Q&A with Brian Long of the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs

Brian Long is director public affairs North Carolina’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. In that role, he oversees the department’s communication efforts, including the N.C. State Fair. He is a 1988 graduate of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. In this interview, conducted by email, Long talks about his job and what to expect at this year’s fair.

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

A. Unpredictable. It doesn’t matter what I’m planning to get done on any given day, there’s always the possibility that I’ll end up spending my day working on something entirely different.

The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has a lot of service and regulatory responsibilities, so there’s always a possibility of some issue popping up. The unpredictability keeps my job from being boring, but some days can definitely be a challenge.

I usually start my day reviewing news stories related to agriculture or other topics the department has some connection to. I spend a good chunk of time editing news releases, speeches and blog posts written by the other members of the Public Affairs staff. I also do a bit of writing myself, though not as much as I would like because I find myself pulled into a good number of meetings.

Q. It’s almost time for the State Fair. How does your job change in the weeks leading up to this event? In the aftermath?

A. We begin working on the State Fair in the winter, developing a theme and working with the fair’s ad agency on a media plan and creative concepts. We do some publicity during the summer — announcing the theme, updating the website and publicizing the concert lineup and advance ticket sales, which usually start in early August.

We get more focused on the fair in September, planning what I call “events within the event.” Our staff is responsible for organizing a pre-fair media lunch, a press conference focused on safety, an opening ceremony and the annual State Fair Livestock Hall of Fame induction. We move our office from downtown to the fairgrounds a week before the fair opens.

Once the fair opens, our duties involve responding to media requests and helping reporters with story ideas, publicizing winners of livestock and cooking contests and taking photos of the fair. After the fair, we typically deal with any follow-up media requests regarding attendance and our overall impression of the fair, and we announce any remaining livestock show results.

And before we know it, we’re getting ready for the next year. I also should mention that even though we’re absorbed by the fair, we still have responsibilities for assisting the rest of the agriculture department with any communications needs.

Q. Each year, the fair has a theme. This year it’s “the October Original.” How do those themes come about?

A. Caffeine and sugar usually play a role in our theme development. We get together and brainstorm ideas based on the fair’s characteristics.

We strive for themes that create a certain mood or feel. For this year’s theme, we wanted to play up the fact that the fair is a unique North Carolina experience.

Q. Unfortunately, the fair is not just fun, food and games. Last year, an accident on a ride injured several people. This year, a concealed-carry group said it wants to bring guns to the fair, bringing a political debate to the event. How does your office handle these situations?

A. We believe in transparency and accuracy.

When the ride accident happened last year, we immediately began gathering as many known facts as possible so that we could hold a news briefing and put out a news release. The initial focus was on what happened, because we didn’t know when the investigation would determine why it happened. By providing accurate information as quickly as possible, we hope to guard against speculation and rumors.

When situations like this occur, the relationships we’ve built with news media over time are invaluable. We have a track record of being accessible and helpful to the media, and there is a mutual respect for our respective jobs.

Q. Social media must play a role in the fair nowadays. Any advice for those of us visiting on how and what to tweet and post to Instagram this year?

A. Because of the popularity of selfies, we are rebranding our photo-op spots as “selfie stations” this year. We also encourage visitors to post about their favorite things at the fair, whether it’s the food, the exhibits, the rides, the animals or the entertainment. Use #ncstatefair or #octoberoriginal (this year’s theme).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q. So what’s next for you?

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

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

Student guest post: How can editors stop plagiarism and fabrication?

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the first of those posts. Andy Bradshaw is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill double majoring in political science and reporting. He writes for The Daily Tar Heel and hopes to write for a legal publication in the future.

In 1998, Stephen Glass was at the center of possibly the most infamous instance of fabrication within the world of journalism. At just 25 years old, Glass had risen to prominence as one of the most high-profile reporters in Washington, D.C.

His stories for The New Republic, a magazine with a focus on political commentary, had that extra little quote or character that made his stories stand out above the rest of the pieces in the magazine. Glass always presented vivid, enigmatic figures with heartwarming back stories.

But behind the scenes, Glass was inventing entire companies, sources and stories purely from his own imagination. When he wrote an entirely fabricated piece centering on a 15-year-old hacker breaking the firewall of an entirely fictional company under the name of Jukt Micronics, Charles Lane, Glass’ editor at the time, expressed some suspicion.

When Lane forced Glass to take him to the conference room of a Hyatt hotel where Glass had stated the young hacker and the software company had met up to make a deal, Lane discovered that on the day Glass said the meeting took place, the conference room had been closed. After Lane found out that Glass had fabricated this story, he and other editors at the New Republic discovered that at least 27 out of the 41 stories Glass had written for the magazine contained at least some fabricated material.

This was truly a case of a lose-lose for all those involved. Glass’ name still evokes contempt from most of the journalism world, and The New Republic had a stain on its reputation that took years to diminish.

Since this scandal, fabrication has remained a prominent issue for reporters and editors. In 2003, Jayson Blair was forced to resign from The New York Times in the wake of the discovery of his plagiarism and fabrication in his stories. Just last year, a student journalist at the University of Alabama was discovered to have quoted up to 30 nonexistent students in her stories for The Crimson White. And in this past week, three Bangladeshi journalists were held in court for writing a fabricated story.

What seems clear is that fabrication is a problem with a wide scope — it can occur at a small college newspaper or even at a respected media behemoth like The New York Times. As editors, it’s our job to maintain accuracy. But how far can we actually go to ensure that reporters are engaging in ethical journalism?

The Poynter Institute has laid out some guidelines to prevent fabrication in the newsroom, and among them are some tips that editors may find useful. Sourcing notes can help force reporters to link their sources to biographies, names and titles. This makes it much easier for editors to be able to verify that their reporters are being honest in their stories. Had the editors at The New Republic used sourcing notes with Glass’ stories, they would not have been able to verify many of his sources, and thus suspicions likely would have arisen earlier.

But perhaps we as editors should take sourcing notes one step further. For digital stories, I would suggest placing hyperlinks to source information. This not only makes it easier for editors to verify source information, but also to open up the editing process to readers. As editors we bear the weight of the verification process, but we could use all the help we could get from our readers to ensure the stories we put out to the public are accurate and fair.

Furthermore, linking our sources lends context and authority to the story as a whole. Linking to information that was plagiarized could alert an editor to the fact that the information was taken from another source. However, when it comes to fabrication, the solution remains muddled. But sourcing notes can help editors easily get in contact with the sources listed in a story to verify that what the reporter wrote was truthful.

Overall, the process of preventing plagiarism becomes easier when editors employ techniques such as providing links to sources and incorporating those links in digital stories. This would make it easier for editors to detect if any information in the story was stolen from another source. Fabrication presents a new set of problems, but by providing these links with contact information, editors can get in contact with sources listed in stories to verify information.

Had these practices been in place when Glass and Blair were slipping their fictional stories under the eyes of editors, the damage they caused to their own reputation as well as the integrity of their institutions may have ended much sooner.

Q&A with Deborah Strange, Dow Jones News Fund intern

Deborah Strange is a student in the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. In summer 2013, she had a Dow Jones News Fund internship at the Regional Editing Center of The New York Times in Gainesville, Fla. She has also been an intern at The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. In this interview, conducted by email, Strange talks about her New York Times internship and what she hopes to do next.

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

A. I worked on the news service side of the Editing Center, so I read stories formatted for The New York Times print and Web editions, and edited them for our newspaper and magazine clients. This involved editing headers so clients would know how to budget our stories and editing copy for AP style, since the stories came over in New York Times style.

My day would start at 3 p.m. with editing the more feature-style stories, which would usually be ready while other news stories were developing. We would have a small mix of hard news stories early in the day, particularly foreign stories because of the time difference. I would also proofread the Times Digest early in the day, and that did usually take New York Times style.

We would receive the stories that were running on The Times’ front page by around 7:30 or 8, and it was then a race to get those stories on the wire by 9 p.m. Glances, or 100-word briefs of national, foreign and business stories, had a 9:30 deadline.

Throughout the workday I would trim longer stories to 300- to 400-word versions and check stories for new material or corrections. Sometimes updating a story would be an easy “adds new graf here,” and sometimes so much had changed that it was essentially a new story.

Things would slow down by 11:30, and I would do one last check for updates before leaving at midnight.

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

A. Working at a news service is different from working at a newspaper or in a classroom. There are so many steps in the editing process to make sure everything makes sense to clients.

Our story headers would have slugs, headlines, bylines, attention lines, contributor notes, art notes, trim notes, update notes, embargo notes. When editing the copy itself, taking out courtesy titles and periods in abbreviations became second nature. There are more obscure differences between Times style and AP, though, like the spelling of Russian and Arabic names.

It’s a lot to keep track of when preparing a story for the wire, and it definitely felt overwhelming at first.

It was very, very surreal to work for The New York Times Co. The internship was filled with opportunities; I learned from some of the best editors in the industry every day, and I got the chance to write a column for the International Weekly publication.

But there was nothing like finding and fixing a fact error before it went on the wire. It was even more rewarding to find a fact error before The Times’ print deadline, saving a correction both on the wire and in the print edition.

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

A. Do apply for an internship, even if you might not want to go into copy editing. No matter your background — reporting, design, multimedia — there are skills you can bring to editing, and there are skills you can gain from it.

If you do apply, be confident and know your strengths. I had only reporting experience when I was applying, not including half a semester of a news editing course at UNC. But reporting and editing go hand in hand, and that’s what I wrote about in my essay.

Know your weaknesses and study them — and do study for the editing test. I’ve always felt solid in grammar and word usage, but I was more horrible at geography than I’d like to admit. I spent the weeks before the test studying maps and, not just events from the summer, but where those events had happened on a map.

And finally, know that there are real people grading your test and reading your essays. There are no Scantrons, and the organization isn’t looking for black-and-white applications.

Write down thoughtful questions when you’re editing stories during the test. If you know the answer to one part of a two-part question, write it down, and answer the other part to the best of your ability.

Show what you know. The graders don’t expect you to know everything.

Q. You are planning to graduate in December. What’s next for you?

A. I love both editing and reporting, so I’m looking for those jobs at daily newspapers now. This semester, I’m freelance reporting for The Chapel Hill News and tutoring elementary school students in writing, so I have fun ways to do both.

I’m also trying to develop as many new skills as possible, like HTML coding and economics reporting, as well as making more connections in the industry.

UPDATE: Deborah has accepted a full-time job with the editing center in Gainesville. Congratulations!

Take a look at Strange’s portfolio and follow her on Twitter.

Robo-reporters need human editors

This week, I’ve used Twitter to follow the annual convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. This morning, this Tweet from Steve Buttry of Digital First Media caught my eye:

robo-tweet

I clicked on the link to the image, which is what the ASNE audience saw at a presentation by Michael Maness of the Knight Foundation. It shows the first several paragraphs of a computer-generated story about a baseball game. Here’s what it looked like:

robo-story

Buttry also Tweeted a link to a blog post by David Carr of The New York Times that includes the full text of the robo-article and and an explanation of the technology behind it.

The bot-written article does a pretty good job of mimicking a sports story you might see from The Associated Press or ESPN.com. You know who won the game and how. But it has glitches and a big hole.

On the micro-editing level, I detect mistakes in punctuation: a comma splice here and a run-on sentence there. The lead and other segments of the story are wordy, especially for digital media.

On a macro-editing level, I would add a sentence or two to explain the references to Nick Adenhart and “what happened in April in Anaheim.” The robo story never provides that explanation, leaving the reader hanging (or Googling).

And, as noted by Carr in his blog post and by copy editor Jay Wang on Twitter, the fact that the Angels clinched the series needs to be higher in the story. That’s big news.

Are robot reporters a part of journalism’s future? Perhaps, but they will still need human editors.

Q&A with Ashley Leath, copy editor at Southern Living

Ashley Leath is a copy editor at Southern Living magazine. She has also worked as a freelance editor on the topics of food and travel. In this interview, conducted by email, Leath talks about her job at Southern Living, including editing recipes, and the magazine’s outlook in the digital era.

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

A. A typical day involves a combination of Travel and Food stories. I began my career in Southern Living’s Food department as a recipe editor, so a lot of my experience involves recipe-related copy editing. When I moved to the Copy Desk in 2011, I took over the Travel department’s copy editing as well. This means that my day is spent balancing the needs of both departments’ copy.

For my Travel stories, I’ll begin the day by making fact-checking calls, which means that I reach out to contacts as varied as park rangers, interior designers and PR reps. We make a concerted effort to maintain the factual accuracy of our stories, so this is an important step in the editorial process, and the bulk of this responsibility falls on the Copy Desk.

In addition to fact-checking stories, I’ll edit the text and input any changes into the copy on the network (we use InCopy to manage our stories). It’s a simple process — but multiply it by 15 stories per issue with anywhere from 1 to 50 sources to check per story, and you’ve got a lot to balance while maintaining accuracy.

Food stories are an entirely different animal. Our recipes are developed in-house by our Test Kitchen, and each one goes through a complicated testing phase before it reaches my desk. When a story is ready for copy editing, a manila folder will find its way to me, and that means that the recipes inside it have passed the Food department’s review and are ready for my read.

We have a strict food style that is outlined in a 200-page stylebook, and I use this as my guide when I edit the recipes. I begin by doing a top read of all the recipes in a story (on average, four to six of various lengths). Then I examine the testing notes for each recipe. This means I read handwritten notes from each stage of testing (a minimum of two to three). I’m looking for discrepancies: Did the amount of flour stay the same from one test to the next? The lemon zest was increased in test two but not updated on the latest version of the recipe. Should it have been?

These are easy questions in and of themselves, but recipes are complicated endeavors with important things at stake. One wrong word, and you’ve ruined Christmas dinner (or worse, burned down a kitchen). If I find a discrepancy, I work with the Test Kitchen to get it resolved. At the end of this process, I once again enter my edits into the story copy on the network.

In between all of this reading and editing, I have the luck of attending a taste testing each day with the Food department. A lunchtime break for my eyes is very welcomed, and the food isn’t too shabby either.

Q. What are some challenges of editing for the magazine? Rewards?

A. Time is a copy editor’s worst enemy (perhaps right next to a spell-checker). We are not a weekly publication, but when we head into production, stories can move through the pipeline swiftly.

You may need a full day to get a story into perfect shape, but because of that looming deadline, you’ll only have a few hours. You have to learn to be smart with your time, balance multiple deadlines, and still produce the top-notch work that is expected of you.

As for rewards, there are many. First, my co-workers. You spend more time with the people you work with than you do with your family (especially during production), so you need to really like your co-workers. Southern Living has a great staff, if I do say so myself.

Also, for someone who loves to eat, you can’t beat a slice of fresh-from-the-oven apple-carrot cake (destined to grace the magazine’s cover) on a random Tuesday afternoon. I leave work every day with a very happy stomach (and sometimes snag leftovers for my husband too).

Q. Southern Living has an internship program for copy editors. What does the magazine look for when selecting interns?

A. First, an error-free resume and cover letter. This is your first chance to introduce yourself to us, so make sure each of these items is without error.

Next, enthusiasm! We want you to be excited about working with us and helping with our work. Copy editing is meticulous, but rewarding. It will be much more fun for all involved if you enjoy it as much as we do.

Lastly, experience. This doesn’t have to be another internship necessarily, but we do look for what you’ve been involved in that has exposed you to the type of work you’d do for us: fact-checking, copy editing, researching.

Be involved on campus with organizations that will give you exposure to this (The Daily Tar Heel, Blue & White, etc.), and you’ll be able to tout these skills on your resume. It will also help you find and nurture references, which we check with before hiring anyone.

Q. Much of the news media, including magazines, are going digital. What do you see as Southern Living’s place in the changing landscape of news?

A. This is a complicated time for magazines. We’re trying to find our niche in this new digital landscape, and it’s a quickly moving beast.

Southern Living has made huge strides in this arena in the past few years. We’ve carved out market share on our website and in social media. Did you know you can follow us on Instagram and get behind-the-scenes pictures of our taste testings?

We’ve done this by harnessing our relationship with our readers. They feel an ownership of the magazine that is unique to SL.

We have to carry that bond to all platforms that the brand explores — web, video, tablet and more — and be able to maintain our core message successfully. We have to keep our readers’ trust and give them what they expect from us where they expect it, and that means providing content on more than just paper.

We’re striving to continue what we’ve done best all these years — represent Southern culture and tout the wonderful people of our region — on digital platforms that can reach a wider audience than ever before.

Q&A with Madelyn Rosenberg, children’s author

Madelyn Rosenberg is an author of several children’s books. Her latest, “The Canary in the Coal Mine,” will be released in April. Before going into fiction writing, Rosenberg worked as a reporter and editor at The Roanoke Times in Virginia. In this interview, conducted by email, Rosenberg talks about her writing, the editing process for children’s books and her transition from the newsroom.

Q. What inspired your move from writing for newspapers to writing for children?

A. I’d always wanted to write for kids and to tell my own stories as well as the stories I was telling about other people. I think it was more a matter of finally getting published in kid-lit than a conscious decision to move from one thing to the other.

In my latest middle-grade novel, you will find that newspapers play a pretty vital role (not a coincidence). I remain a journalism fan, and I still freelance, mostly for Arlington Magazine, where I get to do profiles.

Q. What sorts of stories are you interested in telling, and how do you generate ideas for them?

A. I’m interested in telling stories about the environment, pretty much anything that has to do with music, “otherness,” and finding your place in the world.

If there’s a theme to the stories I’ve found homes for so far, it’s The Outside. My whole childhood was spent outside. Now so much is set up to revolve around The Inside.

I tend to fight that by keeping all of my characters out of the house. I get ideas from everywhere: things I see, places I go, something I mishear and my kids.

Q. How does the collaboration with an illustrator work, and how are your books edited?

A. So far there really hasn’t been much collaboration with illustrators. I think that’s the way it usually is, though I’ve had friends who have had more of a collaboration process than I have.

There are lots of reasons for keeping writers and illustrators separate. I don’t agree with all of them. But I think one reason might be that it’s a sure way to make sure the writing speaks for itself and generates the images naturally. That makes sense to me.

I’ve been really lucky so far in the illustrators I’ve gotten to work with. And I did have a nice back-and-forth (via the editor) with Paul Meisel for “The Schmutzy Family,” where he asked if I could create a mess in another color, because I’d had two spreads where the mess would have been red. I ended up having to delete some of my favorite lines, but I ended up liking the lines I replaced them with even better.

The editing process is really pretty similar to the process for newspapers, only with a longer turn-around time. My novel also went through a copy editor who kept a sharp eye out for anachronisms. The story is set in 1931, and she flagged words that surprised me because I hadn’t checked the etymology. For instance: Gobbledygook didn’t come around until the 1940s, and since my story was set in 1931, it had to go.

Q. Looking back at your career in journalism, what do you miss about it? And are you happy you made this transition?

A. I’m very happy that I made the transition, but sure, I miss it, especially the meeting-different-people-everyday part of it. I also miss my coworkers, the teamwork, and the banter.

The Internet is a sorry surrogate for newsroom banter. And I haven’t felt right on election night since I’ve left dailies.

Read Rosenberg’s blog and follow her on Twitter.