The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Category: newsrooms

Guest post: Finding a new life after -30-

Laura Marshall is a Park Fellow in the master’s program at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. In this post, Marshall offers her “top 10 takeaways” from a workshop at the j-school called “Life After -30-: How to Recast Your Journalism Career and Reinvent Yourself.”

Surviving life after “-30-” requires a willingness to change and to put the pieces of your own puzzle together in different ways, according to the panelists at an event for journalists and former journalists. The group met at Carroll Hall on Sept. 23 to help former and soon-to-be-former journalists determine how to shift from a career in news to a parallel track in another field.

The panelists came from a background in print or broadcast journalism, and they have moved from newsroom careers to lives in public relations, academia and other pursuits.

What are their Top Ten tips for navigating the choppy waters of a move from news into something else? A willingness to network, sell yourself and see your own skills through different eyes.

1. Make it a point to become an expert. Leslie Wilkinson said that as she worked for the Los Angeles Times as a page designer, she learned that the newspaper was laying off some of its most experienced reporters and her own position might be next. She took the opportunity while still at the Times to learn about social media so as to “become an expert” on technology and the newer forms of communication. That, and pursuing an MBA, helped her move into online media as managing editor at at Turner Communications.

2. Use your reporter’s skills to get a foot in the door. Julie Henry, a broadcaster turned public information officer for state government, found her ability to talk with total strangers about something she needed to learn translated well into being able to make cold calls to potential job contacts when she was looking for work.

3. Reinventing yourself is key. So said Emily Harris, who was a copy editor when she found out her now-former employer was planning to lay off dozens of people. She’d heard about part-time college teaching positions and used her experience teaching seminars and workshops to pitch herself for the position.

4. Fill the gaps in your knowledge between what you know and what you need to know to make a change. Chuck Small had always thought he might like to teach, but as a 20-something college graduate, he didn’t think he was old or experienced enough to teach people just a few years younger. He went into print journalism, but when the cost-cutters started looking his way, he decided it was time to follow his original dream. Small went back to school to earn the master’s degree he needed to become a guidance counselor.

5. Get someone outside your circle of friends to critique your resume. Bill Krueger was the Capitol bureau chief for The News & Observer for 28 years when layoffs hit him in 2009. He knew his resume was dated, but didn’t know what it needed until a career coach helped him rewrite it. He’s now an editor at the alumni magazine at N.C. State University.

6. Interview potential employers; don’t just let them interview you. The informational interview is valuable to get your foot in the door and to find out whether you’d be a good fit, said several of the panelists. Even if there isn’t a particular job opening to apply for, cold-call someone who can tell you about a particular employer and meet with them to learn more.

7. Create an online presence to sell yourself. Use Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and any other website that suits your potential audience to keep your name and face in front of people who can help you. To a cartoonist looking for work, the panelists recommended mentioning new drawings on Twitter and linking them back to an online profile.

8. Do your own personal inventory and decide what you have to offer. Linda Conklin, a career coach, cited her own experience of moving 12 times and having to constantly “reinvent” herself as a way to gain what she called “unexpected wisdom.” List the things you know, not the jobs you have, when you determine how to sell yourself for a new job.

9. Share your news with friends and acquaintances if you get laid off. Krueger spent the days immediately following his own layoff connecting with friends of friends through LinkedIn and by talking about his situation whenever he had the opportunity. Those conversations led to potential job leads and connections that helped him in his search.

10. Volunteer work can help you meet the right people. Henry recommended spending some of your time working for free in places where you can make contacts and spread the word that you’re available.

Being flexible and giving yourself time to accept what’s happened and move on were important themes shared by the panelists. All have parlayed successful careers in journalism into parallel positions in fields that use the skills they developed in the newsroom in new ways.

Life after -30-

Today is the first day that The News & Observer, my former employer, will be without a copy desk. No page designers will come to work in downtown Raleigh either. That work will be done at an editing/design hub in Charlotte.

The decision to remove editing and design from the Raleigh newsroom affected about 25 people, who had to choose between moving to Charlotte or losing their jobs. About a half-dozen people took the offer to move.

What of those who decided to stay? They’ll be looking for new jobs and new careers. That can be a daunting task, but there’s help out there.

Blogger and visual journalist Charles Apple has written this guide to journalists who are facing this transition. He covers everything from finding health care and dealing with depression.

Meanwhile, the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill is offering a free workshop on Sept. 23. It’s called “Life After -30-” and will include advice on recasting your resume, preparing for job interviews and using social media to look for work.

Losing your job is a painful experience. There’s a mourning period. But there is also hope and renewal.

I am confident that my friends and former colleagues at the N&O will find fulfilling work that will allow them to use their journalistic skills. Even though the newspaper business is changing, the skills of gathering information, distilling it and presenting it are still valuable and always will be.

Editing an interactive film

For the third consecutive summer, I’m participating in the Powering A Nation project at UNC-Chapel Hill. This year, the students producing the site decided to create a “special report” called “Coal: A Love Story.”

My role this time was the same as previous years, serving as a coach for the editing team. As work began on the project, however, I realized that this iteration of Powering A Nation would have very little traditional text, if any.

Indeed, what the students envisioned was an “interactive film” that combined video with interactive graphics. They even created a storyboard in the newsroom to map out the project and how its different components and characters would complement each other. It felt a bit like planning a season of “Lost.”

Still, it became clear that writing and editing in a traditional sense would be not only necessary but essential for the project to succeed. Words matter.

We needed headlines, blurbs and tags. We even needed poetry.

“Innovation” is a buzzword associated with Powering A Nation, which is part of the News21 project to push journalism education in new directions. I’d add “collaboration” to that. The student staff, coaches and consultants worked together on every facet of the site, including the project’s tagline: “It’s more than a rock. It’s power. It’s people. It’s a relationship.”

I encourage you to spend some time with the “interactive film” and experience it as one story. It’s a bold experiment in journalistic storytelling, and I’m proud and grateful to have been a part of it.

A tribute to N&O copy editors and page designers

Disastrous. Unbelievable. Shameful. Messed up. Breathtakingly bad. So sad.

These are just some of the adjectives used on Facebook and Twitter regarding McClatchy’s decision to shut down the copy desk and design desk at The News & Observer. That work will be done at an editing/design hub at The Charlotte Observer, which is also owned by McClatchy.

McClatchy is offering the N&O journalists a chance to keep their jobs, but they must move to Charlotte to do so. They have until July 1 to decide. So far, not many seem willing to uproot their lives and families to do that.

I spent the bulk of my newsroom career at the N&O, so this news hit me hard. I am sad for my former colleagues, and I worry about the quality of the newspaper that I still read every day. I am also angry that hard-working journalists must bear the brunt of McClatchy’s debt and business decisions.

N&O reporters, editors and designers (both past and present) have been expressing similar feelings on Facebook. Here’s a sampling of what’s being said there:

  • The News & Observer’s copy editors and designers are the most creative, smart, funny, reliable, kind and hard-working journalists you could ever hope to meet. They deserve better.
  • My heart’s with my editing and design friends left with the unenviable choice between job and community. And the work that is being sent isn’t merely “production.” It’s editing, design, news judgment, awareness of local community standards and interests. The chain doesn’t clearly understand that, or these positions would remain in Raleigh.
  • Well done, McClatchy. I hope you choke on your precious cost savings.
  • How can you have a newsroom without the excitement that rips through a copy desk when you’re getting out a paper with late-breaking news that’s important to people?
  • Another risky thing about having all the copy editing and page design for several newspapers in one place is that when a hurricane blows through and destroys the building or at least causes a lasting power outage, there is no desk in another location to pick up the work.
  • One good thing about this N&O nightside mess: When we have an inevitable get-together (picnic, anyone??), no one will have to take a raincheck because “someone has to put the paper out.”
  • I think I know how the people of Bến Tre felt.
  • Our desk will be lost in The Cloud; we’ll be lost in a fog. Readers and advertisers will feel the loss too.
  • It makes me sick to think that copy editing and page design are considered factory work, but I know that my colleagues and I are journalists and professionals.
  • That’s our heart and soul leaving.
  • Who’ll save my ass now?
I wish my friends at the N&O the best. I hope that they find fulfilling jobs where they can put their journalistic skills to good use.

I also look forward to a “going away” front page. If it’s anything like this one from 2009, that page will be one for the ages.

Newsrooms with a view

The news that McClatchy has sold The Miami Herald property didn’t come as a surprise. The site on Biscayne Bay had been on the market for a while. Now, a resort hotel will replace the Herald in a few years, and the newspaper’s operations will move, presumably to the suburbs.

I never worked at the Herald, but I walked by the building when the American Copy Editors Society held its annual conference in Miami in 2007. I noticed that the newsroom was in a scenic location, and I thought about how nice it would be to work there and look out on the water.

I’ve worked in four newsrooms during my professional career. None was in a location as scenic as the Herald’s. Here’s a look at each one:

Newspaper: News & Record, Greensboro, N.C.

Building style: Low-slung 1970s utilitarian.

View: Not much. Most of the main newsroom’s windows face away from any interesting architecture downtown and toward the employee parking lot.

Newspaper: The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.

Building style: Dreary 1950s modernist.

View: Minimal, although the reporters and editors on the business desk could see Nash Square, a small park that includes a statue of N&O publisher Josephus Daniels.

Newspaper: The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

Building: Squat brick building with art-deco touches in the entry and lobby.

View: The third-floor newsroom offered a panoramic look at the Mississippi River. Even the Interstate 10 bridge looked lovely once the sun went down and the lights came on. Alas, the Advocate moved to suburbia in 2005, leasing space from disgraced televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. Its building on the river was torn down.

Newspaper: Los Angeles Times

Building style: 1930s monumental (with its stunning Globe Lobby) melded with 1970s generic.

View: Varied. The best vistas were of the iconic City Hall as well as Walt Disney Concert Hall in the distance. Much of the main newsroom, however, overlooked office buildings, parking garages and vacant lots.

So I’ve never been as fortunate as the editors at the Herald. Now that I am teaching, I enjoy coming to work on the charming campus at UNC-Chapel Hill. My classroom, however, is a windowless space, and here’s what I see from my office at Carroll Hall, home of the journalism school:

It’s not much, but this summer, I’ll get to move down the hall and enjoy a classic collegiate view of historic buildings, brick walkways and shade trees.

Finally, an office with a view: I’m looking forward to it.

Newsroom nicknames of note

Newsrooms are known for their unusual characters and peculiar personalities, not unlike those on “The Office” in its glory years.

The most prominent of those journalists get colorful nicknames. Sometimes these monikers are used more often than the person’s actual name.

Here are my favorites from my years at two North Carolina newspapers, the News & Record in Greensboro and The News & Observer in Raleigh, as well as a few others contributed by people on Twitter:

  • Bricks
  • Scuz
  • Beast
  • Jelly
  • Flames
  • Toot
  • Juice
  • Copy Slut
  • Libel Girl
  • Gonzo
  • Midnight

Ten years gone

Ten years ago today, I began my second stint at The News & Observer, the daily newspaper serving the Triangle region of North Carolina.

I’d previously worked at the paper in the 1990s as a copy editor in news, in the sports department and in its Orange County bureau. I left in 1997 when my wife finished her Ph.D. and took a job at Louisiana State University.

In early 2001, I returned after a three-year hiatus to be Nation & World editor, in charge of the paper’s coverage from the wire services. My task was to organize the stories from The Associated Press and other services, plan the A section pages and offer important stories from the wires for the front page.

It’s a job I held until the summer of 2005, when I left to take a job at UNC-Chapel Hill. After nearly five years on the wires (framed by the disappearances of Chandra Levy and Natalee Holloway), I was ready for a new challenge.

Yet my years at the N&O continue to influence my teaching. I will always consider myself an N&O person, thankful for my nearly 10 years there overall and the lifelong friends that I made during that time.

Many things have changed since that day in January 2001 when I restarted at the newspaper. Here’s a list of how some things were different then:

  • Social media didn’t exist; Facebook and Twitter hadn’t been invented.
  • The easiest way to get a coupon was in the Sunday paper; Groupon and Living Social didn’t exist.
  • Blogging was in its infancy.
  • The Washington Post-Los Angeles Times News Service was a viable competitor to The New York Times News Service and The Associated Press.
  • The Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer were competitors — if not for readers, then between journalists at those publications.
  • The N&O website largely consisted of uploading the content of the morning newspaper and was rarely updated during the day.
  • McClatchy, the company that owns the N&O, was living up to its tradition of never laying off employees.
  • No one talked about search engine optimization.
  • Copy editing was seen as an important part of the credibility of a newspaper.

Indeed, 2001 was a different time. Where will we be 10 years from now?

An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of Natalee Holloway. Thanks to @lexalexander for noting the error.

Q&A with Monty Cook of the Reese Felts Digital Project

The Reese Felts Digital Newsroom at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Monty Cook is executive producer of the Reese Felts Digital Project at UNC-Chapel Hill. In that role, he is the leader of a newsroom and research center at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Before coming to the university in 2010, Cook was senior vice president and editor of the Baltimore Sun. He has also worked at newspapers in Orlando, Myrtle Beach, Akron and Washington. D.C. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Cook describes his job, the goals of the Reese Felts project and the future of journalism education.

Q. Describe your job. What does the executive director of the Reese Felts Digital Project do?

A. It’s my role, and the role of Tony Zeoli, our lead developer, to work with students on projects, on programming, and on the site, as they develop the necessary skills and critical thinking needed to be journalists in the 21st century. We have resisted any model that forces students to simply shovel content onto the site. We don’t believe that students learn anything from working in a digital sweatshop or content assembly line.

We discuss stories. We talk about story form. We talk about technology. We talk about audience expectations. We talk about what’s happening in the industry and the culture.

We direct, challenge and work with students to put their work in the best possible position for audiences. We also allow students the time and freedom to choose some stories of their own to pursue. But through our experience we can create teaching moments along the way. Our student staff has been wonderful to work with. They’ve been engaged, energized and professional.

We also decide on the direction of the project; what research initiatives to pursue, which partnerships to form for the benefit of students and the project as a whole.

We’ve taken two steps since summer. We’ve renovated and created the space for the physical newsroom, and we’ve launched a news and information site in a little more than two months. It’s just two steps, and there are many more to come: hyper-local journalism, opinion, sports journalism, original programming and multiple audience research projects.

Q. Where does the Reese Felts site fit into the media landscape on campus, in Chapel Hill and beyond?

A. Reese Felts has many missions. We give students digital skill sets and practical application through story development, production and publishing across multiple platforms. Our site,, serves as not only an outlet for students’ work but the foundation for the project’s audience research initiatives. We look to create natural partnerships with legacy, new media and citizen journalists. That gives us an opportunity to look at strategies to help companies continue making the transition to the evolving digital and cultural audience habits.

Will we cover the university and Chapel Hill? Absolutely. We’ll cover the region, North Carolina and occasional national stories, too. Our goal is to experiment with story form — we’re already doing that with non-traditional sports game coverage — and also with long-form journalism and documentary style.

We believe that emerging platforms, like the iPad and other tablet devices, will ultimately change how journalism is presented. There will be more of a menu for story form options as audiences transition. But data visualization, animation and gaming will have roles to play, too.

Q. As editor of the Baltimore Sun, you oversaw significant layoffs at the newspaper, particularly on the copy desk. What do you see as the role of editing in today’s media?

A. It’s just as important in new media as it is in legacy media, maybe more so. Proper search engine optimization and learning how to draw audiences to articles, video, other content, is layered onto the critical roles of editing for context, for grammar, for structure, for word usage. Newspaper editors, news directors, they’re all being forced into false choices because of the audience transition to new platforms and the poor economy.

That said, journalism roles are becoming less specialized. Journalists need to understand programming, marketing and social media, editing and solid SEO. Those principles are no longer the roles of just a few in a modern newsroom. They have to be top-of-mind for everyone.

Q. You are a graduate of UNC’s journalism school. How has journalism education changed from when you were a student, and what changes do you see ahead?

A. Well, there was no digital newsroom in the mid-1980s. And I have many fond memories of the j-school from my time as an undergraduate. Jim Schumaker, covering town zoning board meetings for Dr. Donald Shaw’s class. I was in Jan Yopp’s news editing class the morning that Challenger exploded on liftoff. The teletype machines were going crazy in the next room.

But even if platforms have evolved, the Web, mobile, now tablet devices — and there will be others — the importance journalism plays in culture remains a constant. The barriers to entry are lower. You no longer have to be The Washington Post or The New York Times to provide news.

Citizen journalism and blogging continue to provide outlets for news, commentary and information. There has never been greater access to news and information. It’s just more fragmented. And it also may not be as in-depth.

Traditional news outlets have struggled with staff attrition. Small and mid-sized newspapers still provide quality watchdog functions to their readers. They may have to pick their spots, however, without the greater bandwidth of a large staff. There are some local broadcast outlets that provide valuable accountability journalism. The Raleigh-Durham market is an excellent one in that respect.

I think we’ll continue to see non-legacy news outlets rise, some broad-based, others niche. Whatever you think of The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast or even Gawker, those sites have large followings., on a student level, will look at different models. We constantly ask how we can serve journalism, both from a practical and theoretical standpoint, on current and emerging platforms. The site itself is non-traditional and looks to create a design bridge between the browser and tablet interface experiences.

It’s about using technology in service of story, not as a toy at the expense of solid storytelling. It’s about using technology in service of reporting. Crowdsourcing and engaging with audiences, followers, after a story publishes are critically important to the newsgathering and dissemination processes.

It’s about understanding that metadata and search engine optimization are as important to the editing process as grammar, line edits, structure and usage.

We work with students on putting the vast digital knowledge and multitasking ability they already possess into the framework of 21st century journalism.

And the thing is, that’s what we see as the need in journalism education — now. As technology and culture continues to evolve, we’ll evolve.

UPDATE: Monty Cook has resigned as leader of the Reese Felts project because of inappropriate relations with a student. Faculty member Don Wittekind is serving in that role on an interim basis.

Predicting the midterm election

Election nights on a newspaper’s copy desk are characterized by long waits for results followed by a frenzy of editing and headline writing. Now that I am teaching, I spend my election nights at home, getting results online and watching coverage on cable TV. The morning after, I’ll look for my newspaper to tie it all together and tell me what it all means.

Free pizza for the newsroom was one of the traditions of election night in the newsrooms where I worked. An “election pool” was another one. Those of us who chose to participate predicted the outcome of various races. The winner claimed bragging rights of being politically astute, although luck may have been involved too.

I can’t join one of those pools tonight, but I will offer my predictions here. To be clear, this is who I think will win, not who should win. My voting preferences are between me and my touch screen. And away we go:

ALASKA: Murkowski over Miller
CALIFORNIA: Boxer over Fiorina
CONNECTICUT: Blumenthal over McMahon
DELAWARE: Coons over O’Donnell
FLORIDA: Rubio over Crist
KENTUCKY: Paul over Conway
NEVADA: Angle over Reid
NORTH CAROLINA: Burr over Marshall

U.S. HOUSE from North Carolina
DISTRICT 2: Etheridge over Ellmers
DISTRICT 4: Price over Lawson
DISTRICT 8: Johnson over Kissell
DISTRICT 13: Miller over Randall

HOUSE: Republicans, 230-205
SENATE: Democrats, 51-47 (and two independents)

California says NO to legalizing marijuana

CALIFORNIA: Brown over Whitman
FLORIDA: Scott over Sink
NEW YORK: Cuomo over Paladino (But either way, the rent will still be too damn high.)

UPDATE: On the day after, I’d call my performance as prognosticator fair to middling. In my newsroom experience, the day after an election is more difficult than the day of the election. Everyone is tired, and there’s no free pizza. Kudos to all of those who do this hard work. We readers appreciate it.

Full metal edit

I recently invested about $9 a month in Netflix Wii. By putting a DVD into the videogame system and connecting online, I can watch hundreds of Nexflix movies on demand. Many of the movies are older releases, but that’s OK.

One movie I watched again recently was “Full Metal Jacket.” I had remembered the Stanley Kubrick movie mostly for its first half, which depicts Marines going through boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., during the Vietnam War.

What I had forgotten was that Joker, a Marine portrayed by Matthew Modine, is assigned to work for Stars and Stripes. Using profanity, the drill sergeant makes fun of this Marine, but he replies: “Sir, I wrote for my high school newspaper, sir!”

Particularly interesting is a scene a few minutes later. Now in Vietnam, Joker attends a news meeting with an editor named Lockhart who asks his reporters and photographers what they are working on.

Lockhart also reads some copy aloud and critiques his reporters’ writing. He offers the following style tips:

  • “Diplomats in Dungarees — Marine engineers lend a helping hand rebuilding Dong Phuc villages.” Chili, if we move Vietnamese, they are evacuees. If they come to us to be evacuated, they are refugees.
  • “N.V.A. Soldier Deserts After Reading Pamphlets — A young North Vietnamese Army regular, who realized his side could not win the war, deserted from his unit after reading Open Arms program pamphlets.” That’s good, Dave. But why say North Vietnamese Army regular? Is there an irregular? How about North Vietnamese Army soldier?
  • “Not While We’re Eating — N.V.A. learn Marines on a search and destroy mission don’t like to be interrupted while eating chow.” Search and destroy. Uh, we have a new directive from MAF on this. In the future, in place of “search and destroy,” substitute the phrase “sweep and clear.” Got it?

It’s an interesting and amusing glimpse into the generation of jargon. Terminology that masks meaning is not limited to the military, of course. It’s abundant in politics as well.

The scene is also an interesting glimpse into the film making of Kubrick. His movies showed that he cared about the words as much as the visuals. Kubrick was also famous for his meticulous nature.

Yes, Stanley Kubrick would have been a good copy editor, although he had trouble on occasion making deadline. But he did OK as a film maker too.


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