Q&A with Richard Stradling, co-author of “Where the River Burned”

Richard Stradling is co-author of “Where the River Burned: Carl Stokes and the Struggle To Save Cleveland.” He is also deputy metro editor at The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, Stradling discusses the origins of the book, how he and his brother researched and wrote it, and how he balanced the project with his daily duties at the N&O.

Q. How did you and your brother decide to write “Where The River Burned”?

A. The project dates back to 1998 when I took a year off from newspaper work to do a mid-career journalism program at Ohio State University.

I had always been interested in the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969 and the mythology that had grown up around it and decided to make that the focus of my master’s thesis. I wanted to explain why this relatively small fire had become so well-known while many previous fires on the river had long been forgotten. I did a lot of research and thought maybe I had enough for a book, but by then I’d gone to work for The News & Observer as a reporter.

I was talking it over with my brother David, who is a historian at the University of Cincinnati, and we agreed that we’d work on it together. Pretty early on in his research, David suggested that we broaden the scope of the book to look at all the environmental problems facing Cleveland at that time, not just the fire.

Q. How did you go about researching and writing this book? What were some of the obstacles you had to overcome?

A. David has a history professor’s schedule and propensity to do research in archives. He made numerous trips to Cleveland to go through the papers of Carl Stokes at the Western Reserve Historical Society, as well as other archival material.

whereriverburnedI focused more on interviews, including ones I had already done while at Ohio State. For example, I traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak to Bailus Walker, who ran the rat control program in Cleveland in the late 1960s and had moved on to teach at Howard University.

David took the lead on writing most of the book, with some exceptions, and we traded drafts back and forth. Distance was one obstacle. We made some trips together to Cleveland, but mostly we worked remotely — David in Cincinnati and me in Raleigh. That slowed the process down but also may have made it more deliberate and thoughtful. We could think things over before responding.

My main obstacle was having a more-than-full-time job at The News & Observer. I became an editor in 2005, and 10-hour days are normal. I had to carve out time to work on the book at night and on weekends.

Q. How was working on this project different from your work as an editor and reporter at The News & Observer? What were the similarities?

A. It was different in that for a long time there was no deadline. It became a little more pressing after we got the book contract from Cornell University Press. But for the most part we worked at our own pace. As a history project, the story wasn’t likely to change as it would with a contemporary story.

Aside from the depth of the research, the project was similar to journalism: deciding what we wanted to know, looking for the sources of information, asking the right questions and sifting through all the material, deciding what to use and how to organize and present it. The scale and timeline are different, but those are the same things we do in journalism every day.

Q. What was it like working with the book’s publisher and being edited?

A. The editing process was really very easy. We had four outside readers — two chosen anonymously by Cornell and two of our choosing — in addition to the editor at Cornell, and none of them made suggestions that we thought we couldn’t easily accommodate and in fact made the book stronger.

Q. What advice do you have for journalists who have ideas for nonfiction books like yours?

A. Pick a story that you won’t grow bored with, because you’re going to spend a long time with it. Set lots of small goals; focus on getting an interview done or answering a question, and eventually everything will come together.

And consider taking a leave of absence to focus on the writing, though that’s not always possible in the environment we work in now. I was fortunate to have a partner with a more flexible schedule.

Buy “Where the River Burned” and follow Richard Stradling on Twitter.

Why the Charleston shootings should be front-page news in Durham

The Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine people were killed  on June 17, 2015. (Creative Commons image)
Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine people were killed on June 17, 2015. A 21-year-old man was charged in the racially motivated slayings. (Creative Commons image)

The killings of nine people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, have shocked the nation this week. The shooter was driven by racist beliefs to enter the historically black church, participate in a Bible study and then gun down his victims. He was captured the next day in Shelby, North Carolina.

Most North Carolina newspapers had the story on their front pages on Friday, with one notable exception: the Herald-Sun in Durham. It published a story about the shootings on page 7A.

Ostensibly, the reason for the story’s placement is that the news from Charleston is “not local” to the paper’s readers. The Herald-Sun places a heavy emphasis on news of Durham and nearby Chapel Hill on its front pages. News of the nation and world appears on inside pages.

Charleston is about 300 miles from Durham. But “local” is not simply geographic. It can also be political, historical and cultural.

Durham has a prominent place in the struggle for civil rights in the United States. It is the home of N.C. Central University, a historically black school. Race continues to be an important topic in the city.

Those characteristics about Durham connect the city to the Charleston shootings. To its credit, the Herald-Sun did publish a story about the killings on its front page on Saturday, focusing on reaction in Durham.

Proximity has long been an important news value, as it should be. But editors at the Herald-Sun and other news organizations should keep in mind that “local” can mean more than mileage on a map.

Q&A with David Forbes, editor of the Asheville Blade

David Forbes is editor of the Asheville Blade, a news website in Asheville, North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, he discusses the Blade’s objectives, its focus and its business model.

Q. What is the Asheville Blade? How did the site get started?

A. The Asheville Blade is a reader-supported online news site focused on Asheville. We emerged out of a union fight at Mountain Xpress, the local alt weekly, including issues many of us journalists and employees had with the ethical decisions of the paper’s management, especially when it came to covering issues involving business or landlords.

That situation revealed a need for a different type of news organization in our city, one that was backed directly by its readers and more concerned with the realities of a place we love but also has a lot of real struggles and challenges. So the Blade focuses on in-depth coverage of our city, from local government to issues like segregation, LGBT rights and labor. We also have a good deal of analysis and sharp opinion pieces.

Our work tends to be more in the long-form, news magazine-style than the traditional daily newspaper format. We usually have two to three such pieces a week.

The Blade officially launched our funding page on Patreon (patreon.com/avlblade) and full website around June 16 of last year. Since then, we’ve grown steadily, both in readership numbers and paying subscribers.

Q. Describe your role as editor. How do you and your staff decide what to cover?

A. Right now, due to the small size of our organization and resources, I run the organization as editor and do a fair amount of the reporting.

However, we’re fortunate to have numerous freelancers and contributors work with us, on topics ranging from immigration to the economy to science. Often I’ll consult with them about what to cover, especially as it pertains to their areas of expertise. We also have great communication, with many of them bringing topics and ideas.

This is also where our subscriber/reader base comes in handy. They tend to be very engaged people, and they’ll often bring story ideas and tips forward as well. Often if a topic is getting a lot of surface-level attention, we’ll take the time to do a longer piece that really delves into it and tries to present the bigger picture to the reader.

We especially try to focus on what people are talking about but isn’t getting much attention in the public discourse. In a city as focused around tourism and public relations as Asheville is, that’s quite a lot. So we’ll run pieces on stagnant wages, the history of redlining or the stories people pressured to leave the city because of the high cost of living, just to name a few topics we’ve highlighted that have often been ignored in Asheville.

Q. How do story editing, social media and headline writing work at the Blade?

A. We generally do story editing over Google docs, which is a really useful tool for a starting news site that works with a network of freelancers. I’ll usually communicate and work closely with our writers, first to see if any additional material or major changes are needed and then to dive in line-by-line. Because we do more in-depth, long-form pieces, we can manage our workflow to take the time and really hone a piece.

Social media’s also a major part of what we do at the Blade. Asheville has a very active community that follows and discusses local news over social media. We have Twitter and Facebook accounts, of course. Our Facebook community is particularly active, and our new pieces generally get a fair amount of traffic from that.

Also, we have live coverage of Asheville City Council meetings via Twitter (on the #avlgov hashtag), and that’s proven to be a pretty popular feature with our readers and the larger community, especially when paired with the in-depth local government articles we publish a few days after the meeting. It gives locals the option of following the immediate action, waiting for the larger story or getting some different insights from both.

As for headline writing, we take advantage of the larger space for subhead/summaries that using an online news site provides. Our main headlines will generally allude to an overall theme or situation in the story (e.g., “Shaky ground” for a recent analysis of wages in Asheville we did) while the subhead/summary space will offer more detail.

So far, it’s proven a successful combination: The shorter headlines prove memorable, and the longer subheads draw the reader in further. If we’re working with a freelancer or contributor, we’ll usually discuss the headline and subhead while we’re editing the piece as a whole, and I think this helps avoid the disconnect I’ve seen at some publications.

Q. News sites like yours solicit donations from readers. How do you see digital journalism becoming sustainable in Asheville and elsewhere?

A. I think reader-supported journalism has a powerful future, and one that’s not always appreciated. Services like Patreon, which provides a really easy monthly funding platform, have generally been used by artists, but they’re potentially strong funding sources for news organizations as well. There’s a plethora of really interesting crowdfunding tools out there, and some real potential to give independent media a desperately needed tool to survive and thrive.

I saw some of the potential for this freelancing for NSFWCorp, which asked its readers to subscribe for a really cheap amount per month to get full access. Their reader base paid, stayed engaged and was a really powerful source of support.

The Blade opted to have its pieces free to the public, but offering rewards and additional material for subscribers. We also chose to make the subscription affordable – ours start at $3 a month — to make them easily available to working people in Asheville.

There’s also an independence and simplicity in being reader-supported. The lack of ads certainly made our site far simpler to build and use from day one. We also don’t face the same potential pressure from advertisers, which can be a challenge for media organizations even if they’re trying to operate ethically and do good, hard-hitting journalism. Instead, our subscribers tend to act as a network of support in helping our publication succeed and keeping us informed.

Lastly, and this is very important for media in today’s changing world, it tends to be very stable. While we don’t see the swift gains some ad-backed publications do, we also don’t see the big declines. Our funding grows steadily each month, and there’s a lot of power in that.

Q&A with Laurie Beth Harris of the American Press Institute

Laurie Beth Harris is editorial coordinator at the American Press Institute in Arlington, Virginia. Among her duties there is to write and edit the Need To Know email newsletter. In this interview, conducted by email, Harris discusses her role at API and how she puts together the newsletter.

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

A. As editorial coordinator, my job is to manage the editorial direction of API and our website. The biggest part of my job is curating and writing API’s morning newsletter Need to Know, so I’m also always staying up to date on what’s going on in the media industry. Working on Need to Know, it sometimes it feels like I get paid to read the Internet, which is the dream job for a lot of people.

The production of Need to Know frames the schedule of my workdays. I start my day by working from home to write Need to Know and send it out to subscribers, and I come into the office later in the morning. I spend the afternoon at the office keeping tabs on what people are talking about on Twitter and what stories are being published.

In between that, I’m working on the other projects, such as writing and editing posts for our Good Questions series, social media outreach and supporting the research API does, such as our fact-checking journalism project and in-depth reports.

Q. How do you go about putting together Need to Know?

A. I read a lot. We have some great RSS feeds of media blogs and news sources, as well a Twitter list of people in media and journalism. My go-to sources include Nieman Lab’s What We’re Reading feed and Mediagazer, which aggregates the day’s trending news stories.

I read a lot more articles than what ends up in NTK each day, and a big value of the newsletter is that we do the work for you and tell you what’s of importance so that you can get back to doing your job, hopefully armed with information that helps you do it better. Some of my favorite newsletters have been days where big, breaking news happened, such as the release of Columbia Journalism School’s review of the Rolling Stone article or Vox Media’s acquisition of Re/code, and I sorted through the noise to make sense of what was going on for our readers.

While I’m in the office during the day, I’m reading Twitter and scanning our RSS feeds in between meetings and other projects to get a feel for what news is happening and what people are talking about. I collect links by dropping them into a Google doc, sometimes with notes about the most interesting part of the story or something related that we’ve written about before.

In the evenings, I take a few minutes to sift through what I’ve collected, read through anything I didn’t get to and make a rough outline for what will go where in the newsletter. Need to Know is organized by each story’s utility to the reader, rather than by topic, which is a big part of what makes Need to Know unique and more useful to readers.

I wake up around 5:30 a.m. and immediately start writing that morning’s newsletter from home. I start my mornings by catching up on what news happened overnight that might need to go in the newsletter and revising my outline of the newsletter with those links. By 6:30 a.m., I’m writing the headlines and blurbs for the main stories in each section, working my way back around to the supplementary links in each section and finishing with writing Off the Top, our take on the big story of the day. Around 7:45 a.m., we’ve started editing the final version of the newsletter, and Need to Know shows up in subscribers’ inboxes by 8:30 a.m.

Q. Before coming to API, you were a copy editor at Southern Living magazine. How was that job similar to the one you have now, and what are some differences?

A. My job at API and at Southern Living are radically different in a lot of ways.

At Southern Living, I was “in the trenches” of the day-to-day production of a monthly magazine. At API, I’m more of an onlooker to the industry, recognizing what’s being done well in journalism and identifying ways we can do better. In some ways, working at API feels like being back in journalism school, because we have the time to think about new ways to do journalism better and watch what other people are doing in a way that can be hard to do when you’re caught up in production cycles.

The biggest similarity between my job at API and being a copy editor at Southern Living is that I’m still utilizing my editing skills, but I’m now using them to edit my own writing, not just someone else’s.

Q. You are a 2014 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What skills that you learned there are you using today, and what are some new ones you have picked up since graduation?

A. Like I said, working at API is a lot like being back in journalism school — we’re thinking about the lot of the same ideas my journalism classes were talking about when I was in school.

I’m most thankful for classes where we discussed the state of news industry and what we could do better, because those classes were what really prepared me for my job now, as well as giving me a lens through which to think about what a traditional news organization like Southern Living could do better. I’m also thankful for News Writing every morning as I write the newsletter — it taught me to write concisely, cleanly and pretty fast!

As far what I’ve learned since graduation, networking is so important. As a new graduate, I felt like the media industry was huge, but it’s really not. Everyone knows each other. Maintaining those relationships with your professors, internship supervisors and classmates can lead to great opportunities.

Follow Laurie Beth Harris on Twitter, and subscribe to the Need To Know newsletter.

Let’s meet for breakfast in San Francisco

The Breakfast of Editing Champions returns to the AEJMC national conference in San Francisco, on Friday, Aug. 7. I am the organizer and moderator of the event, which was started by the wonderful Deborah Gump.

The breakfast, which will begin at 8:15 a.m., is open to anyone who teaches editing, appreciates editing or just likes to hang out with editing professors.

This year’s featured speaker is Allan Richards, associate dean of Florida International University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication in Miami. Richards is a leading advocate of dedicated writing and language skills programs in j-schools. He is the director of FIU’s pioneering writing and language skills program and the architect of its digital language skills exam, or the “Dreaded Grammar Test” as students call it. He will share ideas and insights for developing writing programs to meet the challenges of an increasingly multicultural, bilingual student body.

We’ll also exchange teaching ideas. What innovative assignments are you using in class? Come ready to share a brief description.

Coffee and tea will be provided. This event is free, but please RSVP by using this simple online form. The deadline is Aug. 1. Special thanks to the sponsors of this year’s breakfast:

  • American Copy Editors Society
  • The Dow Jones News Fund
  • Newspaper and Online News Division of AEJMC
  • Poynter’s News University
  • Scholastic Journalism Division of AEJMC

This will be my last time organizing and moderating the breakfast. It’s been five years, and I feel that’s the right time to hand it off to the next person with a love for editing and journalism education. If you’re that person, let’s talk.

Q&A with Katie Quine, reporter and digital assistant at Our State magazine

Katie Quine is a writer and digital assistant at Our State magazine, which covers North Carolina’s culture and history. In this interview, Quine discusses how she generates story ideas and researches them, and how the magazine balances its print and digital presence. 

Q. Describe your job at Our State. What is your typical day like?

A. What I love about working as a digital assistant and writer at Our State is that no two days are alike. I travel around the state several times a month to report on various assignments.

In May alone, I interviewed North Carolina’s longest married couple, wrote a piece about urban beekeeping in Durham and started working on a story about a community mailbox at Sunset Beach. It’s been such a privilege to learn about all of the incredible people and places in our state.

When I am in the office, I spend some of my morning planning and monitoring our social media content. I also dedicate a sizable portion of my day to editing articles from our contributing bloggers and working on stories of my own. Another big part of what I do is restructuring content that appears in the pages of our magazine so that it is Web- and SEO-friendly.

Since our digital department is relatively new and has just four staff members, my job’s range of duties requires a pretty diverse skill set. It’s great because I feel like I’m learning something new every day, and I love the challenge that comes along with writing content that ranges from 140 characters to 1,200 words.

Q. You’ve written a series of posts under the label of The Curious Carolinian, looking at the quirks of North Carolina’s culture, history and geography. How do you come up with ideas for these posts, and how do you research, write and edit them?

A. The Curious Carolinian has been such a fun pet project. Every post starts with a question about our state that isn’t easily answered, such as “Why is North Carolina called The Tar Heel State?” or “Why are there two styles of NC barbecue?

When we come up with ideas for these posts, we’re thinking of content from a search-volume standpoint. For some ideas, I’ve simply typed “Why is North Carolina…” into Google to look at what the suggested searches are.

Once I’ve thought of the question I’d like to answer, I research the topic as thoroughly as I can, reading reference books, digging up old newspaper articles and reaching out to experts on the subject matter. At Our State, it’s our goal to be the definitive experts on anything pertaining to North Carolina culture, so I try to differentiate our content from that of other websites by writing the most comprehensive article I can.

There’s research out there to suggest that humans’ attention spans are getting shorter, but the feedback we’ve received about The Curious Carolinian series has taught me that people still love a good, long backstory if you make a point to have fun while telling it. Readers are only as engaged as the content is engaging.

Q. How is Our State different online than in print? How much collaboration is there between the two aspects of the magazine?

A. The editorial and digital departments are constantly collaborating with each other. As the editorial department plans its story calendar for the coming months, the digital department works to create content that complements what appears in the magazine.

What might work well in one medium might not perform the same way in another, so we make a point to think about how content can be repackaged in different ways. For instance, if the magazine features a personal narrative in which an author explores his or her love for a particular North Carolina town, the digital department might come up with a supplemental day-trip itinerary for those who wish to visit the area. When it comes to collaboration between online and print, making use of alternative story formats is crucial.

Q. It sounds like you have a good gig. What advice do you have for journalism students who are looking for jobs like yours?

A. I think I have a pretty good gig, too! Thanks.

I suggest that students should always look to tell stories in unexpected ways. What resonates deepest with your audience can surprise you, especially on the Web.

For instance, as a journalist, I consider myself to be a writer first and foremost, but what actually helped land me an interview with Our State was a video I produced, which featured one-second clips from every day of my senior year at UNC. The video started out as a little project that I hoped my friends would enjoy at the conclusion of our senior year. But not long after I posted it on YouTube, I got comments from alumni I’ve never met who told me it made them tear up 30 years after they graduated.

All that is to say, every skill you learn in the j-school is important, no matter how insignificant it seems at the time it’s taught to you. You never know when you’ll need it down the road.

Follow Katie Quine on Twitter, and read her articles on the Our State website.

Cooking with style

With the spring semester at UNC-Chapel Hill behind me, I am turning to tasks for the summer. One of the items on my to-do list is to update the stylebook journalism school and move it to WordPress.

The stylebook is a supplement to The Associated Press Stylebook. Its focus is the university, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area and North Carolina generally.

For example, the revised edition of the stylebook will have an updated entry on the name for the journalism school. It will no longer be the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Say hello to the School of Media and Journalism.

A new entry is inspired by a conversation this week on Twitter. It will address an important topic in North Carolina: barbecue. The entry will be a deviation from the AP stylebook, which describes “barbecue” as a noun or verb, as do most dictionaries.

In North Carolina, using “barbecue” as a verb is the mark of an outsider. To say, “let’s barbecue this weekend” will bring about puzzled looks and heavy sighs. Here, “barbecue” is a noun, but not elsewhere.

I asked Elizabeth Hudson, editor of Our State, how her magazine handled the word for her North Carolina readership. Here’s her reply:

That works for me. Here’s how the entry will read in the j-school’s stylebook when it is posted this summer:

Do not use as a verb. In North Carolina, barbecue typically refers to a pork dish, although it can be prepared with other meats or even tofu.

Yes, purists will insist that “barbecue” is pork and pork only. I’d ask them to try the turkey plate at The Pit and get back to me.

UPDATE: Based on comments here and on social media, I have deleted the entry’s reference to tofu. A win for carnivores!