The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Category: social media

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.

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.

Q&A with Claire Campbell, director of digital strategy at WTVD

Claire Campbell is director of digital strategy and audience development at WTVD, the ABC station in the Triangle region of North Carolina. She has also worked as an editor at Yahoo, About.com and IMDB. In this interview, Campbell discusses her job at ABC 11, the station’s online presence and the skills needed to work in digital news.

Q. Describe your job. What do you do at WTVD?

A. My job is to help expand the station’s digital reach and engagement — via our website, our mobile apps, social media and other initiatives. I work closely with our News and Creative Services teams to make sure that our broadcast and digital processes are as integrated as possible.

Fortunately, we have a great team that really understands the importance of digital — reporters out at the scene of breaking news know that one of their first responsibilities is to tweet photos or videos that we can use online, for example.

I’m also constantly analyzing our metrics to see which of our efforts are most successful and brainstorming new ways to connect with users. That’s the most exciting part of my job: planning for the future, trying to imagine what form our work could take as the media landscape keeps evolving.

There’s also a lot of nuts-and-bolts work, of course, like implementing digital ad campaigns or building special pages to support our projects in the community. I should say too that I’m only two months into this role, so I’m sure I will continue discovering new aspects of it.

Q. You previously worked as a news editor at Yahoo and an editor at About.com. How is your current job different from those, and how do they inform what you do now?

A. The most obvious difference is scale — the other sites were national, and ABC11 has a strong local focus (which I appreciate; one of the reasons I wanted to make this move is that I’d lived in the Triangle for 6+ years but never felt fully part of what was happening here).

There are cultural differences, too; the broadcast world is a little more formal, and relies on face time and phone calls and email instead of Skype/IM (I haven’t used the word “ping” since I started here).

There’s also a strong sense of community and loyalty at the station. Some people have worked there for decades — longer than most of the companies I’ve worked for have existed.

What I call on most often from my time at About is an understanding of SEO and how to plan around what users are looking for online; from Yahoo, it’s the sense of how to pull readers in and create a dynamic conversation around a story.

Q. Another TV station, WRAL, has the dominant website in the Triangle area of North Carolina. How does WTVD stack up with it and the digital presence of the regional daily newspaper, The News & Observer?

The first thing I’d say is that WRAL may not be quite as dominant as many people think.

We’re lucky to have a very active and engaged audience base at ABC11 — on our website but even more so in our mobile apps. And we do a lot with a relatively small digital staff.

That said, we know there’s more we can do to serve our users in the digital space, and we’re hard at work on building an even bigger and better digital experience.

Q. You recently contacted the journalism school at UNC about some internship and job opportunities. How can students best prepare themselves to work at organizations like yours?

A. Become versatile storytellers. Learn to work in different media and different registers (both formal and conversational). Master the fundamentals but then challenge yourself to approach stories in a new way. And take advantage of any opportunity that will expose you to new platforms or skills.

I think one of the best exercises journalism students can do is to take a single story and make it work as an article, a blog, a video, a podcast, an infographic, etc. The more readily you can shift modes, the more prepared you’ll be for whatever journalism looks like when you’re out of school.

Q&A with Erin Monday, communications director at Research Triangle Park

Erin Monday is communications director at The Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, she talks about her job and the future of RTP.

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

A. My job, really, is to uplift the people who live in North Carolina by helping to tell their stories — usually via social media.

My daily duties are something of a hodgepodge — sometimes I’m at events, live-Tweeting. Other times, I’m juggling reporters, developing assets, writing press releases or handling internal communications and general housekeeping.

At the end of the day, I get to help people – there’s nothing more fulfilling!

Q. Research Triangle Park is nearly 60 years old, created decades before the digital revolution, among other innovations. How is RTP changing to keep up with times, and how will your organization get that message to the public?

A. Well, they hired an intrapreneur, who doesn’t do things the “usual” way – that’s me.

When my position was open, the Research Triangle Park’s leadership looked at several other applicants, with very “traditional” communications backgrounds, and they wound up choosing a 29-year-old with a digital content background. There was probably no better way to “walk the walk!”

Q. You also organize the RTP 180 series. What is the objective of these monthly gatherings, and how do you determine their themes?

A. The Research Triangle Park actually has a 50-year-old mission — a sort of “pledge” to the entire state — to create jobs, to support education and to improve the quality of life.

We created the 180s as a way to bring North Carolinians together and to showcase the talents of our region (and others). When all of these community leaders, corporate employees and university researchers present at 180 they shine — and we can record them and share their stories on the net.

Q. So your job sounds pretty cool. What advice do you have for students setting off on a similar career path?

A. Evolve, evolve, evolve. In this field, you must never stay still. You must always try new things.

Social media is really only the current “medium phase” of the digital marketing revolution. Before, it used to be about SEM and SEO. It will change again, again and again.

UPDATE: In 2014, Monday left the RTP job and is now digital specialist at The Body Shop.

Q&A with Lauren Brownlow of ACCSports.com and FOX Sports Carolinas

Lauren Brownlow is a freelance sportswriter with a focus on the Atlantic Coast Conference. She has also written for N.C. newspapers such as the Herald-Sun in Durham and the Sanford Herald. In this interview, conducted by email, Brownlow discusses her job, offers career advice and talks about her love of GIFs.

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

A. I’m a freelance contributor to FOX Sports Carolinas, and my contract stipulates that I do at least five articles a week for them. And with all the sports going on right now, I usually do more than that. And then I also work for GoHeels.com’s digital magazine as a freelancer (I do weekly stories for them), and my weekly previews for ACCSports.com. So it’s a balancing act.

But my main responsibilities are covering football and men’s basketball for the Triangle-area teams (and a little bit of general ACC thrown in) for FOX. So each week, I try to find a topic or angle I can take with each area team’s upcoming game and do one piece for each.

I can also come up with a more “fun” piece that doesn’t involve interviews or heavy analysis. For example, I did a piece on the various odd fashion choices from NBA stars back in June. And I did a piece on football “coachspeak” in August.

During football season, Monday and Tuesday mornings are usually filled with press conferences, and so I try not to schedule myself for any stories due on those days. UNC’s presser is Monday at 11:45 and N.C. State’s is at 1:00, so I usually have to choose one or the other. Duke’s is Tuesday at 11:30.

So basically, I spend most of the day (and night) on Wednesday and Thursday writing. Especially Thursday night, when I’m finishing my ACCSports.com previews (which go up as early as possible on Friday).

On Friday, I usually have a little more time off, and so I try to catch up on sleep, take care of things around the house, etc. Sometimes, I’ll write my GoHeels.com stories on Friday. Saturday, I cover at least one game and do a write-up afterwards — either a “Four Downs” recap where I talk about the four most important aspects of the game, or a straight-up column.

If a game is at noon, I’m usually not home and/or finished with my story until 8 or 9 or so. It’s a full day.

I get up early Sunday and do my weekly power rankings, and I also write up my budget for the next week with my five stories. If I have a GoHeels.com piece to finish, I’ll do that too.

And I watch the Carolina Panthers on Sundays and die a little inside with each gut-wrenching loss. After years of doing this, the Panthers are my last outlet for true fandom/homerism/etc., and thus it’s extra painful when they lose in the fourth quarter for the 1,000th time in the Ron Rivera era.

I also have Sunday Ticket, so I’ll flip back and forth to Red Zone. This isn’t work, per se, but I’ve somehow gained Twitter followers based almost solely on my nutso Panthers’ tweets, which are filled with rage and sadness.

Basketball season will change my schedule somewhat, and the overlap between football and basketball will be especially brutal. But right now, that’s my workweek.

Q. You are known for your “GIF-tastic” previews of the week’s ACC football games. How do you put those together?

A. Well, it actually takes awhile. I’m a procrastinator by nature, and I work best in the early-morning deadline hours (or so I tell myself), so I put off a good deal of it until then.

But I do a lot of it throughout the week, filling in a the teams/records/details first, then a narrative here or a prediction there if it crosses my mind, or even a player to watch or a key to the game. I have a very casual (and, I’d like to think, funny) approach to writing these, and so I don’t want to sit down and write a game preview when my mind is focused on finishing other articles or I’m not feeling particularly silly or goofy.

Jim Young (editor of ACCSports.com) sent me a template when I started working for them last year for the basketball previews. I’m using a scaled-down version of that for football, since there’s a lot more detail involved in each game.

It’s keys to the game for each team, a player to watch from each team, various random statistics from the game notes and then, everyone’s favorite, narratives. For instance, when UNC loses in basketball, it becomes an indictment on Roy Williams as a head coach. And thus, a narrative is born.

I can’t remember if it was Jim or I that came up with it, but I’ll give credit to Jim. I think we were trying to find another category for the previews and throwing around ideas, and he suggested it. I’m happy to credit my editor, either way. (Note to future journalists: Editors are your friend!)

Last year, the site wouldn’t load GIFs properly, so I would use images quite a bit for my “narrative” if a team won or lost. Image of a mushroom cloud of a dumpster on fire, for instance.

But this year, GIFs do load on the new site, and it’s really expanded what I can do. I can include a pratfall to signify the kind of fail it would be if Team X lost a game it was heavily favored in, or I can use a GIF of someone crying. Those tend to get the point across a bit better than a still image.

The GIFs are the most creative part of what I do, and so I enjoy that. What I’ve done is gone through one of the more organized GIF sites (giphy) and gone through various categories, bookmarking GIFs that I think I will use in the future. I already have one of a 2-year-old falling on his face trying to dunk on a toy basketball hoop that I’ll use for basketball season. But I prefer GIFs from great movies and television shows, if I can find them.

The GIFs I use in my previews are generally from those shows, and when “Breaking Bad” went off the air a few weeks ago, I did a narrative for each team, win or lose, with a “Breaking Bad” GIF for each. It was well over 20 GIFs.

I do feel, though, that if I hadn’t started writing those previews, I never would have been able to fully develop as a writer. When you spend so much time writing fact-based content, it’s hard to flex your stylistic muscles, so to speak. And that’s also why I always enjoyed (and agonized over) writing features whenever I’ve gotten the opportunity.

But the previews are fun because they really allow me to be myself and write in my own voice. Writing a good feature, though, is one of the hardest things you can do in sportswriting (or just writing in general). When it’s good, you know it’s good. And when you know you could have done better, it haunts you. There’s never that self-doubt with my previews. It’s just me.

Q. Twitter seems to have changed sports journalism in a big way. How has social media affected how you and other sportswriters do their work?

A. I rarely ever knew another way, or if I did, I don’t remember it all that well. I’ve been doing this since the fall of 2005, and obviously Twitter didn’t come out until … 2009, maybe? That’s when I signed on.

I think it initially changed things for me by giving me a peek into the way other writers did their jobs. At that time, I was working for Tar Heel Monthly full-time, and I didn’t have a ton of exposure to that part of it. National, local, whatever — I got a glimpse into their world and how hard they had to work to be good at their jobs. (Or not, in some cases.)

But to answer the question, Twitter gave me the chance to write in my voice, so to speak, before I started writing the previews. I was restricted to 140 characters, obviously, so it was tough — but it also helped me become more economical in my prose, I guess.

Last year, I was just a freelance writer for a small newspaper and wondering if I would ever work full-time again. The more active I was on Twitter, the more people in higher places started to pay attention to me, and I think that kind of networking paid off, too. Also, if you’re funny and/or you know what you’re talking about, people will find you. I’d like to think that I’m both of those things.

Other writers tend to use it differently than I do. At a news conference or a game, I’m not going to inundate my followers with a quote every minute or so, or even with updates on the score or how many points a person has. There are traditional beat writers they can follow for that kind of information, and I am conscious of the need to avoid flooding people’s timelines.

I want to have the kinds of tweets from games that stand out. I’d rather observe something interesting (well, interesting to me anyway), either about the game itself or even about the mascots or something. I don’t want to be a Twitter user that people scroll through during games because they don’t care about an update on the action — they’re generally watching the action themselves.

So I’ll tweet a quote or two if it seems particularly newsworthy, or I’ll tweet an observation from a game. For instance, I think one of my more retweeted tweets from the past few weeks was “UNC’s defense is basically like the big paper sign that high school teams run through before games.” (This was during the ECU game.) It’s informational, but still tongue-in-cheek, and it gives you something different.

If you’re watching the game, you KNOW the UNC defense is bad. You don’t need proof. I was trying to get across HOW bad in a concise and (I’d like to think) humorous way. That’s how I like to use Twitter.

Q. Each semester, I have several students in my classes who want to go into sports journalism. What advice do you have for them?

A. I was very fortunate coming out of school. I won’t lie and pretend hard work and years of internships and fantastic grades landed me in this situation, because it didn’t.

I had Mick Mixon as a professor at UNC twice, and he was the first person who really believed in me as a writer. He recommended me for an internship to Adam Lucas (for what was then Tar Heel Monthly and TarHeelBlue.com), and Adam trusted Mick enough to take his word for it. I worked for him for five years, straight out of college, in a full-time position with benefits.

But in this business — much like in sports — you have to be lucky and good. You just do. And sometimes, you can be really good, and no organization has a good use for you or the money to hire you.

Sportswriting is changing so much that a lot of Internet outlets are cutting back more and more, either firing full-time employees or just having those employees cover most events from home, posting blog/wire updates. Newspapers will give young talent a chance, but it’s competitive and the work is extremely difficult.

My point is that it’s a hard world out there, and even if you’re really good, you might not get hired right away. Just keep at it, and something will open up.

I have spent two years already since I left college as a freelance reporter, unsure of what to do next or when (or if) I would ever make real money again, so I know that feeling. I’m lucky enough that my husband supports my career and believed in me enough to let me work ridiculous hours for very little money until the opportunity that I have now came up, but that’s not always practical for some.

Here are some of the best pieces of advice I’ve received along the way, though. I don’t always obey them all, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth remembering:

Put the same time/effort into your work as you expect to get out of it. This is particularly true in freelance. This isn’t just about money, although that’s important. There’s no need for you to agonize over a high school football game story if you’re only making $30 or $40, for instance. But if that high school football game story will be on a high-traffic site like WRAL.com, then maybe you spend a few extra minutes on it.

Don’t forget that you can be paid in exposure, too, and that’s as valuable as a currency sometimes as money. If the right eyeballs are reading your stuff,  you can move to a higher-paying position eventually. That doesn’t mean you should turn down certain jobs because of how much they pay, though. Any experience you can get is very valuable. Exposure, experience and economics. The three E’s. (I just made that up.)

There have been plenty of times where I didn’t want to spend as much time on something as I did because I knew no one would read it, but then I remembered how much I was being paid to write it. That matters, particularly in our line of work.

It would be nice if those who pay more for good work get that good work in return. And sometimes, you have a great idea for a high-concept piece that you’re doing for an outlet that won’t pay you much for it (and that no one reads), and you end up wasting your day trying to research it when you could have been doing something else. That’s not a good use of your time.

Network, network, network. Make friends (or at least, acquaintances) with as many people that work around you as possible. For way too long, I never bothered to do that. After I did, I couldn’t believe I’d been so hesitant. Old, young, it doesn’t matter.

If it’s like sportswriting, these people are often the only other humans you see besides your family on a daily basis, and so why not be friends with them? This is especially hard when you’re first out of college and you think you need to hang on to those friends, but you have to move on.

One word of caution: You have to be very careful in our business — there’s plenty of backbiting that goes on, and so you should avoid being overly gossipy — but it won’t take you long to figure out who your friends are.

Be social. Go to lunches or out for drinks or to the hospitality room, or whatever it is that those people are doing. It will pay off down the road.

If one of those friends moves up to a higher position, they can put in a good word for you (and vice versa). Or they can pass along job openings when they hear it about from a friend of a friend from an old job in Nebraska, or whatever. And you can talk shop with them, bounce ideas off of them and what not. It just never hurts at all to have friends in this business.

Especially if you don’t have steady work, start a blog. I got this piece of advice from a friend of mine, and I don’t know if I’d still be doing this today if it weren’t for that (or for him). It’s a way for prospective employers to quickly get a sense of your writing style.

You can mix in more serious pieces with some funnier things — I did that for my blog, where I did my own version of the previews — but it wouldn’t take long for someone researching you to find out if you know your stuff.

Be able to be your own editor. I have editors at FOX, but often they don’t have time to parse over my writing the same way a newspaper editor would. And I have to create my own budget each week as well, for the most part.

I’m happy to do that, but you have to be able to generate your own ideas and edit your own work. This is becoming more and more of a problem in our industry, as outlets want to cut back on copy editors (particularly in the newspaper world).

It’s just a reality we all have to face, and if you want your story going out into the universe as a fully formed, grammatically correct piece of writing, then you’ll have to be responsible for that. I’m sure UNC is preparing you for those kinds of realities, but I know I thought writing would be a much more collaborative venture than it ultimately was based on my J-school experience.

Q&A with Amy Seeley, communications coordinator at Autism Society of N.C.

Amy Seeley is communications coordinator at the Autism Society of North Carolina. Prior to taking that job, she worked as a copy editor and page designer at North Carolina newspapers, including The News & Observer in Raleigh and the Star News in Wilmington. She was editor of two of the N&O’s community newspapers, Midtown Raleigh News and North Raleigh News. In this interview, conducted by email, Seeley talks about her new job and the transition from newspapers.

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

A. I am part of the three-person communications department of the Autism Society of North Carolina, a nonprofit that has about 1,000 employees serving individuals with autism and their families across the state. My main focus is on editing and writing stories. I have a co-worker whose focus is design, and we report to the director of communications.

Obviously, with such a small department, we all do a little bit of everything. I feel like it is kind of an unusual communications job, because we have several audiences.

Many people probably think our big focus is on “awareness,” teaching the community about autism. That’s part of what we do, but our main audience is individuals with autism and their families, because if they don’t know what the Autism Society does, they won’t come to us for help. And of course, we do have the PR component, which we used to sneer at in the newsroom. But I have to say, asking for money and bragging about the good work of your organization doesn’t feel bad when it’s for a cause like autism!

Right now we are really focused on publicizing our Run/Walk for Autism fundraisers around the state – Raleigh’s is the last on Oct. 12. For each of them, I have looked for and written compelling local stories of how we as an organization have helped families.

These have been one of the most rewarding parts of my job so far, and also the hardest. As the mom of a son with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a hard time hearing some of the stories of what families go through.

We then put those on our blog so our families can read them and promoted them to targeted local media through emails. Besides the stories, I am writing basic press releases as you would expect and editing emails that go out to participants. I also work closely with the development department to edit grant applications so we can keep adding sources of funding.

At the same time, we are in a period of expansion, adding services and coverage areas, so that means brochures need to be redone, pages added to the website, promotional fliers created, etc. Much of that work means I receive content from other departments, and I need to edit it to varying degrees; sometimes it just needs a few commas, and sometimes I need to rework it so people outside of the service professions will understand it. I am also the editor for our twice-yearly magazine, monthly email newsletters and an end-of-camp magazine, all of which are for our families.

So in a typical day, I might interview a parent, write a story about them, edit material from a co-worker, update our website, set up Tweets and edit a grant application. I am often working across multiple platforms, but it all amounts to one thing: making sure families know how we can help them.

Q. How does the Autism Society use social media to get its message out?

A. We have a Facebook fan page, where our designer posts almost every day, doing a great job of adding images to content to attract attention. We also have an active group page and use Facebook event pages for major events. We also post to Instagram and Pinterest, but not as often. Last spring, they did a PSA campaign on YouTube for Autism Awareness Month.

I set up most of the Twitter posts in advance, using it to highlight not just upcoming events around the state, but longstanding services that we offer, with links to our website. We gain several followers every day, and I want to make sure they know all the ways we can help.

Recently I’ve been experimenting with seeking Retweets for our Triangle race from influencers; people have been mostly willing to help us out. We also use Twitter to link to autism news.

We also have a blog, as I mentioned, where we share news about our organization as well as informative articles written by our staff members for families.

Q. Before taking this job earlier this year, you worked at newspapers for nearly 20 years. What skills were you able to take with you, and what did you have to learn anew?

I think the most important skills I brought to my new job were news judgment and storytelling capabilities. Just as at the paper we were always talking about how to get people to keep reading, one of my focuses here is how to get people’s attention.

We need families to hear our message so we can help them, and we need others to hear it so they might donate to help us continue our work. A compelling story pulls people in, no matter where they read it. (And it doesn’t hurt that I have some idea of what an editor might be looking for in a story pitch!)

Having been a copy editor, designer and community paper editor, I also had plenty of organization skills and practice at overseeing an entire operation as I shepherded projects through to completion. Of course, here we do not have projects every day!

And that brings me to skills I needed to learn and am still working on. Outside of newspapers, organizations have more time, and more people want to have a hand in projects. I am still getting a feel for the coordination that is necessary to keep things moving but still involve everyone the way that they want to be involved.

Q. Other newspaper reporters and editors may be looking for a similar transition. What advice do you have for mid-career journalists who are considering that change?

A. Many of the skills that journalists have are in demand. We are deadline-oriented, adaptable, technologically savvy and knowledgeable about many topics. Plus, we have strong writing and editing skills.

I would say to make sure you focus on skills rather than projects. When I was a newspaper designer, I used a portfolio to apply for new jobs. When I wanted to work outside of journalism, I needed to sell myself more than my work. (But it obviously depends on the job.) I would also recommend taking development courses in areas that might apply to jobs you’d like, especially for technology. It shows commitment as well as adding to your skills.

But most importantly, I would say to find your passion. In the newsroom, we were all united for a common cause: putting together the best product we could. By midnight.

Make sure when you are looking at a new position, you will be working on a topic in which you have interest, because the in-the-trenches-together camaraderie won’t be there. You probably won’t have a daily deadline, and you probably won’t have people cursing you out, and you probably won’t be under threat of layoffs together. You’re going to need something else to make it worthwhile.

For some, the paycheck might be enough. Just make sure you know whether you are one of those people.

N&O hopes for friendlier comments

This week, The News & Observer switched to Facebook for reader comments. Other McClatchy newspapers, including The Charlotte Observer, made that change awhile ago, and others will follow.

Eric Frederick, the managing editor of the Raleigh paper’s website, explained the reasons for the change this way:

We believe that if you have something to say, you should be willing to put your name on it. And we think most of you will agree. It’s a standard we’ve always placed on letters to the editor in The News & Observer.

As on occasional commenter under the old system, I think this is a good move. Comments on the N&O site have been dreadful for some time, filled with trolling and race-baiting by people hiding by screen names and anonymity. That incivility is sadly typical for many news sites.

My hunch is that some readers will still behave badly even using their real names. And others will try to create fake Facebook accounts so they can continue to rant and rave anonymously. But this change will make it more difficult to do that, and I hope it will lead to more civil conversations about the news of the day.

When the tone doesn’t match the topic

Longtime readers of this blog will recall that I am an advocate of alternative story forms. Formats such as the Q&A and a list can be memorable ways to convey information to readers.

The situation in Syria seems like a natural for these formats, so when several Facebook friends posted links to this Washington Post story, I took notice.

“9 Questions About Syria You Were Too Embarrassed To Ask” is both a list and a Q&A, with a helpful map added. It’s part of a series on various topics. This story offers a wealth of information about Syria generally and the civil war there, and it explains U.S. policy toward the country.

Where this story falls short, in my mind, is in its tone. The writing is peppered with the second person and first person, creating a casual feel. The story includes a musical interlude via YouTube.

The feel of the questions indicates that readers are probably bored, jaded or rushed — or perhaps all three. An example: “How did it all go so wrong in Syria? And, please, just give me the short version.”

Of my friends who posted this story to Facebook, about half expressed concerns about the story’s approach. The other half simply posted it as information to share with others, apparently unbothered by the way it was written and edited.

To my mind, the Q&A provides a lot of information, but it a mismatch of tone and topic, a serious subject treated lightly. And keep in mind, this is The Washington Post, not BuzzFeed or Gawker. That’s not to say that the Post and similar publications can’t use a light touch on occasion, but that approach seems like a bad choice here.

UPDATE: A novelist offers a satire called “9 Questions About Britain You Were Too Embarrassed To Ask.” And the Post interviews him.

Raleigh newspaper goes retro

birthdaypageThe News & Observer turns 119 today. To mark the occasion, the Raleigh newspaper published its front page in a retro style, and editor John Drescher wrote this column about its founder, Josephus Daniels.

The throwback design is a fun idea for a front page. A bit of old-timey language (“to-day”) is a nice touch.

It helps that the birthday comes on a Monday in August, a typically slow time for news. It’s a good opportunity to surprise your readers with something unusual.

The house ad at the bottom of page, however, feels incongruous in color and content. On a similar note, I knew about the retro page via Twitter before I fetched the actual newspaper off my driveway this morning:

Regardless, I wish the N&O a happy birthday. As a former editor there, I am proud to be a part of its history, and I look forward to reading it in print and online in the years to come.

UPDATE: The North Carolina Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill has posted that first issue of the N&O from 1894.

Image courtesy of the Newseum.

Q&A with Sapna Maheshwari of BuzzFeed

Sapna Maheshwari is a business reporter for BuzzFeed. Prior to that job, she worked at Bloomberg News. In this interview, conducted by email, Maheshwari discusses her beat, her recent career transition and BuzzFeed’s new business section.

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

A. My job is to write about retail for BuzzFeed’s new business news section. My typical workday is a lot like it used to be — reading analyst reports, talking with sources, contacting companies, reading filings and so on. I spend a bit more time on Twitter and other social networks than I used to, looking for information on the companies I cover in those spheres.

Q. Why is BuzzFeed, known for its animal photos and “listicles,” going into business journalism?

A. BuzzFeed has been expanding its news coverage for quite some time — especially in politics, where the team there has really made a name for itself.

Business news is a big part of the social conversation. Clearly, it’s something people care about and talk about. We’re a small team but think we can write smart scoops and analysis about business that people want to read and share.

For my beat, retail, it’s an obvious fit: writing about the businesses that people shop at and interact with on a daily basis. Our goal is for everything on the vertical to be funny or exclusive, and hopefully, we’re hitting that goal so far.

Q. You previously worked at Bloomberg News. What has it been like to go from the Bloomberg Way to BuzzFeed? What are the differences in reporting, writing and editing?

A. It’s very different. At Bloomberg, the writing was more formulaic, and my audience was typically investors or traders, except when I was writing feature-type stories for Businessweek. I also had more editors, and the fact-checking was more rigorous. I had to put in a ticket to get a photo attached to a story.

Here at BuzzFeed, it’s obviously a smaller operation. I can put together the posts myself, and it goes out much quicker. We’re also not writing up earnings stories and stock moves, so I can spend more time reporting and researching.

That said, the reporting itself is largely similar, but I have less data at my fingertips without a Bloomberg terminal. Working at Bloomberg for so long definitely made me a fair and careful reporter, though, and I’m so glad I started my career there.

Q. You graduated from the UNC School of Journalism in 2009. What is the most important thing you learned there, and what new skills have you had to pick up since college?

A. Wow, hard to pick out the most important thing I learned at the j-school. I’m definitely extra careful with facts and spelling thanks to my classes there.

I think one of the most important things I took away was from my business and the media class — learning about the role of PR in business journalism and how the two fields can work together despite often having different goals. I have always kept to the rule that a story shouldn’t be a “surprise” for a company and that transparency from my end goes a long way in building trust with them. Having so many friends that went the PR route in the j-school reinforced that for me.

As far as new skills, I’ve gotten more adept with company filings and using social networking tools to find sources for stories. I also became a bit of a pro on the Bloomberg terminal after working on one for 3.5 years!

Follow Sapna Maheshwari on Twitter and read her articles on BuzzFeed.

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