Q&A with Bill Horner III, editor and publisher of the Chatham News + Record

Bill Horner III is editor and publisher of the Chatham News + Record, based in Siler City, North Carolina and covering Chatham County. He previously worked for The Sanford Herald for more than 30 years. In this interview, conducted by email, Horner discusses his work at the News + Record, his break from and return to the newsroom, and what he looks for in journalists entering the field.

Q. Describe your job at the Chatham News + Record. What is your typical day like?

A. Probably better to describe a typical workweek, given that our production schedule, as a weekly, has such an unusual crescendo to it.

I’m publisher and editor, but the bulk of my early workweek is devoted to the news product. We go to press on Tuesday night, so I use Wednesday and Thursday as catch-up time and to focus on ongoing project work and to-dos. Friday’s a wind-down day and a time to catch up on email, which is a never-ending task.

I start kicking off the production week on Saturday morning by processing copy that I have in hand. My personal production cycle then starts in earnest with three to five hours of work on Sunday, editing and processing on new stories in-hand and submitted copy. Monday is a long day — reporters’ stories are in and it’s usually reading, processing, editing, etc., until 9:30 or 10 p.m.

If Monday is a marathon, Tuesday’s a full sprint – from when I wake up (usually around 5:30) until I approve the final page, typically around 5:30 p.m.

I usually go to bed pretty early on Tuesdays.

I do admin work, planning, have meetings, etc., on Wednesdays and Thursdays. With COVID, I am typically in the office on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We do our newsroom budget/planning sessions by Zoom at 9:30 on Mondays and Thursdays.

I miss — very badly — sitting down with reporters face to face and going over story ideas and editing.

Q. How do editing and headline writing work at the News + Record?

A. Hmmm. Not as well as I’d like.

I do the first reads on everything; reporters write their own heds (we have talked about them writing multiple heds, but it hasn’t come to fruition). I’ll tweak heds and sometimes add a “label” hed (we used to call them “kicker headlines”) or subheds. I do first reads when stories come in and ideally do a second read afterward — same day, next day, whenever works. I make notes in stories, ask questions, make suggestions.

I struggle with the volume — in a typical issue, we’ll have 125 to 140 “elements” (a story with two photos counts as three elements, for example) and I usually “touch” 90% of them, at least, and usually two to four times. Multiple that by three minutes per touch, and you get about 18 hours of editing right there — that’s my Sunday and Monday.

We don’t have another dedicated copy editor, so Tuesday mornings everyone else chips in and reads as much copy as they can. That’s a huge help.

Good copy editing is crucial. We need good ledes, good flow, compelling storytelling and heds that draw attention. But we also need spell-checking (easy) and thoughtful, careful read-thrus (not easy). I think it’s a weak point for us, but I still would stand up our product against any community or small daily out there.

Q. In 2016, you left the Sanford Herald after nearly 31 years to take a sabbatical. How did you use that time, and what brought you back to the newsroom in 2018?

A. My intention was to take a year or two off and take advantage of travel opportunities and figure out what to do with the proverbial “next chapter.”

I told friends, and even wrote at the time, that I was only retiring from newspapering — that I would go back to work at some point, but not in the newspaper industry.

I loved working at a newspaper and am passionate about this industry, but newspapering changed and the focus within our company (we sold our family newspaper to Paxton Media Group in 1998) had changed even more after the recession. We became fully budget-focused, instead of product-focused; the culture became less and less about being a great newspaper and more and more about making a number. We were all about the shareholders and turned our backs on the stakeholders. We were all cutting and cutting and reducing staff, and even though we won a lot of awards in Sanford, it was harder and harder to be proud of my product with such a small staff and constantly moving goalposts.

I can’t blame PMG; we were all up against a wall, but I feel like we made too many sacrifices in the product. I’d been there 31 years full-time, and fortunately my wife, Lee Ann, and I were in a position to walk away and take a break.

Lee Ann and I did a lot during those two and a half years. We sold the home we’d built in 2002 and built another, and we traveled a lot. We made three mission trips to Ukraine (and a fourth last year; we didn’t go this year because of COVID) and three others for pleasure, including an amazing week in Scotland with our younger son, who was invited to be present at an international music educators’ conference in Glasgow. I rode my road bike just about every day, woke up early and journaled, read a lot, and never felt the need for a nap because, when you’re stress-free, you sleep very well.

I kept up with the industry, reading the trades. It was depressing.

And then I saw some of our great national newspapers turn to clickbait journalism and lose any sense of editorial credibility. I saw my former newspaper give the chairman of our county’s Republican Party — a man who created fake online accounts so he could troll us and attack us online and on social media platforms — a weekly column on the editorial page. (A few of his columns appeared to the untrained, unfamiliar eye, as editorials – the way they were placed.)

I watched The Herald ultimately dwindle from an average of 24 pages, six days a week, to eight pages, five days a week, in a very short time. I was happy to be on the outside looking in; I got calls a few times a week asking me “what’s wrong?” at The Herald and asking me to buy the newspaper back. Occasionally, people still called me or stopped me on the street, thinking I was still there, to complain about something.

I kept very busy; I backed into a few very light freelancing gigs (including writing pieces for a mayoral candidate in a major N.C. town — amazing guy, but he lost the election) and actually still do some work for a corporate client in the D.C. area.

Then the Chatham thing came up. The opportunity to partner with Kirk Bradley — a good friend of mine and truly one of the three smartest people I’ve ever met in my life — and Chris Ehrenfeld, a friend of Kirk’s I’d not met before, was just too good to pass up. I’ve admired Kirk for years. He has a Midas touch, and both he and Chris love print; they wanted to make a go of it in Chatham and asked me to partner with them and lead the operation.

For me, it was a second chance … a chance to do newspapering right, to create a product that I would love to read and to be engaged in a community again — something I really missed after retiring in Sanford. I had incredibly supportive partners who said, “Do what you need to do to create a great newspaper.”

I never, ever once got bored during my sabbatical. But the chance to work with Kirk and Chris and the chance to create something special in Chatham was just too attractive a draw.

Q. You have several recent graduates of the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media on your staff. What skills and qualities do you look for in journalists who are starting their careers?

A. In short, lots of real-world experience, a compelling body of work and a desire to do great work. And a love of newspapering and reporting. A hunger. Great references from people I know in the school helps, too.

I pinch myself thinking about my staff now. When we acquired the News + Record in late 2018, we had a small news staff — but collectively, it had more than 100 years of experience, and all of it in Chatham County. For a variety of reasons, though — another topic, and a long discussion there — the chemistry never felt right to me. We never seemed to row in the same direction, and not everyone bought into the vision Kirk and Chris and I had.

We won 19 awards from the N.C. Press Association contest that first year, including Best Community Coverage. Everywhere I went, people in Chatham told me how much they liked what we were doing.

But at the same time, I had one reporter come into my office and point to that week’s edition and say, “You’re KILLING this newspaper” — looking at a story we’d done that addressed the racial divide within the county. It was frustrating – I thought we were doing good work, we were getting great community feedback (for the most part), but the staff wasn’t energized and even a few (a few … not many) longtime readers complained, wanting the “old” paper back.

We soldiered on. We started gaining new subscribers (our paid base is up more than 30%). Anytime we had turnover, we lost experience but got better. Back in August of this year, we hit that 100% staff turnover number; now I have a staff full of rookies, none of whom have any local market ties. And we’re doing some of our best work.

I couldn’t be happier with our team and the way we work together. I’ve never, ever been this happy in a newsroom. Most of their parents are younger than me, but working with them makes me feel young, too — not old.

I’ve hired a lot of reporters over the years and been extremely fortunate in having some phenomenal ones; Will Doran, a UNC grad we hired in Sanford, comes to mind. He’s at the N&O now and destined for great things. My son Zach worked for us and won lots of awards before taking a job in communications with the local health department (which I encouraged); he had the same instincts and drive Will does.

What the best all have in common is an instinct that I don’t think — whether you’re in the Hussman School or in the William Allen White School at the University of Kansas, from where I graduated — can be taught. That’s a knack for finding stories and telling them in a compelling way, and a mindset that’s teachable and coachable (with just a little bit of course correction here and there). These kinds of reporters have that capability even before they set foot on a college campus.

There’s an old “M*A*S*H” episode I remember very well. Major Charles Emerson Winchester III, portrayed brilliantly by David Ogden Stiers, is trying to console a despondent soldier who’s been seriously injured and, as a result, lost the use of one hand. The soldier was a trained classical pianist, so he’s lost the ability to pursue his passion and the profession he hoped he’d have once the Korean War was over.

Major Winchester takes up his case and, after great difficulty, is able to find some classical piano sheet music written to be played with just one hand. He shares it with the soldier. The line I recall so vividly is Major Winchester encouraging the injured soldier to use his gift, to take advantage of his one good hand and create magic.

“I can play the notes,” Winchester explains to the soldier in a monologue about gifts. “But I can’t make the music.”

Plenty of news-ed graduates are well-trained, understand ledes, know AP style and all that. But they don’t make music. I read way too many stories in newspapers nowadays and think, “What was this reporter thinking? Who edited this?”

But reading a great story is such a pleasure and such a treat for me as a newspaper reader. The value we have the potential to bring to readers is really immeasurable, but it requires journalists who can make music.

I’m looking for the “it” those kinds of reporters have. They instinctively understand perspective and flow and transitions and great storytelling, and the training and experience they gain in their college work hones and sharpens it.

Chapel Fowler and Hannah McClellan and Victoria Johnson have that; Lars Dolder, who’s just started with us, has no j-school training but like the others, he has that knack. We’ve also had interns (Caroline from the University of Missouri, and Patsy and Olivia from UNC) who share that passion and desire.

For me, it’s magic.

Visit the Chatham News + Record website and follow Horner on Twitter.

Q&A with WTVD meteorologist Brittany Bell

Brittany Bell is a meteorologist at WTVD, the ABC affiliate that covers Raleigh, Durham and Fayetteville, North Carolina. She has a degree in meteorology from Mississippi State University and previously worked at WAPT in Jackson. In this interview, conducted by email, Bell talks about her workday at ABC11 and her favorite season as a weather forecaster, and she offers advice for students interested in careers in broadcast journalism.

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

A. I work Monday through Friday 9-6, basically a “normal” schedule. That’s not always typical in TV news so I feel pretty lucky to have this schedule.

I’ve been working from home because of COVID, but my work day is mainly the same. When I go downstairs to my office, I start forecasting. I do my first version of the 7-day forecast, and then I complete other graphics. At 1:15 p.m., I join a weather call to update the evening producers about the forecast. After this call, I check the latest updated model runs and make tweaks to the 7 day as needed.

Chris Hohmann, our chief meteorologist, comes in at 2:30 p.m., and I give him a call between 2:30 and 3 p.m. We talk about the forecast and our plans for the show. Usually we like to show something different each newscast so we also discuss what graphics or facts we want to highlight.

I put my makeup on around 3:30 p.m., and then our show starts at 4 p.m. I have a weather hit during the 4:30 and 5:30 half hour. During the shows, I usually post some weather graphics on Twitter and Facebook.

Q. Weather information is available from numerous sources nowadays, including apps on our phones. What is the role of a local meteorologist?

A. I believe now the role of the local meteorologist is to get into to more detail about the forecast and give context. Your phone can give you a 7-day forecast, but beyond day one, it doesn’t give you much detail about the timing of rain or the amount.

I can let you know that the 60% chance of rain Wednesday is during the morning. Or I can talk about how some storms Saturday could be severe.

Speaking of severe weather, I believe that’s one of the most important roles of the local meteorologist. A phone can alert you to a tornado warning, but people like to hear a human break down what’s going on. People want to know is the storm getting stronger, where is it going, how long will this last? Most of us have basic radar on our phone, but the meteorologist comes in when it’s time to analyze the data on radar. Radar apps don’t have most of the products we use to dissect a storm.

When it comes to context, I like to use climate data to show if the current weather pattern is typical or abnormal. Some weeks we’ll have a stretch of unseasonably warm temperatures or record low rainfall.

Q. Of the four seasons, which is your favorite to cover? Why?

A. I would say fall. Summer can be pretty monotonous, unless there’s a hurricane, in North Carolina. It’s usually 90° with a pop afternoon shower. I love covering fall weather because that’s when we start to get stronger cold fronts. It’s also nice to cover that refreshing fall air that follows behind a front.

Q. What advice do you have for students interested in careers in digital and broadcast journalism, including weather coverage?

A. I would say start early, and don’t be afraid to reach out! Grades are important, but your internship experience is going to hold so much more weight on your resume. Try to intern as soon as you can and as much as you can. You don’t have to wait until your junior year to get an internship.

Also, reach out to people in the field you look up to. It’s great to have some mentors while you’re getting your feet wet. Most of them will let you shadow them and give you invaluable advice. Plus, the relationships you make early in your career could open up so many more doors in the future.

Two opportunities for student editors

Students attend an editing bootcamp at Temple University. The week of training is part of the Dow Jones News Fund internship. (Photo by Margo Reed)

It’s internship and scholarship season for college journalists. Here are two opportunities for students interested in editing:

ACES: The Society for Editing offers six scholarships each year. They range from $3,500 to $1,500. Juniors, seniors and graduate students are eligible. The application deadline is Nov. 15. More details are available at the ACES site.

The Dow Jones News Fund offers numerous internships for summer 2021, including in the area of multiplatform editing. Juniors, seniors and graduate students are eligible. In past summer, interns have worked for news organizations such as The New York Times, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Houston Chronicle. The application deadline is Nov. 9. More details are available at the Dow Jones News Fund site.

Good luck to all students on their internship and scholarship applications!

Q&A with Roberto Torres of CIO Dive

Roberto Torres is a reporter at CIO Dive, covering the software industry, data analytics and the future of technology. A native of Venezuela, he lives in Philadelphia. In this interview, conducted by email, Torres discusses his work at CIO Dive and offers advice to students interested in careers in business journalism.

Q. Describe your job at CIO Dive. What is your typical day like?

A. As the reporter for CIO Dive, I’m tasked with crafting stories that help chief information officers excel at their job. I cover trends in software, data and analytics and AI for tech executives. Unsurprisingly, these days I’m writing a bunch about remote work and the impact of the pandemic on enterprise technology.

A usual day begins with a scan of the morning’s news and anything I might have missed overnight. Then an assignment comes along — breaking news or a study with relevant data published recently.

As the morning advances, I kick a quick first draft to my editor while keeping up with co-editing duties and checking the tech chatter on social media. Finally, our beloved daily newsletter moves along the pipeline and lands mid-morning on exec’s inboxes.

I often spend the rest of the day meeting with my team, checking in with analysts and executives while working on longer stories, reviewing data that may be relevant to our audience or taking in a conference or press event which, of course, are all virtual of late.

Q. How do story editing and headline writing work at CIO Dive?

A. Our stuff is read by heads of IT and C-suites, whose days are often planned out to the minute, so It’s crucial to pull them in quickly through engaging headlines — but no clickbait: When we claim something up top, best believe we have the goods to prove it.

Our pieces go through multiple rounds of edits. In the back and forth, we squabble over word choices or rogue punctuation, sure, but the core of the editing process focuses on sharpening our stories in order to convey actionable insight. What will the reader walk away with at the end of the piece? Do we stress this enough in the right parts of the story? What data supports this conclusion, and how are we visualizing it?

(With my pieces, the editing process usually involves taking out lots of em dashes and passive voice.)

Any journalist worth their salt knows they NEED editors to polish stories into their best version. And there’s added value in having multiple eyes skim a story.

CIO Dive’s headline writing and editing process thrives with a sharp rephrase from Managing Editor Deborah Barrington, a precise “cut” suggestion from Associate Editor Samantha Schwartz or a valuable request for deeper analysis from Senior Editor Naomi Eide.

Editing the newsletter as a package is also important to us. We strive to make sure every corner of the newsletter delivers value. We pore over what to add to our What We’re Reading section, or quickly pull relevant pieces from CIO Dive’s repository of stories.

Q. What are the unique challenges to covering the technology beat?

A. Given my niche beat, one crucial challenge is to consistently deliver valuable takeaways for an audience that is incredibly well informed.

Our readership already knows what technologies like cloud computing or data analytics are, how they’re used and who the key players are. What they want to know is how their use will change, how these changes will impact the decisions they’ll need to make next year, or five years out. They want to know what’s next.

Cutting past the hype is a common challenge for tech reporters. I lean on data, conversations with technologists and voices from analysts to understand where the real value in tech trends lies.

Q. What advice do you have for journalism students interested in internships and jobs at Industry Dive or other sites that focus on business news?

A. My advice is simple: shoot your shot. Shoot your shots, plural.

It had barely been a year since I landed in Philly from my native Venezuela when I DMd then Technical.ly editor-in-chief Zack Seward for guidance on the local media and tech landscape. We got a cup of coffee, and soon after I was freelancing for Technical.ly Philly, where I’d go on to become the lead reporter.

I knew almost nothing about Philadelphia’s tech ecosystem, but I had a ton of questions and was never afraid of asking them. I was never afraid to ask for a chance to prove myself.

At Industry Dive, we’re asked to bring our curiosity to work on day one and feed it constantly. With 20+ publications across a ton of industries, there’s huge potential to explore whatever you’re passionate about through in-depth business journalism alongside world-class colleagues. (P.S. We’re hiring, and if you’re reading this, I probably want to work with you.)

Read Roberto Torres’ stories on the CIO Dive site and follow him on Twitter.

Remixing a midterm exam

For several years, I have had students in my Advanced Editing course read “The Subversive Copy Editor.” Written by Carol Fisher Saller, this book is about the writer-editor relationship.

The midterm exam has been about that relationship. We also watch the 2015 movie “Spotlight” for its portrayal of editors and reporters working together. The midterm has consisted of essay questions about the book and the movie.

This semester, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the course is “remote only.” We don’t meet in person. So how can we have a traditional exam?

After consulting UNC-Chapel Hill’s “Keep Teaching” website and considering my options, I am changing the plan. Instead of an exam, we will have a “book club” meeting.

Carol has graciously agreed to visit the class virtually, and I have asked each student to submit two specific questions about “The Subversive Copy Editor.” I am looking forward to a lively and enlightening conversation. Later this semester, I will ask students to watch “Spotlight” on their own, and I will send them a question about it to respond to via email.

The pandemic has created new pressures on students and faculty alike. I am hoping that these changes will ease that stress while ensuring that students learn about and appreciate the connection between writer and editor.

Thank you, Frank Stasio

Frank Stasio
Radio host Frank Stasio in studio. (Credit Ben McKeown / For WUNC)

Frank Stasio became host of “The State of Things” radio program in 2006. At the end of 2020, he will retire from that position.

Each weekday at noon, “The State of Things” is on the air live on public radio stations across North Carolina, including WUNC. It is an invaluable resource covering the people, places and politics of North Carolina.

In 2011, I was a guest on “The State of Things.” The panel discussion was about the vital role of local news organizations in their communities. It’s an issue that Stasio cares about a great deal, and I enjoyed talking with him about it.

In a thread on Twitter today, “The State of Things” announced Stasio’s retirement. Here’s what he told the show’s staff:

I’m proud of what we built on The State Of Things. We made some powerfully good radio and, by most accounts, had a profound effect on our community. I’m grateful to all of you and our amazing listeners for helping to make this happen.

And we are grateful to you, Frank. Best wishes on your next adventures, wherever they may take you.

Getting help on knowing when to call the police

Huffpost-911

I have called 911 once in my life. On a weekday morning in 2001, I looked out the window of my living room and saw a man trying to kick in my neighbor’s back door. Officers arrived in a few minutes, but the man had given up and run away.

Whether to call 911 can be a complicated decision. Amid a national reckoning on race and policing, I have reconsidered when and when not to call the police. I hope that you have too.

A package of stories at HuffPost offers great guidance on this issue. Here’s the headline: “Do I Need To Call The Police? A User’s Guide To Seeking Help Without Just Dialing 911.”

HuffPost presents the posts in an FAQ format. Here are examples of questions:

  • Should I call the police if I hear my neighbors fighting?
  • Should I call the police to report vandalism?
  • Should I call the police to report identity theft?
  • Should I call police if I suspect a child is being abused?

Each question is followed by a comprehensive answer that may suggest alternatives to calling 911. Links to resources for more information for each situation are included.

Taken as a whole, the project performs an essential journalistic service: presenting problems and offering solutions. A team of 17 journalists — including two copy editors and UNC-Chapel Hill colleague Kate Sheppard — created it.

Here’s what Sheppard said about the project:

Q. How did the idea for this project come together?

A. This came about as we were discussing the nationwide protests against racism and police violence, and the questions average people might have about their own engagement with and reliance on police. In my own community, I often hear people suggesting that others call the police over minor things without thinking through the potential consequences of doing so, especially for Black and brown neighbors.

Q. The series looks at 16 different scenarios. How did you choose what to highlight?

A. We wanted scenarios that were common and for which the de facto response has become “just call the police.” We also wanted there to be some nuance to it. There are certainly cases where calling the police is the right course of action, but not all of the time — and even if you do, we wanted to make clear the potential unintended outcomes of doing so. We also wanted to highlight examples where we could show alternatives already in action.

Q. What was the biggest challenge of putting together such a sweeping project?

A. We wanted the package to be nuanced and comprehensive, but also not so long that people can’t engage with all of it. Another challenge was the framing. There’s of course a big conversation going on right now about defunding or completely abolishing the police. Even if readers aren’t ready to go there, I think there can be agreement about the ways we rely too heavily on police to address every problem in society rather than investing in things like mental health care, housing, school safety.

Q. What do you hope readers take away from it?

A. I hope it at least makes people see that they can both change their own actions and advocate for meaningful change.


So what about that attempted burglary that I witnessed? You should probably call 911 in such situations, but don’t expect the person to be caught or property recovered.

 

 

What it’s like to be a professor during a pandemic

zoom-teaching

UPDATE: Since I wrote this post on Friday, several COVID-19 “clusters” have been reported at UNC-Chapel Hill dormitories and at an off-campus fraternity. In consultation with the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, I am moving my course to “remote only” until further notice.

Anxiety is in the air. So is the virus.

We have wrapped up the first week of the fall semester at UNC-Chapel Hill. The university started the term early because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The semester will end by Thanksgiving. The reasoning for this unusual schedule is to avoid a possible second wave of the virus, but we are still in the first wave in North Carolina.

So what’s it like to be on campus? Carroll Hall, the home of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, is oddly quiet. Signs on the floors and doors tell us which way to go when walking inside the building.

I’ve seen some of my colleagues, but many are teaching entirely online. Office hours between faculty and students are taking place via Zoom.

One of my courses, an undergraduate course in editing, meets twice a week in Carroll Hall. It’s what the university calls “face-to-face/hybrid,” one of four teaching methods available this semester. (My other course meets completely online by design.)

For face-to-face meetings, everyone must wear face coverings and stay at least 6 feet apart. To help maintain social distancing, most seats in the classroom are marked off with yellow tape. A dispenser of hand sanitizer is at the room’s entrance.

This room normally seats about 90 people. Under the COVID-19 guidelines, it seats about 20. Here’s what the room looks like:

carroll-hall-room33

For each meeting, I livestream the discussion via Zoom. I also record it and share that recording later with the class. That allows students who have health concerns and wish to attend remotely to do so.

On Monday, we will all meet via Zoom. Many class meetings will take place that way by necessity.

For example, when freelance editor Laura Poole visits the class, she will do so virtually. For other meetings, students will split into small groups to make decisions on word choice and news judgment. It’s not feasible for them to huddle while staying 6 feet apart, so we will meet on Zoom, which has a “breakout room” feature.

Later in the semester, students will work on various assignments during classtime, and I will coach them on their story editing, headline writing, linking and other tasks. That one-on-one consultation will take place virtually.

My initial plan was to have one-third of the class meetings in person and two-thirds remote. When I shared that schedule with the students before the semester started, several asked for more in-class meetings, saying they learned better in that setting. The ratio is now about half and half.

So far, face-to-face teaching seems to be going well. Students are adhering to the safety guidelines, some in masks provided by the university and others with custom designs. They are participating in class discussions and asking smart questions. Wearing masks makes it more difficult for us to communicate — no one can see you smile. But eye contact is still possible as long as my eyeglasses don’t fog up.

I am hopeful that we can make this arrangement work so the students can learn the skills of editing. But if necessary, I am ready to change this course to a completely online experience, as I did in the second half of the spring semester.

Regardless of the method of teaching, I am approaching my courses from a position of compassion and flexibility for the students and for myself. This crisis is a burden on teaching and learning, and on physical and mental health. It’s important to acknowledge that.

Best wishes to all on a safe and successful semester.

Q&A with Ashley Spinks of The Floyd Press

ashleyspinks

Ashley Spinks is managing editor of The Floyd Press in Floyd, Virginia. She previously worked as an editorial assistant at the Orange Review and as a freelance reporter for The Daily Progress. In this interview, conducted by email, Spinks discusses her role at The Floyd Press and her start in journalism, and offers advice to students interested in community journalism.

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

A. I’m the managing editor of The Floyd Press, which is a weekly newspaper with a circulation of a few thousand. As anyone in the local journalism business will tell you, community journalism asks you to wear many hats simultaneously.

While my title is “editor” and I do direct the news department, meaning I decide what we cover and assign stories to freelancers (and make sure folks get paid!), I’m mostly a reporter, because I have to be in order to generate enough content for each week’s edition. I’m the paper’s only full-time editorial staffer. (We also have a customer service representative and an advertising representative.)

Things have changed a bit since the coronavirus pandemic struck. I attend far fewer events and do fewer in-person interviews now, for instance. But broadly speaking, I spend my time looking for leads, calling people to hear their perspective or information they can share, and then writing articles that try to faithfully tell folks’ stories.

I also go to a LOT of public meetings, which I enjoy! I don’t really get to be a beat reporter — I cover everything from local government to COVID-19 to the schools — but if I was, I’d focus full-time on government and economic development, which I find fascinating and so important.

I’ve only ever worked at weekly papers, and I like it because my weeks are so cyclical. A couple days of interviews and transcriptions, a couple days of writing and editing, and one day doing layout! Then I start all over again with the next week’s edition.

Q. How do editing and headline writing work at The Floyd Press?

A. I personally review every piece of editorial content that goes to press. This means I’m editing stories I’ve assigned to freelance writers, but also press releases, letters to the editor, opinion columns and stories I’m picking up from nearby sister papers. There are a few daily and weekly papers in Southwest Virginia with whom I share stories!

Editing is multi-faceted. It involves checking spellings, confirming facts and just finessing the style of the piece for readability and clarity.

As I mentioned, I’m the only full-time editorial staffer, which means oftentimes, I’m also editing my own work. This isn’t super productive! Things get missed, and it’s one reason why local newspapers desperately need robust staffs.

Copy editing is a skill unto itself. I want to give a shoutout to Floyd local and current Yale student Shayley Martin, who has been volunteering with the Press recently as a copyeditor and saving me from a lot of bad writing!

I write all the heds and subheds.

Q. How did you get interested in journalism?

A. I wrote for my college paper, The Cavalier Daily at the University of Virginia, but ironically, I was an opinion columnist! (They have their place, for sure, but I’m much more interested in news reporting now.) I was definitely inspired by my peers at the Cav Daily, who were just tireless, and who, despite not being paid, measured up to any professional journalists in Charlottesville as the paper covered really hot-button events like Hannah Graham’s disappearance/murder and Martese Johnson’s brutal interaction with the police.

But actually, for a large portion of my undergraduate years, I thought I was going to work in museums! I interned in a couple, and I was a history major.

I think what appealed to me about the field of public history are the same things that drove me toward journalism. I realized that the way you tell stories — whose voices you include, which perspectives you uplift, how accessible you make your language, etc. — can have a lasting impact.

I’m also just incredibly well-suited to being a journalist on a personal level. I love to talk, and I love to learn new things.

Q. What advice do you have for college students interested in community journalism?

A. All right, this is going to be some tough love: If you really want to be a reporter, be prepared for the industry to break your heart. You can be motivated by passion and idealism (I think that can be a good thing!), but know that not everyone around you will see the value in your work, including the corporations that will likely control the purse strings of your paper.

Journalism has a big accessibility and equity problem — not everyone can break into the industry, because salaries are incredibly low for entry-level jobs. Often you need other sources of income or support to make it work.

Really, my advice is to dedicate yourself to any community you have the privilege to cover. Get to know people, try to learn what makes the town tick and what its values are, and tell stories that accurately represent what life is like for folks who live there.

But if finances or anything else force you out of the industry, know that it’s not a personal failure, and lots of other jobs can give you the opportunity to meet interesting people and write compelling stories. Storytelling matters immensely.

UPDATE: In October 2020, Lee Enterprises fired Ashley Spinks as editor of The Floyd Press, apparently over this interview with TV station WVTF.

Holden Fellowship to help editors get training and support

For more than 20 years, ACES: The Society for Editing has awarded scholarships to students interested in careers in editing. In that time, more than 100 college students have won these scholarships.

Learning is a lifetime experience. What about editors who have already started their professional careers and established themselves? They, too, can benefit from further education and training.

That’s why ACES, in a partnership with the Dow Jones News Fund, has started the Richard S. Holden Diversity Fellowship. The program is named for Richard Holden, an editor who led the DJNF for decades and was a longtime member of ACES and its Education Fund Board.

The Holden Fellowship program will give as much as $3,000 to an editor who wants to attend a conference, enroll in a training webinar or pursue other opportunities to add to their skills and further their careers. The program is open to editors from all disciplines: journalism, book publishing, academia, etc.

An applicant must have at least five years of experience as an editor and have an active ACES membership. Editors from underrepresented communities are encouraged to apply.

To learn more about the Holden Fellowship program, visit the ACES site. The deadline for the first round of applications is Sept. 15, 2020.