Q&A with Mechelle Hankerson of the Virginia Mercury

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Mechelle Hankerson is a reporter at the Virginia Mercury, a new news organization based in Richmond. She previously worked at newspapers in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Norfolk, Virginia. In this interview, conducted by email, Hankerson discusses her role at the Mercury and offers advice to journalism students.

Q. What is the Virginia Mercury? What are the goals of the site?

The Virginia Mercury is a nonprofit news startup covering Virginia state government.

A lot of the news organizations that used to cover the state have pulled back from that or stopped altogether. The Mercury is meant to fill that hole for readers, especially when the General Assembly isn’t in session and for topics that tend to pop up in state agencies but not the legislative floor.

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

A. I’m a reporter covering government and politics.

Right now, most of my time is dedicated to the congressional races. I usually start by 8:30 to write a blog post about any major, breaking political developments and then spend the rest of the day reporting on whatever longer story might be brewing.

Sometimes the day involves going to meetings of state boards and agencies — which is a lot like going to a City Council meeting.

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

A. We’re a small team — only four people — and we all have to be our own (and each other’s) copy editors and headline writers. It taps back into skills that haven’t been my primary focus in a while.

Q. You previously worked at The News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot. How is reporting for the Mercury different?

A. The reporting process here isn’t significantly different from working at The N&O and The Pilot. But the overall effort here is a lot different.

We’re a nonprofit startup, so there isn’t a century’s worth of tradition to dictate what we cover and how we cover it. We really get to define what The Virginia Mercury is and will be, so I feel some added pressure to always report the heck out of a story and publish something really good.

Q. What advice do you have for student journalists interested in working for a news organization like the Mercury?

A. I think the funding setup and startup nature of The Mercury is where a lot of current journalism students will end up at some point in their careers.

Traditional newspapers are changing, and those jobs are getting scarce. Journalism will never go away, but the way people consume it already has changed. So the way news organizations are run has to change.

That being said, the best advice is to stay focused on the reason you pursued journalism in the first place. It’s incredibly too easy to get caught up in who’s buying what, what’s being cut and how things used to be. It’s easy to get discouraged. You shouldn’t ignore the big changes, but try to remember your primary concern should be finding and telling good stories.

The news industry is going to change no matter what, and all you can do is the best work possible.

Follow Mechelle Hankerson on Twitter and read her stories on the Virginia Mercury website.

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Q&A with Dow Jones News Fund intern Trevor Lenzmeier

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Trevor Lenzmeier is a Dow Jones News Fund editing intern at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A 2018 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, he wrote for The Daily Tar Heel, QSR magazine and Media Hub while in college. In this interview, conducted by email, Lenzmeier discusses his internship experience, his journalism education and what’s ahead.

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

A. I interned with one other Dow Jones intern on the universal desk at the Post-Gazette.

My typical day includes reviewing stories on the web that have already been published when I get in, editing print pages in the evening, plus page design and putting together briefs — little recaps of the four or five biggest stories from around the country and world for the next day’s paper.

I write headlines for the U-desk, but I have also worked on a reporter’s podcast and been allowed to write some concert reviews and foodie pieces, which has been awesome.

Q. What was the biggest challenge of the internship, and what was the greatest reward?

A. The hours are long, and everything happens in a flurry. You have to be able to go from 0 to 60 in an instant while handling a few different pots on the stove.

There are also daily challenges you have to roll with, like everyday technical errors and last-minute breaking stories, while keeping a cool head and communicating with a big team of journalists.

You get a daily, physical reward, though, in the form of a newspaper in the morning. Noticing corrections I’ve made in our copy is intensely gratifying.

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

A. Take the practice tests online, review the AP Stylebook, taking note of what trips you up, and read the news! Reading news stories from The Daily Tar Heel to The New York Times leads to better news judgment and more familiarity with unfamiliar style conventions.

Write for the DTH and take Professor Bechtel’s class (he didn’t ask me to say this). UNC had me very prepared for the Dow Jones editing bootcamp at Temple University. Get work experience early; the Daily Tar Heel is an excellent place to start.

Q. Congratulations on the internship. What’s next for you?

A. I’m thrilled to be staying in Pittsburgh. I’ve accepted an offer to be a two-year associate editor on the sports desk.

My internship wraps up at the end of August, and I’ll start my real-world gig in the middle of September. More of the same and a whole lot more editing to come.

I’m incredibly grateful to my j-school professors, the Daily Tar Heel and Dow Jones for the opportunity!

A busy break

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I am taking a break from this blog for the next month or so, but I’ll be busy elsewhere.

After living in Raleigh for the past 17 years, I am moving to Durham. I am helping my son get ready to go to college. He will attend Rice University.

I’ll also prepare for the courses that I will teach in the fall semester at UNC-Chapel Hill: two sections of News Editing and one section of Writing and Editing for Digital Media.

Thanks for reading. See you in August.

 

Q&A with Bryan Hanks, editor of Neuse News

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Bryan Hanks is the editor of the Neuse News, a recently launched news website covering Kinston and Lenoir County in Eastern North Carolina. A U.S. Army veteran, Hanks worked at newspapers in Lincolnton, Gastonia and Shelby before arriving in Kinston in 2002 as sports editor of The Free Press, where he later served as editor. Hanks left The Free Press in 2016 and has worked with the Kinston-Lenoir County Chamber of Commerce and as the public-address voice of the Down East Wood Ducks, a minor-league baseball team. He also has been the media director for Raleigh’s John Wall Holiday Invitational basketball tournament since 2007.

Q: What is Neuse News? What are your goals for the site?

A: It is a hyper-local news site created and published by former Kinston Mayor B.J. Murphy with one simple goal: Present local news without favor or bias on a site that requires no subscription fees and that doesn’t force you to sit through irritating pop-up advertising.

Because of the manner in which print media literally gave away its product online when the internet exploded, consumers became accustomed to reading stories for free for almost 20 years. When those same print media outlets then tried to begin forcing consumers to read their product after going through paywalls (which include those irritating pop-ups and subscription fees), you can’t blame the readers for being upset. It was a bad business model in the beginning to give away your product and then expect your customers to start paying for it after they’d been getting it for free for decades.

I like to use this analogy: Imagine McDonald’s has given away Big Macs for 20 years by delivering them to your living room whenever you want them. Yes, they’re tasty but when — all of a sudden — McDonald’s expects you to start paying for those burgers, you’re going to be upset. On top of that, when you have to eat three celery sticks before you can even get to the Big Mac, it irritates you further and makes you begin going after other options.

With Neuse News, our goal is to deliver a better product than the local newspaper, which makes you pay for its non-local content and forces you through pop-ups even after you’ve paid for their content.

Additionally, our entire staff — all freelancers for the most part — live and work in Kinston and Lenoir County and care only about this area. That can’t be said for the local newspaper, whose publisher lives in Wilmington (and is rarely in town) and whose editor lives in Craven County (and is responsible for editing several other newspapers). Its newsroom staff has only a couple of county residents who are responsible for a lot of coverage for not just Kinston and Lenoir County but for areas outside the county.

Q: You previously worked at newspapers in Kinston, Gastonia and Lincolnton. How is Neuse News different for you?

A: The hyper-local thrust that B.J. insists upon is refreshing to me. We care about what is going on in Lenoir County — not what’s happening in New Bern, Jacksonville, Wilmington, Raleigh or Charlotte (unless, of course, it directly affects our folks in Lenoir County).

In my last few years at the local newspaper, we were forced to do more with less on a daily basis — have more local bylines with less staff and cover more news with fewer resources. It was frustrating to lay off and furlough talented journalists who wanted to do nothing more than be great reporters. It was also frustrating to try to recruit reporters to an area when you knew in the back of your mind they’d probably end up eventually being laid off or fired because of the corporate structure of news-gathering organizations.

With Neuse News, we’re already delivering a superior product by employing former local journalists who have moved on to other chapters in their lives. They still have that passion for local news and this is an avenue for them to pursue that passion.

Q: It’s a tough economic environment for news organizations. Neuse News promises no pop-up ads or subscription fees. How will the site survive and thrive financially?

A: That’s probably a question best answered by B.J., but I know this much: A bunch of local businesses and individuals — who have missed local journalism by journalists who live in their community (the way it used to be here) — have stepped up to help us start this venture.

We are thankful and grateful to those businesses and individuals for their help. Honestly, the Neuse News doesn’t exist without that help because we are committed to being that free source of news to Kinston and Lenoir County.

Q: You’re a strong advocate for Eastern North Carolina. What makes the region special to you?

A: I grew up in Wilkes County in northwestern North Carolina, then went to college and began my career in the Charlotte-Gastonia-Shelby area. For nine years, I dated and then married my late wife, who lived in Raleigh. As a freelancer, I traveled to literally every corner of the state, so I feel like I know North Carolina a little better than the average Tar Heel.

Kinston and Lenoir County is unique in a lot of ways. It’s about an hour from the beach, 30 minutes from Greenville and ECU, less than 90 minutes from the Triangle and three hours from the mountains, so you’re in the middle of everything.

But the difference is the people that are here; again, I’ve lived and worked all over the state, and I’ve never seen a community of people that truly love their home the way folks do here. This area has been through several hurricanes and floods, a tragic plant explosion (West Pharmaceuticals in 2003), the loss of major economic drivers such as tobacco, but the folks here continue to love and advocate for Kinston and Lenoir County.

I may have been raised in Wilkes County, but Kinston and Lenoir County is my home. I plan to be here for a long, long time.

Tweets tell AP to name the winner: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

The results of an election in New York this week caught many people by surprise.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old newcomer, beat Rep. Joe Crowley, a 10-term incumbent, in a congressional district that includes parts of Queens and the Bronx. Here’s how The Associated Press reported this news on Twitter:

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Many Twitter users wondered why the wire service didn’t identify Ocasio-Cortez as the winner in the tweet, with many imploring the AP to “say her name.” Here’s a sampling of other responses:

  • When do you think she will be worthy enough for her name to be published?
  • How about: “Incumbent congressman defeated by 28-year-old progressive Latina activist, Boston University graduate, and entrepreneur Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez”?
  • She has a name, y’all.
  • Ladies and gentlemen, the next member of the US House of Representatives: Young Challenger.

I understand the pushback, but I do not think the AP intended to slight Ocasio-Cortez by leaving out her name in this tweet.

Editors were probably using the news judgment that I did when I worked at newspapers: Names of people familiar to readers appeared in print headlines; lesser-known people were described by job title, geographic area or affiliation to a company, university, etc.

In this instance, Crowley is a high-ranking Democrat in the House. Ocasio-Cortez is running for office for the first time. He’s more prominent, so his name is in the big type.

That’s an old way of thinking, however. Print headlines typically have room for four to six words. Tweets have a generous limit of 280 characters, so editors at the AP had plenty of space to identify both candidates by their full names there.

Subsequent tweets by the AP include Ocasio-Cortez’s name, as they should. She won, and her name is now recognized across the political landscape.

 

Jazzed about journalism

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Next week, I am stepping out of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill and spending my days at the music department.

I am one of several instructors in the UNC Summer Jazz Workshop. It’s the third time that I’ve participated in the one-week program.

So what is an editor doing at a jazz workshop? I’ll work with about a dozen students who want to learn about digital journalism as part of their workshop experience.

Here is our schedule:

Monday, June 18
Topic: Introductions. What is news? What makes a good post?
Exercises: Create a WordPress site at web.unc.edu. Post your impressions of this evening’s performance.

Tuesday, June 19
Topics: Exploring writing formats for digital media; basics of interviewing.
Exercise: Interview a workshop participant and post a vignette about them.

Wednesday, June 20
Topic: Writing for social media and live-tweeting.
Exercise: Use Twitter (and more) to cover the evening performance.

Thursday, June 21
Topic: Writing headlines and captions.
Exercise: Write headlines and captions.

Friday, June 22
Topic: Pulling it all together.
Exercise: Use Wakelet to recap our week.

Thanks to Stephen Anderson, the workshop’s director, for the opportunity to work with these students. I’m looking forward to an exciting week of music, words and images.

Q&A with Sergio Tovar, social media specialist at Duke University

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Sergio Tovar is social media specialist at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. He previously worked as a sportswriter and online producer at The Charlotte Observer. In this interview, conducted by email, Tovar discusses his job, the transition to higher education from news and life as a Tar Heels fan in Blue Devils country.

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

A. I’m in charge of social media for Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. That means I spend a large part of my day promoting our content, monitoring our different channels and covering school events. I also look at analytics to figure out long-term strategy to help us recruit prospective students and reach the overall community.

Aside from social media, I’m responsible for writing stories, press releases and other internal communication highlighting our students, faculty and research while also editing our student blogs. I also help with digital marketing and advertising as well as video and multimedia production.

I pretty much do a little bit of everything, and no two days are the same, which is something I really like.

Q. Before working at Duke, you were a reporter and online producer at The Charlotte Observer. What was that transition like?

A. I like to tell people that being a journalist today requires you to wear so many different hats that it makes changing jobs – and picking up new skills as you go – a little easier.

I already had experience with a lot of what I do now while working in the newsroom, so that made it a pretty easy transition. I had no experience in higher ed, so I did have to learn about how the school operates, how recruitment works as well as other aspects of the field.

Honestly, the biggest transition was learning to take my time to work on projects. Working for an online-first publication, you pretty much have an ongoing deadline and are constantly trying not to get beat by a competitor. That’s a hard mentality to break away from.

Q. You’re a 2009 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What skills and concepts that you learned there do you use today? What have you learned on the job?

A. I became a much better writer as a student there, and no matter what my job is, I’ll continue to use that every single day.

Knowing how to condense a big idea and communicate it to a specific audience is very important to my job. If you ever have to translate a scientific paper into everyday English, you’ll know what I mean. Everything from knowing how to interview people to some of what I learned in media law is still applicable to what I do.

Dating back to my Daily Tar Heel days, I learned the importance of knowing how to multitask, especially when you’re working under deadline. I’m constantly working on a few projects on top of my day-to-day responsibilities, so I can’t even begin to describe how important having that skill is in the real world. Other than that, I’ve learned to be flexible, to always take time to learn from my co-workers and to never stop looking for new skills.

Q. So you work at Duke but went to UNC. What’s your life like on Carolina-Duke game days?

A. I’m a huge Carolina fan, so I try to be as obnoxious about it as possible. If you take one look at my desk, there’s no question about where I went to school, and on game day I’m more than likely wearing Carolina blue to reinforce the point.

I don’t really work directly with people who care all that much about the rivalry, so I don’t catch as much flak as you would imagine. We also have several other Tar Heels in the building, so I have some backup.

Aside from a little bit of friendly trash talk, the worst thing has been having a co-worker hand deliver a copy of The (Duke) Chronicle after losses. When UNC wins, I don’t return the favor. I just show up in Carolina blue again.