How to get certified in digital media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Student guest post: Transitioning into understanding

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the fifth of those posts. Zach Freshwater is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill double majoring in political science and reporting. He is a communications intern at the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention and a communication consultant for Planetary Emissions Management.

What’s blue and white and has over 50 gender identity options? If you guessed Facebook, you’re right.

Last week the site announced that it will now offer users 56 choices to indicate their gender identity. The options range from male and female to transgender, gender questioning, androgynous and non-binary.

While the change might leave some confused when they join the site, Facebook’s move denotes an important shift toward recognizing transgender individuals. And journalists need to pay attention.

Earlier this month, Janet Mock, a transgender author and activist, appeared on “Piers Morgan Live” to discuss her new book about her life and struggles as a transgender woman. The interview went well, and both seemed cordial and excited about Mock’s work.

But the conversation went sour soon after the interview when Mock tweeted that she was disappointed in how Morgan discussed her identity. As a transgender woman, Mock took offense to Morgan’s statements that she was “formerly a man.”

Morgan fired back, and the Twitter conversation culminated in Mock returning to Morgan’s show to discuss the issue several days later.

While the clip above is a bit lengthy, it marks an important note for journalists: Be informed and be sensitive.

Transgendered individuals and their struggles are growing in national prominence, and journalists need to keep up. Understanding and acknowledging someone’s identity doesn’t indicate political affiliation — it denotes accuracy and respect.

GLAAD (formerly the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) offers a media reference guidefor journalists covering transgender topics. The organization also offers a Transgender 101 guide that acts as an introduction to transgender identities and issues. Reading through these two guides only takes about 15 minutes and could prevent serious difficulty and embarrassment.

So, to all of the reporters, bloggers, editors and newsies out there, do your transgender homework. You’ll be better for it.

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 North 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.

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

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.

Making a case for Ukraine on the front page

Earlier today, I posted this on Twitter: “Wondering what it will take to get Ukraine on the front page of US newspapers.”

That Tweet generated several responses:

  • “A visit from Miley.”
  • “Put a celebrity on a plane.”
  • “For it to be moved to Florida or somehow incorporate sports?”
  • “A time machine back, to say, 1975.”

That last response was from John Robinson, a friend and former colleague from my days at the Greensboro News & Record. He went on to say that American readers would be unlikely to read stories about unrest in a faraway country. Besides, coverage of international news is available on TV and online. Seeing those stories on the front page is a thing of the past.

I agree with Robinson to an extent. I do not believe that readers want to read inverted-pyramid stories about Ukraine’s protests and politics, and I am not suggesting that U.S. newspapers publish those stories on their front pages. But I do think that many people have a curiosity and concern about the world, not just their communities. I saw that this morning when I noticed that “Ukraine” was a trending topic on Twitter in Raleigh, N.C.

The situation in Ukraine appears to be at a boiling point today, with dozens of people killed on the streets of Kiev. But why?

That’s where newspapers (in print, but also on their websites and apps) can step up to provide context and background. How about we use today’s events as a news peg to publish a deeper explanation of what’s happening there? Write and edit an alternative story form (like this one from the BBC) to provide context and background to the images that people may be seeing on TV and in slideshows. Include a map and other visual elements. Give readers the big picture, like Charles Apple does with his focus pages in the Orange County Register.

It will take more than a standalone photo or an Associated Press wire story to adequately tell the Ukraine story on the front page. It will require a thoughtful approach that explains the situation there and goes beyond the daily developments. I hope some U.S. newspapers will rise to the occasion.

UPDATE: Apple joins this conversation on his blog: “Once a reader’s curiosity has been sparked, there’s no telling what can happen.”

Student guest post: When wintry weather hits sports

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does adverse weather affect sports media coverage?

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

Part 1: Determining whether the game will be played.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These thoughts bring me to part two of the answer.

Part 2: Press row or ghost row?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q&A with Joanna Kakissis, NPR correspondent

Joanna Kakissis is a journalist based in Athens, Greece. She covers Greece and Cyprus for NPR, and she has written for Time magazine, Foreign Policy and The New York Times. She has also worked as a reporter for The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. In this interview, conducted by email, Kakissis talks about working as a freelancer and making a transition from newspapers to radio.

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

A. I’m a freelancer, but I cover Greece and Cyprus for the network. The best way to describe the job is a super-stringer.

My typical workday begins in the morning, when I scan the news for developments. I usually do one or two “spots” (short 40-second news shorts) and also write a short daily advisory to the editors in Washington. Then I spend the rest of the day working features, unless, of course, there’s breaking news. I try to do at least one feature a week.

Q. Before going into radio, you were a reporter at The News & Observer. What was that transition like?

A. The transition was difficult because I taught myself radio.

I’m a much better writer than talker, so writing conversationally — and for a voice that I’d never tested for public consumption — was a challenge at first. I had a hard time learning to write in and out of tape (actualities and ambience) and using ambience that was compelling rather than audio window dressing.

Also, aurally illustrating economic stories is a real challenge. It’s much, much easier to write compelling stories from war or conflict zones because the drama is so immediate and vivid.

But in Greece, it was all about anti-austerity protests, which, after a while, all sounded the same. I mean, I could write a protest story even before the protest happened. Protests here are that predictable.

That’s not to say people in Greece aren’t suffering. Post-austerity Greece is a very depressing place.

But how can you illustrate that honestly, without veering into what one colleague here calls “crisis pornography,” or the blanket depiction of Greeks as hungry victims fighting for free potatoes at food handouts. People here are indeed very stressed about making ends meet — the unemployment rate here is nearly 28 percent, higher than during the U.S. Great Depression — but you have to show nuance and universality, not just “exotification” of the poor (to steal a line from one of my favorite journalists, Katherine Boo.)

Finally, just explaining the eurozone/IMF bailouts themselves was (and still is) a challenge. How do you make a compelling story out of jargon like loan haircuts, and how do you explain this to your audience without boring them and yourself?

The Planet Money team, a joint production of NPR and This American Life, are true pros at translating economic jargon into beautiful, funny, lucid storytelling. I used their scripts to try to teach myself to write shorter, funnier and more conversationally about macroeconomic developments. They are the gold standard.

Another reason the transition has been hard is that I’ve always enjoyed letting my story speak for itself and hiding behind my byline. It seems based on my entirely unscientific survey that many print journalists who transition well to radio are extroverts with big, driving personalities.

Having said all this, I do think radio has improved my writing for print. My style is more spare and lucid, with vivid verbs and concrete descriptions.

Q. You’ve also worked as freelance reporter in Europe for The New York Times and Time magazine, among other publications. What is the editor-writer relationship like in that situation as opposed to working together in the same newsroom?

A. When you’re a freelancer, you have to pitch stories that big outlets like the NYT and Time may not take on the first try. You’ve got to build relationships with editors by crafting pitches that are deeply reported, original and compelling.

Even so, if the story is hot, like Greece was for a while, you will get hordes of staffers coming here wanting to do the stories themselves. You’re never an equal partner because you’re a freelancer, and you just have to accept that.

Having said that, I enjoyed writing for Time and found that the editors and staff writers there treated me with respect. I did very little work for the NYT in Greece (a friend of mine, Niki Kitsantonis, is the stringer here) but my few experiences there were very good too, especially when I worked on a story about Bangladesh that the international edition of the NYT splashed on their front page. :-)

Q. Many of my students are NPR listeners and readers, and some have been interns there. What advice do you have to student journalists who want to do what you do?

A. If you want to be a foreign correspondent, get a Fulbright and travel to the places you most want to learn about. Write for every outlet you can think of, even if they pay very little (which most of them do).

The world of foreign correspondence is increasingly becoming a place for people with elite backgrounds, but that shouldn’t stop you from making a go at it if you’re just a regular kid without a financial safety net. If you can’t afford to spend two weeks reporting and writing a story that will pay you something like $150, then get a grant (like a Fulbright or a Pulitzer grant) to support you.

Learn a language in high school and/or college — Spanish, Arabic, Farsi, French, anything! Read up on the history, culture, and literature of the place you want to base yourself.

Open your mind and your heart and use your young brain as a sponge to take it all in. Be a critical thinker and step out of your safety zone.

If you want to learn radio, I highly recommend attending a course, which I never did. One of my favorite reporters at NPR, East Africa correspondent Gregory Warner, an absolute master at fresh, counterintuitive and deeply moving narrative radio storytelling, attended the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. There are other courses too, and also great online resources like Transom and the Public Radio Exchange (PRX).

In the meantime, listen to radio stories. Listen for structure, audio scenes, and the universal theme behind the story.

NPR is a great source of great radio storytelling, of course, but so is PRI’s The World (especially the work of the great Rhitu Chatterjee, who also did a stint on NPR’s science desk, as well as Monica Campell and Marine Olivesi). Marketplace is brilliant at condensing complicated economic news into punchy, informative stories. And This American Life (Nancy Updike, whoa!) and Radiolab are the gold standard of long-form radio.

Read and listen to Kakissis’ stories on her website and follow her on Twitter.

Student guest post: You’ve got style, BuzzFeed

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the third of those posts. Marisa DiNovis is a junior English and editing & graphic design major at UNC-Chapel Hill, and a native New Yorker. She is copy desk co-editor at The Daily Tar Heel and an editorial intern at Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. A life spent reading? That’s the dream.

In my daily life, I am frequently reminded that my existence is veiled with a lens of grammatical correctness and style obsession — like last week when JOMC 457 class was canceled, and the note on the classroom door said: Today’s class is cancelled.

So this week, I’d like to take a moment to thank BuzzFeed for making public its company style guide as well as for perpetuating my “sorry, but it’s actually…” tendency.

The BuzzFeed style guide covers the company’s stylistic choices on the colloquialisms of everything from pop culture to profanity — all topics editors at The Associated Press and Chicago Manual of Style undoubtedly have opinions on, but that their professional print style guides lack.

As an editor hopeful, I can’t help but have an opinion on BuzzFeed’s guide. Here goes.

Disseminating the style guide was strategic for BuzzFeed on two counts — the content is precisely reflective of the site’s aesthetic and having shared its set of guidelines bolsters its consistency. And, for all of the skeptics on BuzzFeed’s credibility, the guide also includes more serious sections, such as the company’s corrections policy and guidelines for LGBT, transgender, abortion, immigration and rape and sexual assault terms.

For the latter, I give a round of applause. As it happens, BuzzFeed’s instructions for reporting and writing in an inclusive and unoffending way about the LGBT community and transgender issues far surpass the search results offered in the online AP Stylebook.

And not only does the AP lack a distinct section on these terms, but the print stylebook does not even list an entry for LGBT. Now in writing and editing intelligibly on LGBT issues, I wouldn’t discount deferring to BuzzFeed for the advising I might typically seek from the AP.

For the former — namely, style choices that fit BuzzFeed’s tone — my feelings vary entry to entry.

  • Auto-Tune? What am I supposed to do with that when I need it as a verb!? Sorry — ?! is what I meant to say.
  • CBGB? I had to Google it, and I still don’t know to what it refers.
  • On hyphenating ‘e’ products, BuzzFeed (and the AP, too), I stand with ‘email.’ The look of ‘e-book’ just doesn’t appeal to me.

Disclaimer: The problems I see with these style issues probably started when my parents gave me a less popular spelling of the name Marissa.

But I do digress. I’ve offered my opinion, but I don’t challenge BuzzFeed to change anything — I doubt the intention for this style guide, when it was made public, was that it be a universal set of guidelines. It’s simply how the company governs the style appropriate for its tone.

And when I — or any copy editor — need to make decisions on hippie versus hippy, whether to hyphenate supervillain, or how to discuss disembarking the “struggle bus,” it’s helpful to know BuzzFeed and the writers of its viral articles have weighed in.

So, BuzzFeed: Thanks, I (mostly) like your style.