Student guest post: “Breaking news” is broken

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the 10th of those posts. Mark Lihn is a senior journalism and political science major from Arlington, Virginia. He will begin pursuing a master’s degree in international relations next fall. 

In today’s media world, people get their news from a wide variety of sources, from television to the Internet to newspapers. While the print industry is struggling, it was never the ideal method of distribution for breaking news. However, the Internet and social media are perfectly equipped to spread the newest news, keeping people updated on their tablets, computers and smartphones.

But how long can breaking news be considered “breaking”?

The rise of the 24-hour news cycle in cable television and the Internet has had its advantages. News is more accessible across the country than ever before. If I want to know what is going on in the world, I simply have to check an application on my phone or turn on my computer or television. We generally learn breaking news long before I have to turn on a television or computer though.

The first time I hear a big news story tends to be through word of mouth or my smartphone. I either see the news on Twitter or my CNN app first, or I hear about it from a friend who learned about it a similar way. In today’s modern society, it seems safe to assume that most people who would turn to the Internet for their news get their breaking news this way.

The amount of time a story remains “breaking” is open to interpretation. It certainly seems safe to assume though that a story I have heard about three or four times already is no longer breaking news to me.

Why then do websites like CNN.com insist on having a breaking news story front and center 24/7? If a story broke in the morning, then in the afternoon, it is no longer “breaking.”

Such is the case with most of the major stories that CNN covers, like the recent tragedy of the plane crash in France. The crash of the plane was a breaking news story. However, the first story that the plane crashed keeps its timeliness far longer than any update to that story. The update that the co-pilot of the Germanwings plane was medically unfit to work broke this morning. At 4 p.m., the same update to a story that began three days ago is still labeled “breaking.”

The infatuation with breaking news on Internet news sites leads to the devaluation of breaking news. I have become immune to the monstrously large headlines and pictures of the lead pack on CNN’s site. They are always there, no matter what is going on the world, there seems to be a breaking news story.

News happens all of the time, which is why it is news. Simply because a story is new, though, does not make it a breaking news story.

Editors need to be more aware that they can wear out their audiences by overusing the categorization of breaking news. Breaking news stories can garner clicks, leading indirectly to increased revenue, but if editors are not careful, their audiences will become immune to their stories and their sites. It is something I have encountered with CNN, and it has led me to look for other news sources.

Editors of steel at ACES 2015

Later this week, the national conference of the American Copy Editors Society will take place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

About 500 full-time, part-time and freelance editors are registered for this year’s three-day gathering. That would make it the best-attended ACES conference in 10 years. They will come from news, academia, government, book publishing and the corporate world.

Sadly, I will not be among them. I cannot attend this year’s conference because of a family issue. I’ll miss out on great sessions and won’t be able to cheer on winners of the headline contest or congratulate students who have won scholarships. I will, of course, follow the news from the conference on the ACES website and via Twitter.

Best wishes to everyone going to Pittsburgh. I know that you will share a lot of knowledge as well as a few laughs. I hope to see you in Portland, Oregon, for the 2016 conference.

Student guest post: A farewell to the homepage

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the ninth of those posts. Paige Ladisic is a junior studying editing and graphic design and political science at UNC-Chapel Hill. But most of the time, she’s the online editor at The Daily Tar Heel, studying how to manage a print-first college newspaper in a digital-first world.

Every day, between 25,000 and 30,000 people view dailytarheel.com, clicking on links from Facebook, Twitter and the homepage. But every day when I open our Google Analytics panel, I’m noticing a trend — it’s just a little change for us, but at newspapers all over the country, it’s happening a lot faster and with far bigger numbers.

The modern homepage is dying.

That doesn’t mean people aren’t reading news, although seeing that The New York Times lost 80 million homepage visitors over two years is a scary statistic. That just means that people are getting to news in different ways.

Instead of treating a homepage like a digital copy of a newspaper, readers find news through social media referrals, Google searches and something analytics sites call “dark social.” Instead of readers reading the news online at certain times throughout the day, people are grabbing bits of information here and there.

At The Daily Tar Heel, our homepage’s death is coming more slowly than 80 million pageviews lost, but I’ve been watching the decline and getting ready for it.

What’s a student journalist to do?

My job every day is to make sure our website is produced with the reader and their experience in mind. I also oversee everything pushed to Facebook, Twitter and other social media channels.

Before, the goal of producing a website would just be to drive people to your homepage — but now, every social media post I write is a pitch to read that one story, to share it or to send it to your friends. People aren’t seeking out our news, because hundreds of articles are competing for every UNC student’s attention at any given time — we have to jump in the fray too.

When I open a story in our content management system, the first thing I do is write a headline — but instead of one headline, I’ll write two or three.

One is the normal newsy headline that will also be featured in the URL, one is a feature headline for the story page itself and the final headline is exclusively for social media sharing. I take advantage of that third headline to drive people from Facebook to the website, and the feature headline is important to keep people on the site once they click.

In the body text of the story, I link to everything I can — older stories with important context, profiles about key players in a story, topic pages and archives of related stories. And when it’s time to write the social media post, it’s more than just using all 140 characters — I have to take advantage of every single character to convince readers to click that link.

It’s all about getting people to the site, and once they get there, keeping them there.

RIP, homepage.

Q&A with Caroline McCain, account associate at communications firm Javelin

Caroline McCain is an account associate at Javelin, a communications firm in the D.C. area. In this interview, conducted by email, McCain discusses her work at Javelin, which has a social media focus, and prior jobs at two churches.

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

A. Javelin is a growing communications firm in Old Town, Alexandria. We do everything from public relations to digital to books to social media. I work as an account associate, and I help with PR projects and lead our growing social media offerings to clients.

Days are pretty full and fast-paced — you’re basically as busy as the news cycle is. Particularly in the world of digital media, there is always something to be done, so it’s not hard to stay busy. I love the fast pace and the range of clients we work with. It keeps me on my toes.

With social media, my days are spent in a pretty consistent rhythm of creation, publishing, measuring and tweaking. Some of our core values at Javelin are continual improvement and accountability — and those are two things that are absolutely necessary in any client-facing relationship, but particularly in social media.

Social is great and can be fun, but unless it’s leading to an actual return on investment, you’re just spinning your wheels. So I spend a lot of time checking in with clients about what’s working, what’s not, and how we can get better results.

Q. You previously worked at as communications director at a Virginia church. What was it like to make a transition from a religious organization to a secular one?

A. The transition, in and of itself, was one that I had wanted to make for a while. But it was a matter of making sure the timing was right. My time spent working for both the church in Virginia, and previously for a church in Durham, North Carolina, was vital to my professional development. Anyone who works in the nonprofit sector knows what it’s like to be given a lot of responsibility, but very limited resources. It forces you to grow quickly.

I was deeply passionate about where I was working, and so I wanted our communications across media to be as effective and excellent as possible. But often that looked like me learning how to code, or learning graphic design, or getting my feet wet with video. We didn’t always have the resources to hire someone who already knew how to do those things.

So those four years working with churches was so great for me. Out of necessity, I developed a whole new skill set, and I had the chance to lead teams of people.

Q. Your surname is a notable one in Washington politics. How has that affected your career, if at all?

A. Ha-ha. Honestly, it doesn’t affect things for me that much. I am immensely proud of my grandfather, and I am proud to call him family. But I hope that my work — both in scope and ethic — stands on its own.

I am more than happy to talk about my name when asked, but it’s rarely something I bring up from the get-go. I imagine here in D.C. people might wonder, but I don’t get asked about it as often as I thought I might. Then again, 2008 was a long time ago. People have moved on. :)

Q. You graduated from the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2010. What skills that you learned there do you use in your job now, and what new ones have you picked up? What advice do you have for the Class of 2015?

A. It’s become trendy these days to knock on journalism degrees. But the skills and the relationships I gained at UNC are so invaluable. I took away some very practical skills: reporting, editing, what makes for a good story, asking the right questions. And in some of my classes, I was learning how to write good tweets and what Tumblr was long before either social network became as ubiquitous as they are now.

I was on a track to become a reporter, and now I’ve crossed over to the “dark side” and am working in PR! I never took one PR course when I was at UNC, and so it was a surprising step for me.

A lot of the skills I use day-to-day in terms of social media, growing audiences online, etc., are things I learned after graduation. A lot of learning by trial and error, self-education, etc. In the digital space, things are constantly evolving, and so you have to be committed to learning new things every day and adapting to change so you can keep getting better.

My biggest advice to the class of 2015 is to diversify your skill set as much as you can! The J-school already does a great job of this, but I’d encourage you to go beyond what’s required. Take that photo class, learn how to code, actually learn to speak a language conversationally. They seem like requirements now while you’re in school, but all those things will serve you well when you graduate.

Student guest post: Going on the record is a risk for sources

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the eighth of those posts. Tara Jeffries is a senior journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill. Originally from Stokesdale, North Carolina, she is interested in longform reporting, politics, criminal justice reform and international affairs.

There’s a conversation every journalist knows. The one many journalists dread. The one that could sink the whole story. It feels like that final, tentative moment at the end of a first date, or the moment of truth at a job interview. Sometimes, it feels like you’re asking too much.

“Please, let me use your name on the record.”

Even as a student journalist, I’ve had a few of these conversations. Few of them ended in a “yes,” and I know why. When you’re a source — especially for a big story, one that challenges a system or institution — you’ve sometimes got a lot to lose. As journalists, we should respect the personal and professional risks our sources take to tell us their stories.

Still, there are good reasons news outlets are wary of publishing stories including anonymous sources, especially stories driven solely by their unidentified testimony. Occasionally, a source might request anonymity not to protect himself from backlash from the system or punishment from his boss, but because he wants a platform for a personal vendetta.

Journalism also owes the public a high degree of transparency, and relying on anonymous sources can cloud that transparency. But perhaps the most important reason is this: Journalism depends on and celebrates openness, accuracy and accountability, and stories with anonymous sources sometimes leave the facts murkier than they should be.

And in stories controversial enough to elicit requests for anonymity, the facts and the details are more important than ever. Earlier this month, I read an article in The Chronicle, Duke University’s student newspaper, about allegations of sexual assault against former basketball player Rasheed Sulaimon, who was dismissed from the team.

It came as no surprise that most of the sources in the article were anonymous. (Of course, many publications, by default, do not name victims of sexual assault.) The reasons for anonymity were obvious — publicly challenging an established athletic system is an absolute minefield. It’s clear that the reporters at the Chronicle did the best with what they had and were fairly transparent in their reporting process, noting the steps they took to contact athletics officials. But the proliferation of anonymous sources still made me a bit uneasy.

Most publications have policies in place for dealing with anonymous sources. In my experience as an editor and reporter at The Daily Tar Heel, the use of anonymous sources was discouraged but occasionally allowed, particularly for stories on issues of unfair work environments, stories about sensitive issues like sexual assault or stories that challenged or criticized some aspect of the university. I’ve asked editors to grant my sources anonymity not because I fancied myself Woodward or Bernstein, but because I knew their stories wouldn’t be told otherwise. I should note, too, that my sources and the stories they told were always thoroughly vetted.

I didn’t like having to omit the names of the people I interviewed. I wished they were comfortable being fully on the record. But the anonymity of sources in stories like the one I wrote on graduate students who use food stamps is a part of the narrative. It shows the public how much fear of backlash some people felt when discussing their employment, their low pay, their lack of negotiating power. It shows the public how intense the stigma is against government assistance. And it shows how much risk these people took to tell their story — a sure sign that that story is one worth reading.

Anonymity requires the reporter to put a great deal of trust in a source, but it involves perhaps a greater degree of trust between a reporter and editor. Publishing a successful, accurate story that includes anonymous sources often depends entirely on the integrity of the reporter.

Take, for instance, the infamous “Jimmy’s World” story, written by Janet Cooke of The Washington Post in 1980. The story, which chronicled the heroin addiction of a young boy and won a Pulitzer, turned out to be fabricated. Its main sources were anonymous, their stories (and existence!) not vetted by Cooke’s editors.

More recently, Rolling Stone published a retraction of a story by Sabrina Rubin Erdely that reported horrific incidents of rape at University of Virginia fraternity houses. The story, driven largely by anonymous sources, turned out to be full of holes, factual errors and unreliable reporting. These two examples are enough to scare any editor.

But the story that included the most famous anonymous source — Deep Throat, of Woodward and Bernstein fame — unraveled a political plot whose name is still, some 40-plus years later, shorthand for scandal and corruption. It shone a light on illegal government activity and revealed a president to be a crook. That’s kind of what journalism is all about: speaking truth to power; keeping an eye on the people we elect.

Talking to reporters poses a huge risk for some sources. Editors should appreciate both that risk and the risk they take in their own newsrooms when using anonymous sources. But some stories — especially those that hold powerful people and institutions accountable — deserve to be told.

Student guest post: Editing a rivalry

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the seventh of those posts. Pat James is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill specializing in reporting and sports communication. He was born in Asheville, North Carolina, where he grew up constantly watching Tar Heels athletics. He is an assistant sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. Outside of working in the field of sports journalism, James dreams of one day winning his fantasy football league.

It’s just past 11 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 18, and the UNC men’s basketball team is moments away from a 92-90 loss against Duke University at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

As the game ends, fans in the stadium leave, people at home turn off their TVs and those who were listening to the game on the radio turn the dial or wait to hear Coach Roy Williams’ postgame interview.

But as an assistant sports editor for The Daily Tar Heel, my night is just getting started. The deadline for our newspaper is 12:30 a.m., and I need to be prepared for when our writers send in their stories. It’s this preparation that can determine whether we make deadline as well as the edits that can be made in the short amount of time allotted.

The first step of preparation is to know what’s going on in the game as it happens. This can be difficult at times, as we might have other stories and writers coming in throughout the night. In these situations, I tend to keep a play-by-play or Twitter window open on my computer as I edit.

But on this night, the two UNC-Duke stories are the only ones we have coming in. Because of this, I’m able to watch the game in our conference room and keep notes of players, plays, stats and other notes that might be mentioned in our writers’ stories.

After the game ends, I begin searching through my notes and the final box score to determine what information I should start CQing, or fact-checking. In our CMS, links to CQs are included in our articles to help management and the copy desk as they read the story. Good CQs can cut the amount of time it takes for them to read the stories, and it also gives me more time to make my own edits once the stories are sent to me.

Once all of the CQs I can think of our compiled into a single Google document, it’s time to wait for the stories to come in. During this time period, I’m thinking about whether there are any CQs I might have missed as well as what pertinent information, such as records and national rankings, I should be looking for once I start editing.

When the stories come in, I take one story and one of the other assistants takes the other. My first read includes looking over the story to make sure it has all of the essential elements — most significantly the final score in one of the opening paragraphs. I then read for grammar, spelling and style errors. Lastly, I do a full read in which I make sure the story makes sense before CQing it.

This entire process is how I approach every story that comes in late. I believe the routine helps cut down on the amount of time it takes for me to read while also making sure I cover everything that could pose a potential problem once the story gets to management and eventually to our readers the next day.

Q&A with Philip Jones, social media community leader for UNC-Chapel Hill

Philip Jones is social media community leader at UNC-Chapel Hill, his alma mater. He previously held a similar position at Elon University. Jones has worked as an anchor and reporter for North Carolina TV stations WFMY and WNCT. He started his career in print journalism. In this interview, conducted by email, Jones talks about his position at UNC and how the university uses social media. 

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

A. I’m part of a team of three folks who manage UNC’s main social media presence on platforms such as Twitter (@UNC), Facebook (/uncchapelhill), Instagram (@uncchapelhill) and Snapchat (unc-chapelhill). We each have different strengths and backgrounds, which ideally makes for fun, diverse and creative content for our users.

Every workday is a little different. We rotate which platforms we’re covering each day so that the content and experience don’t become stale for us or for the audience.

There’s a fair amount of time spent at my desk doing customer service (i.e. fielding questions we receive about UNC via social or participating in conversations about Carolina), there’s a bit of time spent looking for content about or related to UNC, there’s time spent with other members of the Office of Communications and Public Affairs going over what they’re working on and how we can amplify it through social media, and of course there’s time spent walking around campus or attending events looking for great photos, videos and posts.

We also do a lot of listening. We monitor conversations and news reports about Carolina, and we love jumping in and engaging with people who seek us out. We can’t respond to every tweet or post, but we do see and take note of all the ones directed our way.

Q. You held a similar job at Elon University. From a social media perspective, how is a big public university like UNC different from a smaller, private school like Elon?

A. The basics are the same: Our goal is to have fun and find ways to resonate with students, parents, alumni, faculty, staff, prospective students, the local community and the public at large.

There are big differences, though, in the sizes of the followings, the scope of the issues facing each university and how much conversation there is about the institutions. If I screw up something now, more people are likely to notice!

But it’s important that Carolina takes ownership of telling its story and making sure people understand what’s remarkable about this place. It’s exciting to share in doing that through social media.

My hope at UNC is the same as what it was at Elon – to inform and entertain our users. If someone learns something, feels some nostalgia, cracks a smile or takes a little more pride in their institution because of what we’ve done that day on social media, I’m happy. It is a bit more personal for me now, though, as Carolina is a place I’ve loved since I was a child.

Q. On occasion, universities have to respond to bad news via social media. What is UNC’s approach on events such as the release of the Wainstein report or the fatal shooting of three students off campus?

A. On those occasions, we aim to use social media as a way to complement and amplify the university’s traditional messaging. However, I do believe social media has inspired institutions to organize and publish that messaging more quickly than in the past.

We know an hours-later press release isn’t sufficient these days. So when there’s significant news, our team immediately begins thinking of ways we can share information quickly and even differently – perhaps through photos, videos or graphics.

Social media also gives us an opportunity to humanize the university during exciting or challenging events. There’s a person behind each of our posts, tweets and pics – and we’re likely experiencing the same feelings and emotions our community is. When appropriate, social media allows us to convey that and make clear that what we’re doing isn’t branding, but is instead relating.

Q. Before getting into social media professionally, you worked in television and, before that, for newspapers and magazines. How were you able to make those transitions?

A. What a long, strange trip it’s been! At my core, I *love* words. That’s what has enabled and fueled me as I embarked on each new adventure.

I love telling stories, and I’ve been blessed to tell them in a bunch of different ways. The biggest transition was leaving TV and moving to social media full-time. But social media had become such a central part of my reporting process that it felt like a natural move.

I used social media to find sources and story ideas on a routine basis – it wasn’t just about attempting to showcase my work and churn out links to the masses. How I used my social media accounts became a “digital resume” I was able to use to help earn the job at Elon and show that I was capable of representing it well online.

Q. Many journalism students are interested in careers in social media. What advice do you have for them?

A. The biggest point I always make is to keep the “social” in social media. Whether you’re representing yourself or an organization, you have to interact. You have to be genuine. And you have to be an active part of the online community.

Know that you’re going to screw up, and don’t be afraid of a flop. Typos happen. Sometimes you don’t do a good job of reading the room. Every once in a while, your community won’t have any interest in that post you thought would go viral. Even the best-ever hitters in baseball only got it right about 40 percent of the time!

So do your best on every effort but know that sometimes it just ain’t gonna work. And that’s OK. Social media is an inexact science. It didn’t even exist in its current form when I graduated from Carolina in 2006, so you’re going to have to work hard to stay ahead of the curve.

I also believe that if you’re going to be a great producer, you have to be a great consumer. That goes for journalism and social media. Read a lot. Consume a lot. Experiment. And have fun.

Follow Philip Jones on Twitter and connect with him on LinkedIn.