The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Tag: story editing

Q&A with Kevin Davis, editor of Bull City Rising

Kevin Davis is editor of Bull City Rising, a news blog that covers Durham, N.C., which is also known as the Bull City. Davis, a former writer and editor and technology columnist for The Harvard Crimson, works as a university administrator and lives in the Trinity Park neighborhood of Durham. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Davis talks about writing and editing at the blog, and about the media landscape in the Triangle region of North Carolina.

Q. What is the job of editor like at Bull City Rising?

A. As with many “hyperlocal” sites and publications, I’m the owner (via Bull City New Media LLC), main writer and editor of other readers’ submission — plus interlocutor between two outsourced ad placement companies and sponsors, plus the first-line of troubleshooting if the site doesn’t work. And I have to remember to renew the PO Box once a year, too, and to get those LLC annual reports filed.

Tongue out of cheek, this is nothing new for folks at many community news  sites — or for any startup small business. In my case, BCR’s a quasi-hobby, quasi-commercial enterprise I pursue in my spare time outside of a full-time job as a university administrator. BCR takes up the mornings, evenings and many weekends.

Of late, I’ve been doing more editing of others, with three correspondents/freelancers on board or getting started; one covers general news, politics, neighborhood issues and other items of interest; a second is focused on entrepreneurship and startups, a big area of interest in Durham right now; and a third is just now starting and will focus on K-12 education.

On a typical morning, I’ll wake up and peruse the local papers and a Durham-centric RSS feed I’ve built over the years to look for stories worth aggregating into the “fishwrap,” a list of links to key news stories of the day. I’ll typically then write or finish editing one or two other stories that get set for scheduled/timed posting during the day. Evenings are for writing or, in some cases, attending public meetings to get the news for  the next day.

Apart from writing, much of my time is spent playing traffic-cop for local stories coming in from readers, PR professionals, municipal PIOs and the like. I would love to see a study comparing the number of former News & Observer and other pro-jo’s in full-time PR to the number of actual professional  journalists left in newsrooms; based on the well-crafted, attractive prose arriving in my inbox each day that isn’t in my newspaper, I’m afraid we’ve gotten the balance wrong, though few of our newly minted PR pros chose those careers voluntarily.

My biggest weakness is time, especially when demands in the real work or,  of late, with an aging parent have squeezed out what time usually goes to the site.

Q. How does story editing, caption writing and headline writing work at the blog?

A. Bloggers have the freedom to ignore the column inch; a post can run 300 words or 3,000 words depending on the inclination of the writer and the subject matter. I’ve found my readership will stick with longer, more analytical posts with significant original research, but that the temptation to be sloppy and over-wordy for stories that don’t deserve that treatment is too easy.

Certainly the quality of my site suffers from the lack of an independent, separate editor — particularly for my own stories, which unlike those of my freelancers and correspondents don’t get an independent set of reviewer eyes. And frankly, as with anyone else in the business of reporting events, news and views,  timetables and deadlines can lead to mistakes. If I’m pressed on time and run with a story without taking the time to double-check core assumptions, data and links, I’ll almost invariably screw something up.

There’s not an easy answer to that, though. Some of the latest research I’ve read on hyperlocal media throws shadows on the concept of the  university- or NFP-trained community newsroom, with dozens of volunteers providing reportage and a few professionals editing and culling in the middle. The challenge being reported in those startups is that all the journalism training in the world is great, but “citizen journalists” (a term I have issues with) in that model aren’t highly committed and tend to wander away or quit or burn out quickly. It takes a mix of passion, love for the subject matter and OCD to stick with a hyperlocal site, and that comes when you’re invested as the publisher too often.

Hyperlocal/citizen media or what have you shouldn’t replace professional, paid journalism. In communities where it does so only accidentally, and hopefully temporarily, we need to find a way to make those ventures sustainable, with enough extra eyes to provide that independent editing hand, for instance, or a true editorial-advertising firewall.

Headline writing is much more fun in blogs than in my collegiate newspaper days. The temptation for overwrought headlines is always there, though for  sites like mine that send headlines to Twitter, that service’s 140-character limit — less room for bit.ly links to the story, less room for “RT @bullcity” messages you  hope others will prepend — make for tighter text. On the other hand, the ability to write excerpts from posts that appear in RSS feeds and via Facebook gives the opportunity for a little  more flexibility and creativity, especially in trying to encourage deeper reading.

Q. You’re on Twitter and Facebook. How important is social media to what you do?

A. Ironically, I use Twitter and Facebook intensively more because readers seem to expect it and because different readers come in through different channels — regular visitors, RSS subscribers, Twitter, Facebook, search and links. Personally, despite being on the cusp between GenX and the millennials, I don’t feel like a digital-native when it comes to social media, but I am astounded at the power of those platforms to magnify and augment a story’s reach.

Not that I consider them to be a replacement for longer-form work, of course. And I do think we sometimes conflate their use as a source for vox-populi reactions to stories and raw information with the informed lens that journalistic writing should bring to a story. For me, I find them to be very important as a broadcast tool, but less useful as a sourcing tool.

In  fact, as a hyperlocalist, one challenge is that social media tends to connect people in lots of different organizing mechanisms, but place isn’t always one of them. Neighborhood e-mail listservs and message boards are still much better story sources than Facebook.

Q. The Triangle has a lot of media options — print, online and  broadcast. Where do Bull City Rising and similar blogs fit into that? And what changes do you anticipate?

At present, I see BCR as an outlet for stories that print outlets don’t cover or don’t see first. Print journalists are fewer in number, and I tend to suspect that spreading the same corpus of work over fewer reporters is deepening the bias toward press-release and public meeting-driven stories over enterprise journalism. There are exceptions, like the N&O’s fine investigative  work, but I tend to find that newspapers don’t seem to be able to sell more analytical, entrepreneurial work to their readers or  their publishers.

Not  that my site’s work always, or even often, reaches that mark, though I think there’s been times it has. But it’s a similar dynamic to that in place at the Indy: By being able to target certain key stories or areas of coverage for deeper work while  taking an aggregator strategy to commodity news, my ultimate goal over time is to help deepen the discourse on issues that really matter for Durham’s future.

Take crime news. I don’t publish stories on who’s been shot or horrible, yet easily sensationalized, events like a father’s murder of his child in rural northern Durham County a couple of weeks ago. Those stories are well-covered by print and broadcast, sometimes to the exclusion of other stories.

But I do want to look at issues of root-cause of crime, such as some of the papers coming out of Duke’s Urban Economics course each year, or at the lens of multi-year crime trends. At the end of the day, the latter kinds of stories help citizens be more informed about what we as a community need to be doing to improve public safety or to understand the reality of Durham crime versus regional stereotypes.

I think new media entrants like BCR will play a larger role in community newsgathering as traditional media channels face deeper economic pressures. That’s not to say BCR in its current, blog-esque, editorial voice-forward design would necessarily absorb a larger role per se — or, heaven forbid, that we see part-time citizen writers trying to supplant professional, paid journalism. Instead, I think websites can provide a much more sustainable model and channel for supporting full-time, paid newsgathering “without fear or favor,” as the saying goes, than can modes that have high fixed overhead costs.

Among hyperlocals, the entry of Patch into markets is quite interesting, especially since most sites like mine are immature in their advertising take currently. Patch is focused on the sub-75k population cities and is reported to bring in at least as many ad sales staff in a market as they do journalists. It’s a smart strategy: become a local hero to small communities by providing a dedicated journalist to your town, while building a regional sales staff that can (in my guess) eventually let you swoop into the major metro cores with a prebuilt metro market engine that can sell ads and hire local journalists.

But as the question has gone with university and non-profit citizen journalist efforts: Is the passion there for this to work?

Q&A with Kristen Douglas, freelance copy editor

Kristen Douglas is a freelance writer and editor in Durham, N.C., who recently embarked on a career change into journalism. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Douglas talks about this transition and the challenges of working in online media.

Q. You’ve worked in education and mental health. Why the change to editing and writing?

A. Working in the mental health field was kind of a natural evolution for me, having grown up around mentally ill people. My stepmother owns a 32-bed facility for mentally ill adults, and I grew up in that environment. Teaching has also always been a love of mine, and I taught special education on temporary certification for a few years, as well as teaching in a welfare to work program in the midwest. In the meantime, though, I’ve always loved writing, and have written articles here or there over the years for local newspapers and other publications.

Even working in the mental health and education fields, I spent a lot of time writing and editing. I developed curriculum for a welfare to work teaching program, edited marketing materials and found that as my work in mental health gravitated more away from direct care of clients and into administrative roles, I was constantly being asked to look over progress notes, teach staff members how to write them professionally, develop and lead workshops that concentrated on writing treatment plans and other medical record documents, and edit documentation that was turned in.

I was one of many layoffs in the mental health agency I worked for in January 2010. I’d already been reading professional blogs on writing or copy editing online content, and I decided to use those skills I had always been using in the mental health and education fields to transfer to an entirely new career in writing online content rather than trying to find a lower-paying job in the floundering North Carolina mental health field.

I applied to several content-producing sites as a writer, and was hired to a few, but Demand Media seemed to fit my abilities well, and I like their work platform, so I predominantly write articles for their sites, which include Livestrong.com, eHow, trails.com, golflink, cracked.com and travel sections for several national newspapers.

After a few weeks of writing, I was invited by Demand Media to take two very stringent copy editor tests.  They don’t normally do this with new writers, but they liked the experience I’d already had editing in my former positions, and they liked my writing. I now spend about 70 percent of my time copy editing other articles for Demand and the rest of the time writing.

Q. You do much of your work with Demand Media. What is your typical workday like?

A. Being a night owl, I typically don’t get started with work until about 9 or 10 a.m., though I can flex my hours any way I’d like. Sometimes you’ll find me working at 1 a.m. if I’ve taken a break during the day to go hiking or grocery shopping.

I log into my “workdesk” at Demand and first check to see if I have any article re-writes that I need to repair. Normally my written articles are approved the first time through, but even a content editor can miss something in her own writing on occasion.

I then check to see if any articles I’ve copy edited and sent back for re-writes have returned, and I complete their edits. Once those things are out of the way, I begin choosing new articles to edit.  Demand’s writing work platform allows me to choose up to 10 article titles to write to at a time, from thousands of titles.  When copy/content editing, I see a list of 10 articles out of the thousands that need editing, choose one that looks interesting (and that I hope is well-written), and begin editing.

I check references first, before doing any editing, to make sure they’re listed properly and to skim through and make sure the content is not simply paraphrased or plagiarizing other content. Demand Media insists upon its articles containing original and innovative content, so making sure I’m a good “gatekeeper” and not allowing shoddy work or work that is just a re-hash of something else out there is my most important job as an editor.

If the references check out and the content is original and the article doesn’t need a re-write for structure, I’ll go back to line edit the article. I never line edit until I’ve checked to make sure the article isn’t going back to the writer; it takes time, and the writer might change the article enough I’ll have to line edit again.

Once editing for content, sending back for re-writes, and copy editing is done, I will either approve or reject an article. I’ve only had to reject a few outright, because I tend to become “the teacher” when sending an article back for a re-write, and I want to help the writer learn to write well for Demand Media content. I probably spend way too much time with this, because it cuts in on my bottom line pay (I’m paid per article by Demand).

Q. You don’t have a journalism degree or other formal training as an editor. What is it like to learn things as you go?

A. I’ve had to brush up on my AP style, for one. I was a bit nervous at first, because while I have many years of experience writing and editing, it has all been within the education and mental health fields.

Learning to write a “how to” article on laying self-adhesive linoleum or a “list” article on Frisbee golf courses in Washington state has been a learning experience, but it’s interesting. I’ve always gotten bored doing the same things over and over in traditional jobs, so the variety in writing and editing online content just seems to fit.

It’s the same on the copy/content editing end. I was nervous at first that I would not catch those things that needed fixing in articles that I was editing. I still worry once in a while that I’ll miss a glaring grammatical issue or allow something through that isn’t up to Demand Media quality, but I’m becoming more confident. My first performance review helped with my confidence. While I had let a few obvious errors through (like those infernal serial commas that AP style disallows), I was also told that I was doing a great job “gatekeeping” to make sure only quality content makes it through.

I still get nervous about learning to edit online content, because once it’s out there, it’s there for anyone to see. I want to make sure what I edit or write is high quality, because my name is attached to the writing — nobody can see who edited an article, but I still feel that I’m attached to the content I’ve edited in some way and don’t want it to be shoddy work.

I’m having fun, though. I was experiencing a lot of burnout in my mental health position, and I’m loving this career change. It’s hard work, and I have to pay my own taxes (and I don’t get paid vacations or sick days), but I’m much happier in my work.

Q. What advice do you have for people seeking work as a freelance editor and writer?

First, look at the experience you already have. Some people think that because they’ve worked in a particular field, they don’t have any experience writing or editing.  Check to see if you have more experience than you once thought, either through former careers or internships.

Study blogs that talk about freelance writing or editing. Avoid the blogs that are trying to sell you something and concentrate on those that seem to be just giving information. If you’re wanting to write in the online world, learn about search engine optimization and keyword phrasing.

Most of these media outlets aren’t just providing articles, they’re selling something, even if it’s just a click on an ad that appears around the article. Online content writing isn’t at all the same as writing editorials or other pieces for newspapers and magazines. You have to focus more on drawing people to your article using key phrases in your writing without making the article feel awkward.

I think I “lucked in” to the editing world. Most copy/content editors for Demand Media and other outlets have journalism degrees and have worked for years in newspaper or magazine editing. I’m one of the few who has been hired without that specific degree or newspaper editing experience, and it’s only because I had so much experience editing within my field.

Even that wouldn’t have gotten me the job, though. I got the offer to test to be a copy editor because I’m a good writer. I learned AP style, I learned to write in the “voice” that Demand Media and its outlets require by reading articles at Livestrong, eHow and the rest. I learned to check my ego at the door and write in the style that was asked of me.

That really is key. I have edited so many articles that might have been well written if the writer was submitting the work to a literary magazine or to a newspaper as an editorial, but that isn’t the “voice” that Demand Media is looking for.

Whatever company you write for, you need to learn the voice of that particular company and lose your ego about what type of writer you think you are, or find an outlet that better fits your style.  For example, I was hired by WiseGeek.com early on, but I found that I really didn’t like writing in the encyclopedic format they were looking for, so I very politely thanked them for allowing me to write with them and bowed out.

This isn’t easy – I’m still struggling to find my niche and make enough money to live well on while building my experience to a level that might get me editing or writing work elsewhere. My dream would be to work as an editor in a fiction publishing house, but jobs like that don’t come easily, so I’m content building experience for now.

Follow Kristen Douglas on Twitter and read some of her articles on eHow.com.

Editing another Edwards story

This week, The Daily Beast website unleashed an update on the saga of John Edwards, the disgraced North Carolina senator whose marriage and political fortunes evaporated amid an extramarital affair. Unfortunately, the reporting sheds little light and is, to quote George Costanza in “Seinfeld,” a story about nothing.

The Daily Beast is certainly not the first media outlet to publish a gossipy Edwards story based on anonymous sources, and it won’t be the last. Even The New York Times has fallen victim to that temptation.

Still, a discerning editor could have read a draft of this one and told the reporter, Diane Dimond, that she needed to go back out and do some more reporting. That’s what editors do, after all.

Even if the site decided to publish what she filed, some story editing is necessary. Here are some places to start regarding geography:

  • The story mentions that Edwards lives “around the Research Triangle of North Carolina.” To most of us who live here, it’s either the Triangle or Research Triangle Park. They aren’t the same thing.
  • The story says Edwards has moved out of his Chapel Hill mansion and lives in the “nearby Hillsborough neighborhood.” Hillsborough is a town, not a neighborhood, and one with a proud history.
  • The story says that Edwards’ scorned wife, Elizabeth, is considering a move to “the neighborhood known as Meadowmont, euphemistically called Wisteria Lane, where all the women are blond, perfect hostesses and drive late model Volvos.” I live here and have never heard the Meadowmont development referred to that way, and Google hasn’t either. As Stepford wives? Maybe. But not as “Desperate Housewives.”
  • The story asserts that John Edwards was drinking white wine and hitting on attractive women at either the Saratoga Grill or Sarasota Grill, but it can’t decide on the spelling. It’s probably the former.

There’s also the matter of the writing, which is frequently wretched in its excess. Here’s an example of that wordiness:

Among Hunter’s demands: That Young give up all profits from both his bestselling book, The Politician, and the movie adaptation — a deal represented by hotshot Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel and in partnership with acclaimed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and producer Scott Rudin of No Country for Old Men fame.

“Hotshot” is sensationalist hyperbole, and “of [TV show/movie/book] fame” is a cliché. And that sentence is simply too long.

The National Enquirer famously used anonymous sources to expose Edwards’ affair and downfall. Is it possible that other, supposedly legitimate media are now willing to follow its lead of shady ethics and sensationalism to report on his travails? Let’s hope not.

Thanks to Fiona Morgan and others on Facebook for pointing out the story and its myriad problems.

Guest post: When you can’t find the right (bleeping) words

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the last of those posts. Landon Wallace is a junior majoring in journalism with a concentration in editing and graphic design. He is minoring in German and spent a semester in Berlin. His career goal is to be a tennis columnist for ESPN.com.

Writer’s note: Some links contain unedited profane language.

In an interview for a UNC-Chapel Hill reporting class last semester, I found a perfect source for a story on the not-so-interesting beat of nontraditional schools. A well-respected, influential man in Durham gave me an hour-long interview, complete with his true feelings about the N.C. General Assembly after it voted to cut some funding to charter schools. At one point he said, “I think the Senate is filled with a bunch of f—— idiots.”

I was living a young reporter’s dream. That quote carried that story, and I thought it might actually create a wave of controversy in the community. (The story was never actually published, and thus it didn’t even cause a ripple, but that’s not the point.) I still remember the excitement I had from getting a solid quote with profanity, because I thought that it took my story to another level.

However, as I have transitioned to classes that focus more on the editing side of journalism, I lost the excitement for expletives. The Associated Press Stylebook instructs to leave out profanity except from direct quotes, and even in those cases, there must be a compelling reason to use it. If profanity is used, every letter after the first should be hyphenated (as shown in the quote in the first paragraph of this post).

But with the advent of online media, many news organizations have not followed the style set forth by the AP. One example is when Vice President Joe Biden’s slip-up about health-care reform from last month. A Washington Post blog favored the “[expletive]” route, and The New York Times decided to use ellipses, but the NBC video attached to the NYT article uses correct AP style.

But the issue with profanity isn’t just about the continuity set forth by major news organizations — it is about whether to use the profanity at all. The United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper admitted in 2008 that cursing in its stories has significantly risen over the past decade. With this rise probably consistent with many online news organizations in the United States, editors now have even more difficult jobs; they must carefully weigh the newsworthiness of the quote with the integrity of the organization and the possible negative reaction from the audience.

Speaking with students and professors in the j-school here for the past week, the overall consensus here is that editors must put the audience before the shock value of profanity. One student said that although profane language might gain some attention online, it will probably offend many more in print, especially because the average age of the newspaper reader is growing older.

It’s a battle, the student said, because as young people, we want to make the world more progressive, but we can’t lose the patrons of news organizations in doing so.

Q&A with Amy Goldstein, editor at ESPN.com

Amy Goldstein has been an associate editor on the copy desk at ESPN.com since February 2008. Before moving to central Connecticut, she completed a master’s degree in journalism at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism and a bachelor’s degree in linguistics at CUNY Queens College. She has interned at the Detroit Free Press, McClatchy-Tribune News Service and News 12 Long Island. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Goldstein offers a glimpse of what it’s like to be an editor at the ESPN site.

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

A. I edit 12 to 15 stories, blogs and photo galleries each day and am the copy desk editor who backreads subject page tops that are sent via e-mail. I also often assign priorities to stories in our queue system based on what’s expected to be featured prominently on our front page or on section pages. When time allows, I slot stories and coordinate copy desk reads of entire index pages.

We have a copy desk and a news desk, and the copy desk is responsible for editing features, columns, power rankings and other staff-generated items, while the news desk mostly edits headline news stories and game recaps. Most copy deskers work during the day rather than at night because the stories we edit generally come to us during normal business hours. Stories’ lengths vary significantly, as do their subject matter — I might edit a feature about an NFL player, then a Q-and-A with the creator of a sports video game, then a live blog about a poker event.

Q. What is the biggest challenge you face in your job?

A. You were expecting it to be working against the clock, weren’t you? Well, not quite. If a story needs to be published right away (for example, right after the Masters tournament) it is, and then we’ll backread it as soon as possible. If it doesn’t, we’ll be expected to turn the story around within a reasonable amount of time, but there’s usually no rush.

ESPN is a reporter-driven environment, and that’s what enables our best writers to develop a distinct voice that is recognized on a national level. Our writers have a lot of editors — a story might be edited by two or three people before it reaches the copy desk — and we’re charged with maintaining our writers’ voices while making sure they don’t cross the line on sensitive topics. With so many hands on deck, sometimes it’s hard to appease everyone. My biggest challenge is deciding which battles to pick and how best to compromise.


Q. You have worked for print and online media. What are the biggest differences between them? What about similarities?

A. My work online might be a little less creative than what I did for print media, but that’s really a function of the workflow here. I typically don’t write headlines or cutlines or select photos, but section editors (who do all those things) ask me for headline and blurb suggestions several times a day. We also have two layers of headlines for most of our stories — the index page display text, which aims to get the reader to click on a story (and often has tight head counts, just like in print media!), and the headline on top of the story, which is often a summary type of head because the reader already was engaged enough to click through to that point.

As I hinted at above, there generally aren’t deadlines at ESPN.com, so I find working online to be less stressful than working in print. I try to finish a story as fast as I can, but I almost always have plenty of time to make it as good as it should be. At the same time, there’s little downtime during our workday. We always have something to do because our writers and section editors produce so much content each day.

As for similarities, the reality is that both print and online media work to tell similar or identical stories. A story published online might be longer, but the general rules of keeping a reader engaged still apply.

Q. Many college students would love to have a job like yours. What career advice do you have for them?

A. Persistence was key for me in landing this job. A number of things had to fall perfectly into place for me to end up here, but if I hadn’t kept calling my boss during a seven-month period, I wouldn’t be at ESPN. In addition, knowing what you really want in a job helps you sell yourself, and internships help you refine what path you want your career to take.

In graduate school, I had several opportunities to learn Web programs, and I’m thankful for that because although ESPN.com’s publishing system is proprietary, I learned how to tell a story using interactive media. I share that knowledge with my colleagues whenever I think it might be useful. I suggest that college students take advantage of the opportunity to learn new programs — it’s fun and rewarding when you finish a project, even a quick photo gallery produced with Soundslides.

Guest post: How to fool readers on April Fools’ Day

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the latest of those posts. Jamie Richardson is a senior journalism major in the news-editorial sequence. She has served on The Daily Tar Heel’s university desk and as a sports writing intern for the Durham Bulls baseball team. She will attend Campbell Law School in August.

On April 1, several college newspapers were littered with fake April Fools’ Day stories that fooled and entertained their readers. But the methods in which these newspapers presented their pranks question what is acceptable.

Many college newspapers don’t depend on revenue and are not corporately owned, and they have more leeway in their decision-making. Literally fooling readers hurts any newspaper’s credibility, but it’s also important for college newspapers not to take themselves too seriously all the time. It’s undeniably difficult for college newspapers to walk the line between what is funny and what is inappropriate for publication.

April Fools’ Day stories should exaggerate an issue; the humor should obviously remind readers of this lighthearted holiday of sorts. Most readers don’t enjoy being fooled, and when readers unintentionally fall for a fake story, they complain. Writers and editors should ensure that if a story (even an exaggerated one) is taken literally, it does not make a believable accusation against any person or organization. Complaints also happen when a paper uses an individual, company or organization by name, especially when newspapers aim to cover these subjects objectively every day.

An effective example of foolery is the April 1 edition of The Daily Free Press at Boston University. Although not featured on the paper’s Web site, this edition was a Harry Potter-themed issue titled “The Daily Free Prophet.” This is a perfect example of exaggeration that immediately makes readers aware they are not reading real news.

The Daily Gazette of Swarthmore College also took part in April Fools’ Day appropriately with its article “Swarthmore admits five Na’vi for Class of 2014.” The headline immediately clues in the reader to the story’s falsity (props to the copy editors) before they even begin reading the story.

Santa Clara University’s weekly publication, The Santa Clara, successfully fooled some readers, and it was not well received. Its entire front page contained fake articles announcing the return of football to the university (which was discontinued in 1993 because of budget cuts), the abolishment of same-sex roommate requirements and the banning of skateboards on campus. There was no direct mention of April Fools’ Day on the front page, but when readers turned to the second page, they saw that stories “may lack accuracy in honor of April Fools’ Day.” This front page was formatted and designed to look real, and although the author of the fictional football story was Ferris Bueller, some readers were caught off guard and complained.

The Daily Tar Heel at UNC-Chapel Hill approached its readers differently, with a gag not as obvious as some others, and published a fake editorial on the back page. And just in case readers didn’t get the joke upon reading it, the editorial concluded with “Editor’s Note: April Fools. This one is fake, in case you didn’t guess. The others are real, though!” This joke addressed the reader directly to avoid misinterpretation, didn’t mention any individuals by name, and effectively exaggerated an issue with just a hint of humor.

Q&A with Rachel Sterne of GroundReport

Rachel Sterne is founder and CEO of GroundReport.com, a citizen journalism site with an international perspective. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Sterne talks about how the site works, how it uses social media and how its content is edited.

Q. What is GroundReport, and who makes up your audience?

A. GroundReport is an global news platform that allows anyone to submit articles, videos and photos for publication. The best work is published online to an international audience and syndicated to Google News, Huffington Post and other outlets.

Our mission is to democratize the media, but we’ve found that adding vetting and reward systems helps to ensure that our news reporting has some of the highest standards in the participatory journalism space. Founded in 2006, today GroundReport has over 7,000 contributors around the world, and our exclusive reports have been cited by The New York Times and AFP.

Our audience is mostly American, English, Canadian and Indian places where there are large, English-speaking, technologically connected populations. Our contributors are mostly foreign journalists, freelance writers, journalism students, bloggers and nonprofits.

Q. How does your site use social media to promote its content?

GroundReport is a purely digital news offering, so from day one, social media has been integral to our success. As a couple examples, we use Twitter to recruit journalists and publish stories to the world, and Facebook Connect to create a social environment for responding to stories and engaging with authors. We also publish video via YouTube Direct and share all videos on that platform as well as on our site.

Beyond that, GroundReport itself is social media, a full-fledged news platform completely supported by digital contributors.

Q. How does editing and headline writing work at GroundReport?

GroundReport’s editing system is based on the reputation of the author. An author is classified in one of two ways: Verified or Unverified.

If the reporter is on our Verified list, her work is instantly published live upon submission. If the author is unverified, all submissions enter a hidden queue where our Editors and Super-Users can review and approve or delete all content. We reward great contributors by making them Editors and give them extra privileges that allow them to edit any content on the site as if it were a Wikipedia page. Most of our Editors, not surprisingly, are journalism students, eager for a way to apply their skill set and get real-world digital journalism experience.

Headline writing is first submitted by users, and most are published as is. If the story is of mainstream relevance, we look to optimize the title for search using tools like Google Trends and Twitter Trends to research how people are searching for the stories.

Q. With much of the U.S. media increasingly turning to local news, what do you see as the future of international reporting?

A. I feel strongly that the two are deeply intertwined. When you investigate deeply enough, every story is local.

We feel that by presenting international news from the local perspective, we bring more engagement and emotional connection. Just as there is local U.S. news, there is local news for everywhere else in the world, and unfortunately, we almost never get to discover those unique local perspectives on foreign events.

Until now, many American news outlets have only presented foreign news stories researched and reported by an American. We think that there is a huge opportunity to support both national and foreign journalists in doing local reposting. And in this way, GroundReport supports both local and international coverage in one go.

Follow Rachel Sterne on Twitter and read her stories on the GroundReport site.

UPDATE: In January 2011, Sterne accepted the position of chief digital officer of New York City.

Guest post: Barrage of information hinders quality

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the seventh of these posts. Nathaniel Haines is a senior journalism major from St. Louis, Mo. He is in the news editing sequence and is a member of The Daily Tar Heel editorial board.

Quality, thoughtful journalism is being swallowed whole by the demand for quantity and constant updates.

It started with the 24-hour cable news networks. Now, we’ve descended to new depths with micro-blogging. We journalists are now reveling in out-of-context 140-character snippets of information that we can push to audiences from our phones.

On Jan. 25, 2010, Ken Auletta wrote an article for The New Yorker called “Non-Stop News.” The article examined how 24-hour news cycle — scratch that; the hour-long news cycle — is affecting the White House press corps.

Auletta paints a bleak picture of harassed reporters who are responsible for pushing out content 5 minutes ago. Auletta follows an NBC White House correspondent, Chuck Todd. In the course of one day, Todd writes three to five blog posts and eight to 10 Tweets; he also appears on multiple TV shows.

But there’s a question that looms behind Auletta’s description of the non-stop news cycle: Where are the editors?

It’s a startling issue of the non-stop news cycle. In order to cut the time between when a reporter writes a story and when a reader reads it, editors have been removed — or at least, they come in at a later points. Their job as gatekeeper between the reporter and the reader is being redefined.

But should it?

Should reporters be pushing news to their readers constantly? Is BlackBerry reporting actual reporting? Is there anyone in the process who digests the information and asks himself, “Should we publish this?”

Presumably, reporters are supposed to police their own news and information. But objective questions can’t be answered by someone immersed in a situation. A reporter doesn’t have perspective on the information he works hard to push out everyday.

At one point in his piece, Auletta quotes Anita Dunn: “When journalists call you to discuss a story, it’s not because they’re interested in having a discussion. They’re interested in a response. And the need to file five times a day encourages this.”

That’s a problem. It might seem like the rush is just part of entering an era in which information is instant. But the rush should really be seen as a new role for editors. Perhaps, instead of being gatekeepers for readers, editors should start acting as gatekeepers for reporters. It might be time for editors to tell the public that good news takes time and effort and that minute-to-minute updates are more like gossip than journalism.

Editing and explaining the news

Editing encompasses more than just fixing errors of style, spelling and grammar in news stories. Editing to explain concepts to readers is also important.

The editing of two recent stories shows a need for further explanation. Let’s take a look:

THE STORY: Greece’s debt crisis.

WHAT NEEDS EXPLAINING: Why this is happening and why it matters.

HOW WE CAN EXPLAIN: A Q&A is a great way to explain this sort of complicated story. That’s what the BBC did. The Beeb also takes on the “why it matters” issue in this sidebar.

THE STORY: A fatal shooting at the University of Alabama-Huntsville.

WHAT NEEDS EXPLAINING: The role of academic tenure as a possible motivation for the killings.

HOW WE CAN EXPLAIN: A textbox explaining the tenure process would be helpful. Why does tenure exist, and how does a professor get it? As noted here, it’s a tricky system that readers may not understand.

Both of these news events require a greater level of explanation than they’ve received in most stories. Good editors recognize that requirement and use it as an opportunity to explain and illuminate a topic for their readers.

UPDATE: The Associated Press tries to shed some light on tenure in a story that appeared on the front page of The News & Observer.

Guest post: Why copy editors still matter

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the fourth of these posts. Kammie Daniels is a senior News Editorial major who plans to graduate this May. She has worked at The Daily Tar Heel as an Arts Desk staff writer and also as a reporter with UNC’s news broadcast Carolina Week.

With all the layoffs, consolidation and other depressing things going on in the newspaper industry, I think we are all forgetting how important copy editors really are.

Up to this point in my education, I have never thought to include the title of “copy editor” to my list of practiced skills. Yes, a semester here and there of editing courses has fairly broadened my knowledge of the profession. However, it has taken until now to have the opportunity to truly practice and more importantly, appreciate, the art of accomplished copy editing.

Day to day, I witness the hard work and talent my fellow classmates offer when editing another’s copy. And although I have never worked with a professional copy editor, through this new experience I can say they strike me as having the most under-appreciated job in the newsroom.

In the face of the “print is dead” belief, no newsroom group has been more affected than copy editors. According to a 2009 survey by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, more papers have reported cutting copy editors than photographers, assignment reporters, or graphic artists. Shrinking newsrooms could justify these cuts if content quantity followed in suit. However, this survey continues to explain that while staff is shrinking, the average number of stories being published is actually increasing. So this means we have more headlines and content to be edited and an insufficient copy desk — that is a problem.

Another publication that has recently made (perhaps un-copy edited) headlines for targeting copy editors is the Star Tribune in Minnesota. Of the 27 staffers that were cut from the paper, 18 were from copy desk positions.

As newsrooms are shrinking all together, it seems the popular belief that copy editors should be the first to get the boot. New York Times writer Lawrence Downes even goes so far as to say “if newspaper copy editors vanish from the earth, no one is going to notice.”

Ouch.

Whether it is motivation by the dollar or one’s indifferent ignorance, copy editors are no longer getting the recognition they deserve. Today’s copy editors are multitaskers who design, choose stories and configure them online — all in addition to the customary duties of content editing and writing headlines. When a newspaper like the Tribune loses a copy editor, it is in turn losing valuable expertise in every one of these areas.

Singer/songwriter Christopher Ave wrote “Copy Editor’s Lament (The Layoff Song)” to comment on the newspaper industry’s woes and to celebrate copy editors. Like Ave, I wish to argue this same point. Of course, the public does care about headlines and correct grammar. They just don’t really know it. Through my writing — once copy edited, of course — my message will hopefully be clear: Copy editors DO still matter.

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