journey to Carmichael Arena was a bit less courageous, given I walked about half a mile through the slush from my room on south campus. But I did have to leap over a few large mounds of snow and ice, which didn’t go too well when I landed in puddles and got my feet soaked.

When I finally got there, I was only one of two reporters to cover a UNC team just three days removed of upsetting No. 3 Duke. So you can imagine it was kind of awkward in the post-game news conference with UNC’s coach and two players outnumbering the people asking the questions.

Overall, the UNC-Pittsburgh game was the exception, not the rule. Games don’t always go on through the weather. I can’t tell you how many ESPN updates I got on my phone, saying games had been canceled.

This notion brings me to the last part of the post:

What happens when reporters make it to the game but both teams don’t?

Part 3: Finding a story when there’s no game.

As snow began to fall on Feb. 12, several hours between the first matchup of the year between UNC and Duke in arguably the greatest rivalry in college basketball, reporters anticipated the game would still take place.

So they made their way to the Dean E. Smith Center and waited, only to receive word that the Duke men’s basketball team would not be making the trip from Durham.

Obviously, when the news broke that the game would be postponed, it was the job of reporters to relay the information they received first from team spokesmen and others inside of the Smith Center, initially via Twitter. And when more information came to light, including the date of the makeup game, they pieced it together in the form of a story with other facts such as it was the first time since 2000 that a UNC game had been postponed.

ESPN.com North Carolina men’s basketball blogger C.L. Brown took to Twitter to express his feelings of making it through the snow for a game not to take place:

But while stranded in Chapel Hill, Brown found an alternative form of reporting the game’s postponement through a story on UNC students’ call for the university to allow them all to sit in the lower level during big games like Duke.

The ESPN blogger’s story was a nice complement to the frenzy that occurred on Twitter when the game was postponed.

And for the reporters that couldn’t make it cover the postponed game, they had fans like this who did their own form of in-depth alternative reporting.

I guess the moral of the story is weather at times affects media coverage of sporting events. But there are always those brave souls that find a way to cover games.

Don’t name that winter storm just yet

Snow covered the field at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C., in January 2014. Was that work of winter storm Leon?

Snow covered the field at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C., in January 2014. Was that the work of winter storm Leon?

Longtime readers of this blog may recall an exercise from my editing class in which students discuss unsettled or debatable style questions. Previous versions of the assignment have included “first-year student” vs. “freshman” and the now-retired “mike vs. mic.”

This semester, I added this question: Should our mythical publication, The Triangle Tattler, use the naming convention that The Weather Channel has come up with for winter storms?

Most students said no. These students said that winter storms are different from hurricanes and that the Weather Channel’s scheme seemed gimmicky and unnecessary. So Tattler style will be to delete names like Falco or Maximus should they appear in news stories that students edit this semester.

There was some dissent, however, with one student arguing strongly for raising awareness of winter weather and making individual storms more easy to identify now and for posterity. Another suggested a sentence like this in news stories: “The storm, sometimes known as Leon…” to help readers connect what they had seen on TV with what they were reading in print or online.

So what are some Triangle news organizations doing? UNC’s student newspaper has used the name of a winter storm in a headline and story, but The News & Observer and WRAL have not.

On Twitter, weather forecaster Nate Johnson points out that the National Weather Service does not recognize the Weather Channel’s names. You can read more about Johnson’s thoughts on the matter on his blog. His arguments are persuasive.

As an editor, I am unwilling to go along with this idea until the NWS endorses it. As a person, I prefer to blame all of the cold, snow and ice on a single villain. His name? Old Man Winter.

Q&A with Rylan Miller of Business Insider

Rylan Miller is Contributors Editor at Business Insider. In this interview, conducted by email, she talks about her job and how the site uses headlines and social media to attract readers.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like at Business Insider?

A. I manage all of BI’s syndication partnerships and guest writers, which is an editorial job with some elements of business development mixed in.

My team has three main responsibilities:

  • We help choose the stories we will publish from our 370-ish partner publications, wire services, and blogs;
  • We package these stories so that they fit perfectly with Business Insider’s style;
  • And we act as the gatekeepers — I like to envision Gandalf shouting “YOU SHALL NOT PASS” when I say this — of every article that is republished on the site.

We ensure that editorial is following all of the partnership rules and industry courtesies when syndicating.

This job has a lot of moving parts, but for me, that’s part of what keeps it interesting. Some days I spend a lot of time talking to our point people at companies like Slate, Condé Nast, Wenner Media, and more. Sometimes I focus on teaching our editorial team what syndication is and how to do it the right way.

Other days I like to dive into setting up posts, which means formatting them so that they look great on BI, writing catchy headlines, and picking photos that really pop on the main page. Sometimes I tinker with formatting in our CMS, and I frequently study our analytics.

I have learned more about the world of online publishing from this one job than I ever thought possible. It’s really a fascinating mix of journalism, psychology, business, and management, and perfect for a generalist like me. It’s fun to know what’s happening in just about every section of the site, and — important job perk — people want you on their team for bar trivia.

Q. Headline writing for digital media is seeing a shift from SEO to “shareability,” as demonstrated by sites like Upworthy. What is Business Insider’s approach to headline writing?

A. One of our editor’s mantras is that headlines should “get clicks without being annoying.” It’s very easy to tease someone into reading a story online—I’m sure we’ve all fallen for the “7 Things That Will Completely Change Your Life” headline at some point.

But when you actually read the article and see that the headline is hyperbole, skewed, or a flat-out lie, you start to resent that publication. I think BI does a great job of getting people interested while also delivering a great story.

As a site that does breaking news, features, photo-centric slideshows, videos, syndication, and now longform, there really isn’t a magic formula for how we write headlines. Above all, we consider the reader and what he or she should know immediately before we think about SEO and “shareability.”

If a headline isn’t working for us, we can change it. The priority is still focusing on writing (or in my case, choosing) excellent stories that are worth sharing in the first place, and then pulling out the most interesting nugget or angle for the headline.

Q. Business Insider is active on Facebook, Twitter and even LinkedIn. What is the organization’s social media strategy?

A. Every single person on editorial puts in effort when it comes to our social media policies and strategies. Each section is responsible for maintaining and expanding their own Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and relationship with LinkedIn if it’s relevant. They also have to make sure their best work gets pushed out to BI’s main Twitter and Facebook accounts. We have a small bit of oversight at the top of this chain, but for the most part we rely on common sense and good news judgment when deciding what gets shared.

We’re constantly assessing what’s working and what’s not when it comes to our social media strategies, and I think that’s served us well so far. Everyone gets a chance to put in their two cents.

Q. You graduated from the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2012. What’s the most important thing you learned there, and what have you had to learn on the job after college?

A. As someone who’s not in a traditional journalism job at a 100 percent digital news outlet, I’m surprised every day by how much of what I learned at j-school is still relevant to what I’m doing now. I’ve realized how important it is to have that solid foundation in place before learning new skills on the job.

Copy-editing classes taught me how to be nitpicky (in a good way) while reading through articles. My business journalism classes taught me basically everything I know about the industry I’m in now. Media law gave me a good understanding of where we can get photos, who holds copyright on freelance stories, and how to not get my employer sued for dumb mistakes.

I also cannot overstate how much I’ve learned on the job. I’d say most of what I’ve learned is in the technical and strategic aspects of how a news website functions. I’ve learned how publishers can work with each other to expand and improve, and I’m continually discovering what people feel compelled to read. Despite what you’re hearing, people aren’t solely interested in “reading” GIFs. And finally, I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Serial Comma And All-Caps Headline.

Follow Rylan Miller on Twitter and connect with her on LinkedIn. If you want to become a contributing writer for Business Insider, check out the Contributors FAQ or email contributors@businessinsider.com for more information.

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