Q&A with Sarah Nagem of the Border Belt Independent

Sarah Nagem is editor of the Border Belt Independent, a nonprofit news organization that covers four counties in southeastern North Carolina. She previously worked at The Salisbury Post and The News & Observer. In this interview, conducted by email, Nagem discusses her role at the BBI and her transition to a small, nonprofit newsroom.

Q. What is the Border Belt Independent? What is its place in the media landscape in southeastern North Carolina?

A. The Border Belt Independent is an online-only publication covering issues that affect Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties. These rural counties (except Bladen) border South Carolina, and together they are home to more than 230,000 people who farm the land, work in manufacturing plants and sometimes struggle to get by in the economically distressed region. 

Les High, who recently sold The News Reporter in Whiteville to the newspaper’s editor, launched the Border Belt Independent this year as a solutions-focused journalism initiative. Our goal is to not just highlight problems and inequities in the region, but to talk to experts about what can be done about those problems moving forward. 

BBI is grant-funded, so we don’t need to stress about advertising revenue and page clicks. Our website, borderbelt.org., does not have a paywall. 

Thankfully, each of the four counties we cover still has a newspaper, and we don’t compete with them. Instead, we act as partners with them. We recognize that with small staffs, they don’t always have time to dig deeper into stories. But we do, and we encourage them to publish our work in print and on their websites. 

Q. Describe your role at the BBI. What is your typical workday or workweek look like?

A. I’m the editor, and my role is to identify important stories, report and write stories, handle the organization’s social media and manage freelancers. 

After spending more than a decade at The News & Observer and McClatchy, where I kept fairly regular hours, I have embraced a more flexible schedule with BBI. One of the biggest lessons I learned during the coronavirus pandemic is that behind-the-scenes journalism doesn’t always have to look like it used to. I’m all about brainstorming sessions and creative meetings, but I embrace the idea that people should be allowed to work when they’re at their best. 

That being said, you might find me writing a story at 11 p.m. on a Sunday.  

Q. You moved from a regional newspaper owned by a national chain to a small, nonprofit operation. What has that transition been like?

A. To be honest, it was a terrifying leap. I believe strongly in McClatchy’s mission, and I felt an emotional connection to the company and my colleagues after so many years. I like to joke that I was destined to work for the company, since I spent part of my childhood going to Pittsburgh Pirates baseball games when a member of the McClatchy family owned the team. 

But when I learned about BBI, I immediately wanted to be part of it. I grew up in West Virginia, and I knew I could relate to many of the challenges people face in southeastern North Carolina, including generational poverty, limited access to health care and a lack of public transportation.  

The transition to a startup has been easier than I expected. I don’t miss all the Zoom calls that come with working at a large organization. I do, however, miss having a large group of people to chat with throughout the day, even if the communication was via Slack. 

The challenge now is figuring out how to continually build an audience for BBI, and how to get stories in front of the people who need to see them. We’re building everything from scratch. 

Q. How do editing and headline writing work at the BBI?

A. As an editor, I like to first dive into a story as if I’m a regular reader. That way, at the end of the story I can ask myself if I learned anything that affects my life or my family members’ lives, or if I gained something enlightening or entertaining. If the answer is no, the story might need to be reframed. 

We don’t have a big team of freelancers yet, but we’re hoping to work with more of them. A huge plus for me in this job is that I get to both write and edit, which I’m equally passionate about. 

As for writing headlines, that’s generally my call. In my previous job, we put a huge focus on headline writing. Sometimes we would spend 15 minutes as a team workshopping one headline. So I got a lot of practice, and now it’s one of my favorite parts of being a journalist. A good headline should be engaging and often should have a curiosity gap, but not so much that it sounds ridiculous. It’s a delicate balance. 

Q. What advice do you have for students and others interested in careers in local journalism?

A. It’s great to dream about working for The New York Times or The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal. They do amazing work on a national scale to hold powerful people accountable. 

But there are powerful people in small communities all across America who also need to be held accountable. Without local journalism, how many misdeeds and how much corruption could slip through the cracks? As newspapers continue to shrink or disappear, local journalism has never been as important as it is right now. 

Q&A with Lynn Gosnell of Rice Magazine

Lynn Gosnell is senior editor at Rice Magazine in Houston, Texas. The magazine is the flagship alumni/university publication at Rice University. In this interview, conducted by email, Gosnell discusses what goes into each issue of Rice Magazine, and she provides advice for writers and editors who are interested in working for alumni publications. (Photo by Alese Pickering)

Q. Describe your job at Rice Magazine.

A. My job is to stay curious, inspired and informed about this particular corner of higher education — Rice University, an excellent university with notable strengths in teaching, research and residential life. As senior editor of Rice Magazine, the quarterly magazine of Rice, I help research, plan, develop and manage the editorial content of each quarterly issue from idea to print.

I work most closely with our other full-time staff member, art director Alese Pickering. She oversees all aspects of design, including staff and freelance photography and freelance illustration. We absolutely rely on the talents of key editorial, photography and videography contributors within our department and division.

I also hire and manage freelance writers and promote editorial collaboration across campus, especially within the Office of Public Affairs, where we are published. We rely on paid student interns to help us write about campus and student news — ideally, they stick around for a few years and become invaluable contributors.

Q. What is it like to put together an issue?

A. It seems intense to us, but it’s definitely nothing like daily journalism.

Researching and planning ideas for features is always the most challenging aspect of each issue. We spend extra time thinking about our opening feature, which begins on the cover and is often a more visual narrative. The earlier we can get started on these stories, the better.

In addition to the features, we have three standing departments — campus and student news, research and teaching and alumni news and profiles. (Except for a one-page illustrated preview, all our class notes are in a separate publication, managed by another editor.) We assign up to three features or feature packages months in advance, then work on the departments sequentially, starting with the alumni department. Last to come in are front of book material, one internal ad, back cover copy, etc.

We use Google Drive for our page budgets and back out editorial and production calendars for the year and print at Lane Press in Vermont. We try to adhere to these perfect schedules, but that doesn’t always happen.

A little bit on our process: We assign a story – say it’s a class profile, research finding or an alumna profile. The draft comes in to me; I read it and follow up with the writer on any questions; the draft is refined, sent to copyediting, then filed. The art director may have seen a draft by this stage, depending on the complexity of the story and her visual approach. As we file more and more stories, complete photo shoots and receive illustrations, the art director begins designing and sending proofs of each story for review and corrections. Then the proof is filed, and the issue is created story by story. There is a stage for internal proofing, and we have an external proofreader go over the final – this is really important. While the issue is at press, Alese and I upload the content to our online magazine and publish before the print version lands.

Q. What makes a good story for the magazine?

A. That’s a hard question to answer. For both departments (short stories) and features, good reporting and interviewing (preferably in person) are the basics. We like to assign writers on location for stories, so our readers can get more of a feel for the places where our alumni, faculty, staff or students are living, but we can’t always do that. (And some of our best stories recently were reported over the phone with great color and detail.)

Readers seem to like a variety of story formats — narratives, Q&As, roundups of associated topics. Some of my favorite stories are profiles that feature a unique or unexpected pursuit of a passion. Having a strong visual approach improves a story considerably!

While we can’t be very timely, we can be topical when it comes to covering the involvement of our student, faculty and alumni community in such urgent issues as racial injustice, climate change and the pandemic — as well as addressing the ongoing project of uncovering more about Rice’s history with regards to slavery and segregation.

Q. How do copyediting and headline writing work?

A. Some of this is answered above, but essentially, we have two staff members who copyedit and fact check every story before the story is filed, then in proofing stage and then after the whole issue is put together. The copyedits come back to me, and I occasionally change or query one of those choices.

Heds and decks are a big topic right now in our shop, as we recently noticed some repetition in the last issue, which we had to fix at the last minute. When I file the stories, I add working versions, and sometimes different choices for headlines. We recently signed up for a headline workshop (online) through a company that works with a lot of alumni magazines, so we hope to get a creative refresh via that – but we need to schedule it!

Q. What advice do you have for writers and editors looking to work at university publications?

A. The advice I have is the same for just about any line of work — build up experience via campus jobs and internships while in school in order to have a portfolio of clips — and then work any job that adds foundational skills like reporting, writing, editing of all kinds.

I also think it’s great to get writing and editing experience outside of higher education — especially in multimedia skills, which are in demand in higher ed communications and publications. Of course, create a website that shares your interests and talents.

For the academic environment, we see job applicants who are experienced or proficient in a particular discipline (for example, the sciences or musical performance, etc.), and those strengths can be really useful within university communications. Finally, join whatever professional associations and try to attend the conferences that make sense for your interests. Our “trade organization” is the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, and they offer conferences, online communities and other training opportunities.

Read Rice Magazine online, and follow the publication on Instagram.

What I am teaching this semester

The fall semester at UNC-Chapel Hill begins on Wednesday, Aug. 18. Here’s what I am teaching this term:

MEJO 557, News Editing. In this course, undergraduate students learn about editing for digital media, including headline writing and social media. The class meets in person twice a week, and it has 19 students. Here is the syllabus.

MEJO 711, Multiplatform Storytelling. In this course, students in an online master’s program learn about all forms of writing and editing for digital media, including headlines, newsletters, podcasts and tweets. It has 18 students, and it meets asynchronously. Here is the syllabus.

Good luck to all on a safe and successful semester!

How post-tenure review works

As part of their reporting on the hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones at UNC-Chapel Hill, news organizations such as The Daily Tar Heel have written helpful explainers on the what, how and why of tenure. This post is about one more part of the process: post-tenure review, or PTR.

The UNC system requires tenured faculty to be formally reviewed at least every five years. PTR is in addition to annual evaluations from a dean or department head, and it’s handled by a committee.

I had my most recent PTR during the 2020-21 academic year. I submitted an updated CV and statements on my teaching, service and creative activity. I gathered and summarized course evaluations for the past five years. Unlike the initial tenure review, PTR does not require letters from outside reviewers.

The journalism school’s tenure/promotion committee examined my materials and wrote an eight-page report focused on the three areas of teaching, service and creative activity. Good news: I passed!

If I hadn’t passed, I would have had to write a development plan, in consultation with the committee and the dean, on how I would improve in whatever areas I was deficient. A faculty member who doesn’t meet the goals of their development plan could lose tenure and be dismissed from the university.

What about professors who are Knight Chairs at UNC? Do they have to do five-year reviews? Yes, they do. So if the Board of Trustees approves tenure for Hannah-Jones as part of her appointment, she will be reviewed periodically like everyone else.

So that’s how post-tenure review works. I’ll do it again in five years.

How I will spend my summer

The spring term at UNC-Chapel Hill is over. Thanks to my students for their hard work this semester. We made it!

Here is my agenda for the summer:

  • Lead a week-long residency for our online master’s program in digital communication. About 20 students will get training in video production from my colleague Chad Heartwood and brainstorming sessions with me for their thesis projects, among other activities. The residency will be virtual this year because of COVID-19 restrictions.
  • Administer and grade comprehensive exams for the MADC students who are finishing their second year in the program.
  • Advise two MADC students who are working on thesis proposals.
  • Review applications and interview candidates for the next cohort for the MADC program, which accepts up to 20 students per year.
  • Teach the journalism segment of the UNC Summer Jazz Workshop.
  • Write an annual job evaluation and a plan for my next five years of teaching, service and creative activity.
  • Update the syllabus, readings and assignments for my courses for the fall semester. The first day of class is Aug. 18.

Best wishes to all faculty, students and staff on productive yet relaxing summer.

Q&A with Elizabeth Baier of WUNC

Elizabeth “Liz” Baier is digital news editor at WUNC. She joined the radio station in 2016 after eight years of reporting for Minnesota Public Radio News. Prior to that, Baier worked as a newspaper reporter at The Miami Herald and South Florida Sun-Sentinel. This interview was conducted by email.

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

A. As a digital news editor for WUNC – North Carolina Public Radio, my job is to oversee news content on our website. I work with a team of two digital producers and a social media producer to adapt radio stories for the web and our social accounts.

Together, we work closely with broadcast reporters and editors to encourage and support them in thinking digitally from the beginning of the reporting process. Sometimes, that means having a quick conversation with a reporter about possible photo opportunities to go along with an enterprise feature. Other times, it means working with a reporter to completely rewrite a radio script so it works as a web story.

Our digital team is small but mighty, and our overarching goal is to make content that worked on the radio also work on other platforms. When news breaks, we often pivot to report and disseminate information first online.

Even the shortest radio spot takes time to produce, so it’s my job to huddle with other editors to decide when and how to prioritize stories for web. In those cases, either a digital producer or I become the lead writer and incorporate feeds from newscasts, the wire and original reporting into an evolving story online and on social.

A typical day starts with checking what happened overnight and what’s on the docket for the day. I usually start my day around 8 a.m. by checking in with our morning digital producer, who starts at 7 a.m. and is the first to update our website. Then, I meet with other editors to get a rundown of what stories our broadcast colleagues will be working on that day and how to incorporate those into a digital rundown that includes local, national and international news.

WUNC is an NPR-member station and as such, we receive most of NPR’s content automatically on our site. So we have the ability to spotlight some of those stories along with our local content. By midday, the two digital producers are working on moving broadcast stories to the website, building out web-only posts, or editing photos from staffers, The Associated Press or freelancers. We also have a content-sharing agreement with other North Carolina public radio stations, including WFAE, BPR and WFDD, and republish content from their sites with regularity.

On slower news days, digital producers also pitch and report web-only stories, which I edit. Our afternoon digital producer will round out the day by posting afternoon stories, coordinating with our podcast team on upcoming podcast posts, communicating with our social media producer on assets that might work for social, and leaving a hand-off for the morning.

Q. WUNC recently redesigned its website. What are the main objectives of the redesign, and how has it been received?

A. The new WUNC.org offers a better reader experience with a clean design, prominent headlines and better display of photos and videos. The site is mobile-friendly and includes more prominent links to help readers share stories on their favorite social media channels. It also allows us to seamlessly leverage content from NPR and other public radio member stations, while creating more robust, media-rich stories of our own.

While those were all necessary upgrades on the user end, the real strength of the redesign is in the back-end infrastructure. The new site is built off a new content management system called Grove. It’s designed to make website content management easier to manage, and it offers a powerful, behind-the-scenes search engine. Our previous CMS was not built for dynamic, multimedia content. Grove is, and it allows for a richer multimedia experience by easily adding visually-appealing elements like photos, embeds, social content, and videos to posts.

As part of the redesign, we also disabled our online comments attached to individual stories. Connecting with our audience is core to our mission of informing and engaging with our community. While comments have offered a small, loyal core of our audience a place to engage with stories, most of those conversations are now happening on our social media sites, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, as well as through live and virtual events. This decision follows that of many other news organizations, including NPR, that have moved comments off their site and onto social media.

Q. How do editing and headline writing work at the website?

A. It’s a mixed approach. Broadcast reporters working with their editors will often start the first version of a digital post and write a headline after working on the radio story. They’ll do a content edit before sending the post to the digital team for a style and copy edit.

Digital team members will review all aspects of that story, from the headline and story, to photos and tags, to make sure they’re consistent with our best practices and web standards. The digital team will often tweak headlines, slugs and other aspects of the story before publishing.

When it comes to building out shorter newscast content, digital producers will create those posts and write the headlines themselves. Digital producers will also write headlines for any web-only stories they’re working on, and I’ll edit those.

Q. You started your career in newspapers. What was it like to make a transition to public radio and digital journalism?

A. It was unlearning everything I’d learned as a print reporter and building myself back up as a radio reporter, especially in terms of writing.

When you write for print or digital, you write for the eye. When you write for radio, you write for the ear. Sentences need to be shorter. Verbs become your adjectives. Writing into and out of tape seamlessly takes a ton of practice to master. And using ambient sound to create scenes that transport listeners to a place and time becomes an art more than a science. I love that part of radio storytelling — the taking listeners places with sound and letting them hear stories told by human voices. You can achieve that in print, but I find it’s so much more powerful with sound.

When I moved to WUNC and to the digital side of a newsroom, it was, in many ways, like returning to my print days. Digital is faster. We move content all day. Long narratives are not as common.

Web readers have short attention spans and rarely scroll to the end of stories, so writing concisely matters. Understanding user habits and learning how to interpret all the data that we now have about stories and their performance gives us a chance to serve our audiences better with our content.

Q. What advice do you have for students interested in internships and jobs in public media?

A. My advice would be for students to explore many different kinds of journalism courses at the beginning of a four-year program before specializing in one or two different platforms or formats.

These days, public media is not just about making radio. NPR and member stations across the country hire digital-first reporters, producers, writers, editors, photographers, social media specialists, videographers, graphic designers, illustrators and other positions that go well beyond traditional radio. Public media is mission driven, and being able to center the daily work around that mission while adapting to new ways of telling stories is crucial.

In a more practical sense, I also encourage students interested in public media to simply reach out to editors and reporters at their local stations. So many station staffers are eager to help and connect and talk with students.

Asking, listening and learning

For the first time in a dozen years, I am teaching the introductory newswriting course at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

The course is MEJO 153, Writing and Reporting, and it has about 20 students. This semester, it is being taught entirely online because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Students learn the basics of writing leads and stories in the inverted pyramid and other structures. They are also introduced to Associated Press style and other issues related to grammar, word choice and punctuation. Libel, ethics and news judgment are also topics in the course.

For my section of MEJO 153, I wanted to focus on interviewing and listening. Developing those skills is central to success in journalism and public relations.

To give the students that experience, I asked two journalists and a public relations practitioner to visit the class. They were:

  • Brittany Jennings, director of brand alignment and communications for the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy

Before each guest visited the class, I shared with the students their name and an affiliation. The students then had the task of researching each person and coming up with questions about their work in journalism and PR.

During the class meeting on Zoom, the students asked those questions and listened for opportunities for followup questions. Each meeting created meaningful conversations, and I could see the students become more comfortable and confident as the semester progressed.

After each guest visited, students wrote a post summarizing what they learned and listing direct quotes that they would use in a profile of the person.

A theme emerged in these meetings: treating topics and sources with empathy. That was another lesson of this experience, and one that I hope students will carry with them for the rest of their coursework and into their careers.

Thanks to Brittany, Sara and Amber for sharing their time and insights with the class. We enjoyed asking questions, listening to your answers and learning from you.

Q&A with Foon Rhee of CalMatters

Foon Rhee is a deputy editor at CalMatters, a nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism venture based in Sacramento, California. He started his career at The Charlotte Observer, where he spent 16 years as a reporter, before becoming a local news and state Capitol editor at The News & Observer in Raleigh. Rhee went on to become city editor and deputy national political editor at The Boston Globe and an associate editor at The Sacramento Bee. This interview was conducted by email.

Q. What is CalMatters, and what is its place in the news landscape in California?

A. CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers and explains California politics and policy. It was started in 2015, largely in response to a significant reduction in the number of journalists covering the state Capitol as daily newspapers retrenched.

Its mission hasn’t changed, but its place in the California news landscape has expanded as it’s grown and local and state coverage has declined and changed. Besides adding more reporters, editors, engagement and other staff, CalMatters has also increased partnerships with public radio stations, newspapers and other media and established a College Journalism Network. CalMatters stories are distributed to partners free of charge and republished often.

Except for the biggest breaking stories, we do not try to compete with daily newspapers or news sites such as Politico. We take a broader look at what’s going on in the Legislature, in state agencies and with the governor, both in policy and politics.

We try to give a sense of what impact all of that is having across California. And we try to find unreported or underreported stories. It’s a huge task, obviously, in a state of 40 million people that is far more diverse politically than it can look like from the outside.

Q. Describe your role there. What is your typical day like?

A. I’ve been here a little more than a month. I’m one of seven editors, including three deputy editors.

I work with a team of four: two political/policy reporters, a housing reporter and a general assignment reporter we’re about to hire. They cover busy beats. There’s no shortage of news, especially with a campaign to recall the governor about to start, and with affordable housing such an important issue.

Like most journalists, I’m working from home for the most part. I get my first cup of coffee and browse through a half dozen newsletters that wrap up what other media outlets are writing about.

We use Slack to communicate, though I often call reporters for that human connection. I usually have at least one virtual meeting a day and often more to plan coverage and consult with other editors and staffers.

I edit three to five pieces a week, of various lengths and complexity. Sometimes, I pitch in to edit newsletters, and we often update issue explainers and policy tracking pieces.

Q. How does copy editing and headline writing work at CalMatters?

A. We don’t have a copy desk. I’m the first editor on any story from the reporters I work with, and then a senior editor back-reads it. For more sensitive and complicated stories, it’s possible that other editors will also read them.

Reporters often suggest headlines. I tweak them, and so does the senior editor.

Q. How is editing for CalMatters different from other news organizations that you have worked for?

A. Because the kinds of stories we do, a lot more of this job is on the front end before reporters file their stories.

I spend much more time talking to reporters about finding the most interesting stories and setting priorities. Then once we decide on a story, there’s a lot of conversation about how to focus the story, how to structure it, photos, graphics and multimedia.

In my previous editing posts, I was covering much more breaking news, so I spent more of my time word-editing and revising stories.

Q. What advice do you have for journalists, including student journalists, who are interested in working for a nonprofit news organization?

A. My advice to young journalists interested in nonprofit news organizations really isn’t any different than what I’ve told others during my career.

Read widely, not just to add to your knowledge of important issues, but also to bathe yourself in great reporting and writing.

Listen, watch and learn from your colleagues. Try to pick up good traits and habits from exemplary journalists, while adapting them to your own personality and strengths.

Be open to opportunities, even if it’s not the exact job you may want. One door leads to another and another.

Be nice to people, don’t lie and don’t burn any bridges. Journalism is a small world and your reputation gets around. You never know when a particular person can help you get where you want. Or not.

Follow CalMatters and Foon Rhee on Twitter.

When Roy Williams retired, journalists went to work

UNC men’s basketball coach Roy Williams surprised the sports world when he announced his retirement this week. The decision ends a 33-year career as a head coach, the past 18 in Chapel Hill.

The announcement Thursday morning sent North Carolina news organizations into action. The first task? Make sure that this news wasn’t an April Fools’ Day joke. It was not.

Under deadline pressure, journalists rose to the occasion. Here’s some of their best work:

Best headline: DAGGUM, ROY in The News & Observer of Raleigh. Written by senior sports editor Matt Stephens, the headline captures the coach’s folksy persona and the fan reaction to his departure in two words and a comma. Here’s how the headline looks on the front page of the April 2 print edition:

Best column: Ed Hardin, Greensboro News & Record. Hardin, one of the best sportswriters in the state’s history, connects Williams to the people and places who shaped his career.

Best photo: Robert Willett, News & Observer. The angle and lines in this shot capture the moment of Williams’ entrance to his final appearance at the Smith Center as UNC’s coach. This photo was the main image on the N&O homepage, and rightly so. (For more remarkable images from the N&O photo staff, see this slideshow.)

Best hustle: Like other UNC students, the staff of The Daily Tar Heel was about to start a four-day break for the semester when the news about Williams broke. The students reported, wrote, published and distributed a 20-page special edition, and they sold advertising for it. You can buy it as a keepsake.

Congrats to Roy Williams on a stellar career. And congrats to the stellar journalists who told the story of his retirement.