Student guest post: Maintaining voice — the role of the editor in protecting a writer’s message

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the sixth of those posts.

Madeleine Fraley is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in reporting and psychology. She has previously written for The Daily Tar Heel, and currently writes preventative health articles for the UNC School of Medicine Department of Family Medicine. Following graduation, she hopes to pursue a career in mental health work or health communications.

Sunday night at the Grammys, Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover) won the award for Song of the Year and Record of the Year for his summer hit, “This is America.”  While Gambino co-wrote the song, performed the song and was the face of the song, he was a no-show to the night. When they called his name a second time for the song’s second award (after an awkward first non-appearance), his co-producer, Ludwig Göransson, accepted the award on Gambino’s behalf.

But even if Gambino had been there to accept his Grammy, his producer would still have been there by his side. Gambino wrote the song and it was his voice, but his producer ultimately helped to make the song what it was — adding needed sound, mixing the vocals and fixing what needed to be fixed.

In a night where producers of songs are given the most visibility to the general public who listen and stream their work, I began to think about how this relationship is similar to the writer-editor relationship in journalism.

Producers and editors very rarely get the byline. Some producers make their contribution clear — producer Benny Blanco did this recently on his hit “Eastside.” Halsey and Khalid perform the song, but Blanco’s name appears as the lead artist.

Most of the time though, we see “thank u, next” by Ariana Grande, while the producers — in this case, Tommy Brown, Michael Foster, and Charles Anderson — are in the fine print of the liner notes (if anyone my age or younger knows what liner notes are). And very, very rarely, when you read a column in The New York Times or a sports story in The News & Observer, do you see the editor’s name next to the writer’s.

While the song or the story is often the vision of the artist, writer or performer, the producer and the editor help that vision come to fruition — clearly, concisely and correctly. The artist, writer and reporter have the voice — whether singing or inscribing — but the producer and editor have a crucial role when it comes to that voice. Their job is to smooth over that voice, weave the words together, mix the sounds, secure the flow of the piece, and do so without taking away from the artist’s voice or message itself.

In “The Subversive Copy Editor,” author and editor Carol Fisher Saller advises other editors that when editing an author’s work, one needs to be clear, flexible and transparent, as well as generous — “keeping in mind that this writer may have a take on his readers that you don’t necessarily understand,” she writes.

Hollywood and the music industry are constantly churning out tales of producers and record labels that have tried to change artists — their message, their look, their voice itself. In the recent blockbuster, “A Star is Born,” one of the themes of the film is how once Ally became a star, the producers and record labels tried to change her voice and change what she had to say.

As editors in journalism, we mostly check for the basics: facts, style and grammar. But we are also sometimes faced with having to cut pieces of stories, make wordy sentences more concise and decide whether something is a poetic choice of syntax or just plain wrong. It can be tempting to over-edit in these situations, to write it how you would have written it. We especially see this when it comes to opinion pieces and editorials, where a writer’s voice is most prominent.

So in making sure writing is correct and clear, we can’t let the writer’s voice fade. Like a producer shouldn’t bury a vocalist’s natural talent underneath too many instruments or synthesizers, an editor should not take a writer’s piece and edit it to the point that it loses the unique way they are conveying a message.

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Let’s work together

On occasion, I hear students lament the assignment of a group project. But as an instructor, I am adding team-based tasks to my courses, not reducing them. Here’s why.

My son is a first-year student at Rice University, majoring in computer science. Last fall, I visited him for family weekend. In addition to a campus tour and a football game, parents had the opportunity to attend a presentation from Rice’s Center for Career Development. We were eager to hear how our children would get jobs and internships.

Nicole Van Den Heuvel, the director of the center, discussed the results of a survey of employers who had visited Rice. Here’s the slide that she shared:

skills-employers-want

The most-wanted quality in a potential hire? “Ability to work in a team.” That’s what a group project can teach. Lower on the list? Grade point average and double majoring.

Group work happens in many professions every day. As a copy editor, I worked with teams to produce newspaper sections and websites. As a professor, I’ve worked on teams on various tasks, including admissions to graduate programs and revisions to our curriculum.

Many journalism courses simulate what it’s like to work in a newsroom or advertising agency. Much of the work in those environments is done in groups.

So the more I think about group projects, the more I want students to do them. I hope that they will learn the “interpersonal skills” and “problem-solving skills” that employers also value highly.

Are you ready to work with me?

Student guest post: Subscriptions, not clicks, are what journalism must prioritize

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the fifth of those posts.

Brennan Doherty is a senior at the UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism. He covers UNC athletics for The Daily Tar Heel and recently served as a communications intern with North Carolina Football Club (North Carolina FC/NC Courage) in Cary. Doherty has covered high schools sports in North Carolina for four years, with his stories primarily appearing in The News & Observer. He previously served as the sports editor at The Daily Gamecock while he was a student at the University of South Carolina.

A few months back, I finally gave in and subscribed to The Athletic, eager to see what all the hype was about. Thanks to their student plan, I have access to in-depth beat reporting on my favorite professional teams (New Orleans Saints, New Orleans Pelicans, New York Mets and the Carolina Hurricanes) as well as a good selection of national coverage for just under $30 a year.

My experience with The Athletic has strengthened my belief that journalism in 2019 should be much more concerned with subscriptions than it is with clicks. Sure, The Athletic is a niche service, a site dedicated to hardcore sports fans. But I think the subscription model it utilizes should be learned from and applied to newsrooms throughout the country for coverage that goes beyond sports.

It’s well known that advertising revenue has traditionally powered print journalism. It’s also no secret that money from ads is harder to come by in the digital age with competition from the likes of Google and Facebook. In a class taught on community journalism by Jock Lauterer at UNC-Chapel Hill, he repeated the following line several times throughout the semester: “Print dollars, digital dimes, mobile pennies.”

When it comes to ad revenue, it’s not what it used to be – and probably never will be again. Yet, a visit to the average newspaper’s website will you remind you how keen news organizations are on trying to squeeze every last drop of ad money from a well that’s nearly dried up.

Attempting to read a story online can be like navigating a maze. Once you get past the banner ad, you’ll probably be distracted by a video you have no interest in. Providing padding on both the left and right ends of your screen will be more ads, possibly with moving text or other motion elements. Somewhere in between is the story – what this whole thing is supposed to be about, anyway.

Arguably the clearest difference between The Athletic and other sports sites it competes with is its minimalist, distraction-free design. There are no ads here because you’ve paid to make them disappear with your subscription. Instead, the reader is greeted with a layout that puts the story front and center and blocks out all the other noise. In a nutshell, reading is no longer a chore.

Personally, it’s refreshing to read a story about something I’m interested in like the Carolina Hurricanes and not have the story broken up by a highlight video of a random minor league hockey team I had never even heard of just because the video comes with an ad.

Web aesthetics and user experience aside, a pivot from an ad-centered strategy to a subscription-based model can bring about positive change in how news is covered while also fostering better long-term relationships with readers.

When you live and die by advertising, you’re beholden to the number of unique visitors your site attracts. Otherwise, advertisers wouldn’t be interested in doing business with you anyway.

An obsession with clicks can lead to the temptation of producing content that you think will draw visitors to your site, even if that means reporting on stories that aren’t worth covering or engaging in a cryptic game of cat-and-mouse on social media to get clicks in an age where most news breaks on places like Twitter anyway.

In local news, this can take away from reporting on what truly matters. An unfortunate reality is that a lot of the meaningful journalism making a difference in communities across America – work that costs a lot of money to complete, by the way –  does not lend itself to a ton of clicks. At least not at first.

But what can be harmful is choosing to bypass reporting on topics that matter just because the number of clicks they receive don’t validate their importance right away. It seems to me many newspapers in 2019 could benefit from patience in deciding what to prioritize. But it’s tough to be patient when you’re answering to advertisers.

However, getting paid up front – through a subscription model – might change this. Personally, there have been numerous times on Twitter when I’ve seen reporters from The Athletic share stories they wrote and they’ll mention how they never would have had the chance to write similar pieces at their past employers.

To use a sports analogy, money generated from subscriptions is like a good running game in football. It’s not the flashiest thing in the world, but it’s dependable and sustainable. I think subscriptions build relationships with readers and make them more inclined to engage with the news organization consistently, which makes sense. You’re going to want to use what you’re paying for.

Clicks, meanwhile, can be like a 50-yard passing play. Sure, you might have a story go viral and do numbers. But can you plan on doing that time and time again? Probably not.

There are success stories that can be looked at for guidance. For instance, Digiday reported that The Seattle Times recorded a 38 percent increase in digital subscribers in 2018 by encouraging reporters to report on topics more likely to lead to subscriptions, not clicks. The paper, Digiday’s Max Willens wrote, “is part of a broader movement among news publishers pivoting away from content that does not build habits or direct connections with their audiences.”

Persuading readers to pay for news when it’s mostly been posted for free on the internet since the 1990s will still be a tough sell. But devaluing the good work journalists do through a reliance on clicks and advertising is a poor alternative destined to fail.

Follow Brennan Doherty on Twitter and read his stories on the Daily Tar Heel site.

10 years on Twitter

silentsam-tweet

This tweet from News & Observer reporter Jane Stancill is how I learned that demonstrators at UNC-Chapel Hill had toppled the Confederate monument known as Silent Sam.

Ten years ago today, I joined Twitter, albeit somewhat reluctantly. It’s been a part of my daily life since.

As an editor and journalism educator, I exchange information about our field and post listings for jobs and internships. The community of editors on Twitter is particularly strong and supportive.

As a follower of current events, I get much of my news from Twitter. It’s how I heard that Silent Sam had been toppled, for example. I also look to Twitter for reaction and analysis of live events such as basketball games, stormy weather, government meetings and political debates. The memes are fun too.

Yes, Twitter has significant problems with harassment and disinformation, among other issues. It has made some updates that I dislike, including the change from 140 characters for a tweet to 280. But I plan on staying for years to come, still following.

Student guest post: How can reputable sources compete when fighting fake news?

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the fourth of those posts. Paige Colpo is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill who is double-majoring in reporting and Peace, War and Defense. She hopes to work for a foreign policy publication after graduation.

Google, Facebook, Twitter and Mozilla must do more to combat fake news as Europeans head toward a critical election season, the European Commission says.

The Internet giants signed a Code of Practice on Disinformation last fall agreeing to take measures against fake news. While there has been some progress in removing fake accounts and limiting the visibility of sites that promote disinformation, the commission said the companies must take additional action to ensure full transparency of political ads before Europeans head to the polls.

The European Parliament will hold elections in May. Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Poland, Portugal and Ukraine will follow in the coming months.

As technology companies continue to grapple with fake news, it is worthwhile to consider how it spreads and why users continue to share it over reputable news sources.

To answer this question, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology conducted a study investigating how mechanisms in Twitter, coupled with idiosyncrasies in human behavior on social media, make it easy for fake news to spread.

The team looked at a sample of roughly 126,000 news articles tweeted by 3 million people more than 4.5 million times between 2006 and 2017.

News categorized as fake or false was 70 percent more likely than true news to receive a retweet, with political fake news spreading three times faster than other kinds, the study said. The top 1 percent of retweeted fake news was regularly spread to at least 1,000 people and sometimes as many as 100,000. True news rarely reached more than 1,000 people.

Contrary to popular belief, the study found that humans –– not bots or algorithms –– accelerated the spread of fake news.

Unlike bots, humans are affected by emotion. By targeting emotions like fear, disgust and surprise, the researchers found that fake news was able to generate more user engagement than real news, which inspires anticipation, sadness, joy and trust.

A separate investigation found that the most important catalyst of fake news was the precision with which the source targeted an audience. Using data that tech companies routinely gather and sell to advertisers, purveyors of fake news can disseminate falsehoods to individuals already predisposed to believe them.

While it may seem that the cards are stacked against trustworthy news sources, that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. Through imitating the tactics used to disseminate fake news, reputable news outlets could replicate its success.

As the studies noted, one of the reasons fake news is so successful is the way that it elicits intense emotion. Fake news headlines are both attention-grabbing and poignant. When shared over social media, they are typically accompanied by some sort of provocative photo that implores users to click to learn more. While it is ill-advised for reputable news sources to resort to sensationalism, they could improve social media user engagement by using emotional headlines and eye-catching photos that encourage retweets and shares.

Increasing the number of hashtags attached to a post could also increase user engagement. Tweets with one or more hashtag are 55 percent more likely to be retweeted than those without hashtags. Fake news disseminators notoriously use numerous hashtags to ensure their messaging reaches as many users as possible. Reputable news sources could increase online engagement with their posts by following suit.

While the spread of fake news is unlikely to abate in the near future, reputable news sources should not feel discouraged. They must continue to publish honest, reliable coverage and give fake news a real run for its money.

Let’s meet in Rhode Island for #ACES2019

providence

The 23rd national conference of ACES: The Society for Editing will take place March 28-30 in Providence, Rhode Island. I’ll be there.

The conference includes sessions that will appeal to editors across disciplines. We’ll learn who won the headline contest, enjoy a spelling bee and honor scholarship recipients. Spontaneous games of Scrabble in the hotel bar are also likely.

Online registration ends March 7. If you cannot attend, you can follow the fun on social media with the hashtag #ACES2019.

Student guest post: Changing the world through community journalism

voice2019

Members of the spring 2019 staff of the Durham VOICE.

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the third of those posts. Spencer Carney is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill who is double-majoring in reporting and creative writing. She hopes to work as either an editor or a reporter for a community newspaper after graduation.

I never wanted to be a journalist or even a writer in general. In fact, I adamantly protested against it. Both my father and my oldest sister graduated through the School of Media and Journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill, but I wanted to make my own destiny.

My first year trying to do just that was a flaming disaster that would’ve found me in the academic advising office trying to drop out by the end of the second semester. However, in reviewing my first year, I realized that the only two classes I had enjoyed were the two English classes I’d taken.

I let my parents talk me into taking a basic journalism class the next semester. By the end of this semester, I will have completed a reporting major at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“Why does reporting matter? Why does community journalism matter? Doesn’t everyone just get their news online now anyway?”

People have asked me these questions since I declared my reporting major.

“Our system rests on citizens’ ability to make discriminating judgments about policies and politicians. Without the news, information and analysis that the media provides, this would be impossible,” said former Rep. Lee Hamilton, in an article published by the Global Investigative Journalism Network.

In their book “The Elements of Journalism,” Bill Kovach and Tom Rosentiel define the principles and purpose of journalism “by something more basic: the function news plays in the lives of people.”

This semester, I am taking MEJO 459 (Community Journalism), where the students of the class work to cover the Northeast Central Durham area, which is an underserved community. We work to serve the people who live there by producing the Durham VOICE newspaper and website.

This project is important because without us, the community is essentially forgotten by the other areas of Durham. When events occur in this part of Durham, the Durham newspaper often doesn’t cover it. No one deserves to be forgotten, and no one should feel like they don’t have a voice.

The purpose of community journalism, as taught in this class, is to be relentlessly local. We cover this community because people want to know what’s going on where they live. Who’s in the paper that they know? What new restaurant is going up near their neighborhood?

For reporters, working for a community newspaper also gives you the chance to be more than just a reporter. For example, many newspapers are tiny and may only have one or two editors for a ton of stories for each edition. This matters because hopefully, you will make friends with your editors and not want to cause them additional stress by poor grammar and incorrect facts that they have to fix, but also because it will be your name on the byline. If something slides past the editors, you’re going to be the one who gets pinned for it.

It’s not always as high pressure as working to maintain accuracy in your stories. At the Durham VOICE, I’m the assistant print editor, and I get to help design the print edition layouts using Adobe InDesign. I also work as a student reporter and get to turn in photos I take with my stories.

Big newspapers such as The New York Times matter because it’s important to be informed of what’s going on in the rest of the world, but people also want to know what’s going on at home, too.

Growing up, I had a poster in my room that said, “One day I will change the world.” I’m going to accomplish this. I believe that everyone has a little bit of “I want to change the world” in them. I also believe it’s OK to just change the world for one person.

Before this class, I wanted to work for a big city newspaper. I still do, but not right away, and definitely not for forever. Instead, I want to work for community newspapers for a while and work on my world-changing plans one article at a time.