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.

News conferences are still newsworthy

In a recent column in The Washington Post, opinion journalist Jennifer Rubin wrote about White House news conferences. Here’s her lead:

The premise that such a setting is the only one that can fully inform the public — as opposed to questions at other presidential appearances or during one-on-one interviews — is weak at best.

My question: Who has asserted that a news conference is the only way to fully inform the public? I am aware of questions and criticism regarding President Biden’s lack of news conferences two months into his administration. But I haven’t heard the premise that Rubin mentions.

Presidents, governors, mayors, chancellors of public universities, police chiefs, league commissioners and other powerful people should have news conferences on occasion. That setting allows us to see journalists asking questions and getting responses in real time. That give-and-take is often informative and revealing.

I agree with Rubin that many news conferences are missed opportunities. Some devolve into a form of political performance. Others are perfunctory or dull.

I like Rubin’s list of suggested questions at the end of her column. Let’s see whether some of them get asked in Biden’s first news conference this week.

ACES to meet virtually for 25th conference

The 25th national conference of ACES: The Society for Editing will take place April 21-22. Originally scheduled for Atlanta, the conference will be a virtual experience because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The conference includes sessions that will appeal to editors across disciplines. We’ll learn who won the headline contest, hear from keynote speakers and honor scholarship recipients.

I hope to see you there!

Q&A with Kyle Villemain, editor of The Assembly

Kyle Villemain is editor and founder of The Assembly, a recently launched website focusing on people, politics and power in North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, Villemain discusses the origin and outlook for The Assembly.

Q. What is The Assembly, and what inspired you to start it?

A. The Assembly is a new statewide digital magazine. We focus on deep longform reporting and smart ideas writing about North Carolina. The vision is one of a state-level Atlantic, or a lower volume Texas Monthly without the lifestyle and travel writing — something Our State already does very well in North Carolina.

We’ll publish just 8 to 10 pieces a month, balanced between longform (3,000 to 5,000 words) and shortform (1,000-1,500 words). That allows us to pay writers more and avoid chasing daily breaking news.

Our journalism is centered around power — writing about who has it, how they got it and what they’re doing with it. That means coverage of people, ideas and institutions across the state.

My inspiration for starting this came from two places. I grew up in North Carolina and have always felt the challenges we face here are just as compelling as those in DC, or New York, or California. I’m six years out from college (UNC-CH ’15), and I’m watching my peers and friends figure out where to spend the next stage of their career — where to really dig in and find their passion.

I think that North Carolina should be at the top of their list of places to come back and work. But one of the side effects of a top-heavy media environment, where much of the deep enterprise reporting happens at national publications, is that national challenges are just more compellingly covered. I think we need to cover our state’s challenges in the same way and shift some of our attention from DC to NC.

The other, perhaps more immediate motivation, comes from my recent work. I was a speechwriter for President Margaret Spellings at the UNC System and Chancellor Carol Folt at UNC-Chapel Hill. At both institutions — and at the institutions I worked with and interacted with across the state — I saw powerful systems and people that were extremely undercovered. They made good choices and bad choices, but almost inevitably, they made unexamined choices. I wanted to build a publication that could commission the kind of big-swing reporting that would let folks see behind public statements and learn what was going on behind the big decisions in North Carolina.

Q. How will the site be financially viable and sustainable?

A. We’re subscriber-supported. Very little of our revenue will come from ads.

Everyone gets a free article a month, after that, it’s a $3 monthly subscription. Some folks have very generously stepped up to pay a little more than that monthly, and that willingness to support will be really important for us moving forward.

The calculation here is that the huge national success of subscriber-supported news is transferable to North Carolina. People are willing to pay for high-quality reporting and writing, either when it’s attached to a big brand like The New York Times or The Atlantic, or when it’s tied to individual writers on Substack. We think we can convince folks to subscribe for high-quality content at the state level as well.

We’re raising money right now to give us a three-year runway to build a subscriber base that can support us. We project that would mean around 10,000 subscribers.

Q. You have a background as speechwriter. How does that experience inform your role at The Assembly?

A. Part of it is that my role allowed me to see how complex and interesting so much of the decision-making is at big institutions across the state. I don’t think we capture that complexity in enough of our journalism.

It’s not about reporter quality — we have amazing reporters in North Carolina. What we’re missing, I think, is a platform that lets those reporters spend a lot of time on questions of power — and then write about them in a narrative, magazine style.

As a speechwriter, the quality of the writing itself matters to me. The reporting will underpin everything we do — but it’s also important to then make that reporting come alive. My past roles were focused on making other people’s ideas and words more accessible, concise and powerful. That’s the same approach I’m bringing as an editor at The Assembly.

Q. How do copy editing and headline writing work at The Assembly?

A. We have a small stable of copy editors under contract, three at the moment. They would tear apart the copy that I’m sending to you, Andy. One of them leads the process and coordinates a first and second read for all of our pieces. As editor, I make final approval on copy, but typically our writers will be editing alongside me until the draft is locked.

Headline writing is done by myself, with input from the writer. Though that’s so often a point of contention, we haven’t had that tension internally quite yet!

Part of that is because our business model is based less on clicks and more on value to readers. If subscribers feel our headlines are clickbait and there’s a disconnect between what’s advertised and what’s in the piece itself, they’ll lose faith in our model. That means we have a really strong incentive to stay away from clickbait or gimmicks.

Q. What can readers expect to see on the site in the near future and beyond?

A. Readers can expect a big longform piece almost every week on our site and via our weekly (soon to be biweekly) newsletter. These will dive into higher ed, politics, business, culture — the media landscape itself.

We’ll also tap smart thinkers, leaders and organizers to write well-argued pieces that present and engage with the best form of the argument both in support of their thesis and against it. We think that’s what will differentiate our ideas writing. We’ll start doing digital and in-person events, we’ll be dipping our toes into the audio and video space, and we’ll be getting increasingly ambitious with the scale of our visual storytelling.

It’s going to be a wild next few months, all based around big-swing stories about power in the state.

Frequently asked questions about FAQs

One of the courses that I am teaching this semester is “Writing and Reporting.” It’s the first skills course that students take in the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. They learn the basics of writing leads and stories, researching topics and interviewing people, and other skills.

The course also examines different story structures for journalism and public relations. This week in my section of the course, students are working on FAQ posts. Here’s what they are learning and doing:

Question: What is an FAQ post?

Answer: A story, press release or web page that’s structured in a question/answer format. Just like this post!

Q. Why use the FAQ format?

A. People often have common questions about an event, organization, issue or trend. The FAQ format is easy for readers to search and to skim for information that they are looking for.

Q. When should we use the FAQ format?

A. The FAQ format is handy for “teachable moments” — like a “how to” guide about a topic. It’s also useful for information about an announcement, policy change, etc.

Q. How do we brainstorm an FAQ story?

A. Use the “how what why when where” of news judgment to anticipate reader questions. You can also solicit questions from your readers using social media. That brainstorming and information gathering will be the framework for your FAQ.

Q. How do we start an FAQ story?

A. Write a brief lead of one or two paragraphs to introduce your topic. For “how to” stories, consider using the direct address. Then go directly into the questions and answers. 

Q. How do you organize an FAQ story?

A. Order the questions in a way that makes sense. Start with the basics — often a “what is” question works well. Each answer should lead naturally to the next question, like a conversation or interview.

Q. How long should each question/answer be?

Each question should be one sentence of no more than 30 words. Lengths of answers may vary, but aim to be concise. Don’t forget to check for style, grammar, etc.

Q. How long should an FAQ story be?

A. It depends. The more concise, the better. But sometimes people have a lot of questions! If your FAQ is getting long, consider dividing into categories with subheads.

Q. How should the FAQ end?

A. It’s up to you. One option is to use a “call to action.” How can readers learn more or participate? Another option is to end with a “what’s ahead” or “what’s next” question, which foreshadows more news on the topic.

Q. What are some examples?

A. Here are two good ones:

Q. What’s next?

A. Ask me anything about FAQs or leave a comment. Also, if you prefer to read this post as deck of slides, here you go. Feel free to adopt, copy, paste, modify or ignore!

Doctors of style

For many years, I’ve done an exercise in my editing class at UNC-Chapel Hill in which students debate a style choice. Past examples have included mic or mike as a short form for microphone, and whether to use the offensive nickname of Washington’s NFL team.

This semester, I asked the students to consider whether the title “doctor” should be applied to people with doctorates but who are not in the medical field. The topic was in the news in recent months when a Wall Street Journal columnist challenged Jill Biden’s use of the title. Biden has a doctorate of education from the University of Delaware.

The Associated Press Stylebook has an entry on “doctor” that I have adhered to during my career in editing. Here’s what it says in the most recent edition:

Use Dr. in first reference as a formal title before the name of an individual who holds a doctor of dental surgery, doctor of medicine, doctor of optometry, doctor of osteopathic medicine, doctor of podiatric medicine or doctor of veterinary medicine. … Do not use Dr. before the names of individuals who hold other doctoral degrees.

The goal of the entry is clarity. The “Dr.” before a name conjure a context of medicine in the minds of readers when the area of study involved may be history, geography or computer science.

On the other hand, people who have earned doctorates in such fields justifiably feel the right to use “Dr.” as a title in their professional lives. That’s the argument that the students made in class. Here’s how I shared their decision on Twitter:

In a discussion today, most students (but not all) in my editing course would favor a change in @APStylebook allowing the use of “Dr.” for people with non-medical doctorates. #partylikeaprofessor

The post got 35 likes, several retweets and numerous replies. Here’s what a couple of editors said about the students’ recommendation:

  • “They’re right.” — John McIntyre, Baltimore Sun
  • “I’d rather see us do away with Dr. altogether. Let the person’s authority be established by what they do, not their title.” — Richard Stradling, The News & Observer

For class purposes, we will allow “Dr.” to be used for people with non-medical doctorates. For this site, I am sticking with AP style, at least for now. But I hope that AP editors will take a close look at that entry and perhaps address it at the next conference of ACES: the Society for Editing.

Meanwhile, I will continue to encourage a healthy debate over “doctor” and other topics in my classes.

Q&A with Molly Weisner, Print Hub intern at The New York Times

Molly Weisner is a Dow Jones News Fund intern at the Print Hub of The New York Times. She is a 2020 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, where she was a writer and editor at The Daily Tar Heel, The Durham VOICE and Media Hub. In this interview, conducted by email, Weisner discusses her work at The New York Times and offers advice to students considering applying to the Dow Jones News Fund program.

Q. Describe your internship. What is your typical workday like?

A. The Dow Jones News Fund program has two parts: residency training and the internship. In May, I completed a virtual training through Temple University with a few other interns. It was cool to study in a different university’s journalism department, and though it was remote, I learned so much in 10 days.

Training covers grammar, style, page layout and news judgment — as well as some general knowledge and “trivia” that can help in editing all types of stories. We learned about the seating arrangement of a chamber orchestra and bird anatomy, for example.

My workday is very atypical. I work from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays and mornings to afternoons on Saturdays. The goal of each shift is to build, proof and polish the print paper for the next day.

Stories are being written and edited in the mornings, so the Print Hub doesn’t get print-ready versions until later in the afternoon and evening. That’s why our day starts so late. I love that I’m actively contributing to the paper like everyone else. It’s very hands on; you’re never “fetching coffee” for anyone but yourself. Sometimes you even find yourself editing your favorite reporter. (Annie Karni, hello!)

I check in with my section editor and usually find myself on the national or international desk. I’m assigned slugs and in charge of writing print headlines, blurbs and photo caption(s) in addition to keeping tabs on updates to the story or changes to the design that might lead me to cut the text or adjust spacing. I also help proofread pages before they go to print. Bonus points for catching errors on the front page!

Q. How does headline writing work at The New York Times?

A. Headlines are the crown jewel of print hardware. You want to entice the reader without giving too much away. That part probably sounds familiar.

Headlines must abide by both AP and New York Times style. There are a bunch of other rules that govern how headlines should break at the end of a line or how shorthands can be used, like using abbreviations on first reference to save space.

Generally, a headline will pass by several editors before it’s finalized. Think of it like an assembly line, and I’m usually at the beginning. I always have both stylebooks, as well as a dictionary or thesaurus, open nearby while I’m working. Feels very old-school journalism, and I nerd out over it.

Q. You are a recent graduate of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. What skills and concepts that you learned there are you using now? What new ones are you picking up?

A. I think one of the biggest ways interns and recent graduates can make an impression in the post-grad journalism world is by being a stickler.

Now, hear me out. Editors and reporters wear so many hats nowadays, so there’s not always time to fix an erroneous “towards” (my first catch). There are too many rules to commit to memory anyway.

But I remember even in my introductory news writing and editing courses that we learn these rules for a reason. If you can be the eagle eye and fix a seemingly small style mistake, that says a lot about your skill. Knowing how to use the stylebook and knowing the general rules about precise writing, burying ledes, news pegs, attribution and headline writing equips you with the basics so you can build on them.

Just be attentive and soak up everything that you can from your professors. The smartest people aren’t geniuses; they just listen closely.

I’m learning a lot about captions, actually. I rarely wrote photo captions in classes or at The Daily Tar Heel, so that wasn’t a skill I had tons of prior experience with. I’ve learned the key is writing about what the reader cannot see in the photo. Space is even more limited in captions, so it helps to ask yourself, “Why was this photo chosen for this piece?” and “What happened before/after/around this photo when it was taken?” This was — and still is — a learning curve for me, but I’m getting better!

Q. What advice would you give to students considering applying for a Dow Jones News Fund internship?

A. The first step is just applying. Seriously. Imposter syndrome can feel very real during internship season, and I think that can mess with your head. You come well edited and well trained by the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, so lean on that. If you’re interested, give it a shot. You have absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Second, prep a little for the exam. It tests basic copy editing and also general knowledge. Read (or watch or listen to) the news from a variety of sections. Be more or less up-to-date on the most important things that happened that year. The test is less about you knowing the stylebook from A to Z and more about making sure you can explain your methods thoughtfully and that you have sound judgment in the way you edit. It also helps to be able to toggle between digital and print editing because the line between them blurs more and more.

Write a personal statement that is personal! Take this opportunity to show off your writing skills. You can save space by not repeating information already on your resume. Think of an experience where you learned something or showed off your skills in a journalism setting — whether that’s the DTH, a class, freelance work or personal project. It doesn’t have to be groundbreaking; it just has to show that you take initiative or show passion.

What I am teaching this semester

The spring semester of 2021 begins this week at UNC-Chapel Hill. Here’s what I am teaching this term:

MEJO 153, Writing and Reporting. In this course, students learn the essentials of writing for journalism and public relations. The class meets twice a week and has 18 students. Here is the syllabus.

MEJO 557, Advanced Editing. In this course, students learn about editing for digital media, including headline writing and social media. The class meets twice a week and has 16 students. Here is the syllabus.

Both courses are “remote only” as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

You can browse syllabuses (or syllabi, if you prefer) from across the journalism school at the Park Library website. Best wishes to students, faculty and staff on a successful semester!

Swearing in a new style

The good people at ACES: The Society for Editing invited me to write a guest post for their website. The topic: style guidelines and the Biden-Harris administration, which will take office this week. Here’s the nut graph:

The transfer of power requires editors to make decisions on word choices. That’s especially necessary given the historic aspects of the incoming Biden-Harris administration — including the first female vice president and the academic credentials of the first lady.

Read more at the ACES site.