Q&A with Mike Sundheim, vice president of communications for the Carolina Hurricanes

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The front page of The News & Observer from June 2006 when the Carolina Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup.

Mike Sundheim is vice president for communications and team services for the Carolina Hurricanes of the NHL. In this interview, conducted by email, he discusses his job, social media and the team’s outlook for the 2016-17 season.

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

A. One of the best sports books out there is Ken Dryden’s “The Game,” and one of my favorite parts is when he describes the rhythm of the season. Essentially, days of the week are irrelevant, and our lives are dictated by whether it is a game day or a practice day and whether we are home or on the road.

On a home game day, I arrive at work around 7:45 a.m. and leave about an hour after the game ends. During that time, I am responsible for media access after a morning practice, two hours prior to the game and five minutes after the game, as well as rights-holder interviews throughout the game.

Beyond handling media access, there’s plenty to do at my desk, from writing news releases or letters for executives to fielding media calls, monitoring social media and working with all of the other departments in the company regarding communication needs. A few years back I also took on team services, which includes handling hotels and bus companies for team travel as well as meeting the everyday personal and scheduling needs of the players and coaching staff.

I split the travel with my co-worker, Kyle Hanlin, so my quietest days in-season are typically when he is with the team on the road and I am home. But even those days can fill up quickly, taking care of everything I didn’t have time to deal with when the team was around.

Q. What role does social media play in your work?

A. When people ask what the biggest change to my job has been since I started, social media is a clear number one. Look at it this way, when I came on full-time in 2000, Mark Zuckerberg was a 16-year-old high school student. There was no social media, and the news cycle was much more structured.

Because of social media, everything is immediate. That affects how and when we send news releases, the ways in which major news is delivered and, more than anything else, our ability to turn off our work brains. I can be sitting at home playing with my kids at 8 p.m. and start getting texts about something a player tweeted or an impending personnel move. This job has always had a bit of an always-on-call element to it, but social media has significantly intensified that.

Q. During your time with the Hurricanes, the team has been to the Stanley Cup finals twice, winning in 2006. But Carolina has missed the playoffs the past several years. How do the ups and downs of sports affect what you do?

A. There is no doubt wins and losses affect those of us who work in sports, from general office morale to our company’s bottom line. When we won the Stanley Cup, we were playing in front of standing-room-only crowds, and I could hardly keep up with the flow of media requests for our players.

After seven consecutive non-playoff seasons, we have understandably smaller crowds and I spend more time pitching stories than fielding requests. Our major local newspaper didn’t travel a beat writer on the road last season.

When you’re winning, you can’t wait to get to the office, and when you’re losing, it is much more of a grind. The positive for us is that we feel like we are very close to turning a corner on the ice, and we are already seeing some positive business momentum based on that optimism.

Q. What advice do you have for students considering careers in sports communication?

A. Your classes are important, and there are plenty of things I learned at UNC that help me every day in my job. But I would not be where I am had I just gone to class, graduated with straight A’s and started looking for a job.I spent two and a half years at The Daily Tar Heel, which helped me in many ways including the development of my writing and my understanding of deadline pressure.

I then spent my junior and senior years working for the Hurricanes as an intern and UNC’s sports information department as a student assistant. It was in those positions that I learned how to actually do my job and gained the connections and experience to land full-time work after school.

The last time we had an open position — a part-time, hourly job that only paid about $15,000 for the season — we had more than 300 applicants in a few days before we closed it off. I wrote about the experience on my blog for our website, and pretty much everything I said in there still stands. I eliminated 75 percent of the resumes instantly because they had no sports experience.

Also, a lot of people hear “sports PR” or “sports publicity” and picture all of the glamorous aspects of traveling with a team and working with media. But most entry-level sports communications positions are heavily based in writing, working with statistics and preparing game notes. If you don’t love writing or you can’t truly geek out on sports stats, this isn’t the right career path for you.

Q. Let’s look ahead. How do the Hurricanes look going into the 2016-17 season?

A. This is the most excited I’ve felt about the future of our team in a long time. Ron Francis has done a phenomenal job of staying patient and rebuilding the right way — collecting prospects and draft picks and building from the defense forward.

Our defense last season included four players who were 23 years old or younger, including Noah Hanifin, who was just 18. The ages of our top seven scorers were 23, 27, 23, 21, 23, 24 and 25. And we have 10 picks in this year’s draft – seven of which are in the first three rounds. That gives us a ton of flexibility to either continue to collect prospects, or wheel some of those picks for players who can immediately jump into our lineup.

The idea isn’t just to compete for a year or two and then suffer another playoff drought. It’s to build an organization that is a factor in the playoffs every single year. That’s exactly what Ron is doing.

Students interested in internships with the Carolina Hurricanes can contact Sundheim via this page.

Old style from New York

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On a recent trip to New York City, I visited The Strand bookstore. The store is a treasure trove of new, used and rare books.

One of my finds was a New York Times stylebook published in 1962. The author is Lewis Jordan; he was the first editor at the Times to compile various style guidelines into one volume. He wrote in the foreword:

If style rules do more than call attention to the need for precision in writing, they must inevitably improve it and thus open the way to clear communication. A piece of writing that is properly spelled and properly punctuated is off to a good start.

This stylebook undoubtedly helped editors at the time. But how does it look 54 years later? Here are some its musty recommendations:

  • It mentions companies (Mohawk Airlines, the DuMont television network and Gimbles department store, among others) that no longer exist.
  • It mentions technology that’s obsolete: Have you used an Addressograph or a Dictaphone lately?
  • It lists obscure royal titles such as Dowager Marchioness.
  • It advises that split infinitives “should generally be avoided.”
  • It discourages “boost” as a verb and condemns “hike” when used as a synonym for “raise.”
  • It suggests spellings and word choice that are peculiar now. For example, this statement would follow its guidelines: “I like catchup on my french-fried potatoes. Good-by.”

Other guidelines, however, hold up well. Entries on “gauntlet” and “proved,” for example, are similar to what you would see in stylebooks today.

I enjoyed reading this stylebook. It’s a time capsule of recommendations on spelling, abbreviations, capitalization, word choices and other matters. It’s also a good reminder that style isn’t stagnant.

Style, like language itself, evolves over generations. What made sense in 1962 may not make sense in 2016. And what we write and edit today may seem odd to readers in 2070.

 

 

Q&A with Kevin Uhrmacher, graphics editor at The Washington Post

Kevin Uhrmacher is a graphics editor at The Washington Post. In this interview, conducted by email, Uhrmacher discusses his work there and offers advice to journalism students looking at careers like his.

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

A. I’m involved in making everything from simple maps and charts to more meaty interactives and data visualizations. I also spend some time making sure our graphics are being copy-edited and included with related stories that others in the newsroom are writing.

My days vary quite a bit, but it’s typical that each includes some combination of responding to breaking news, working on daily and longer-term projects and getting our team’s graphics work published across platforms and promoted on social media.

Today, for example, I went in at 7 a.m. to get a jump on updating our page covering the EgyptAir Flight 804 crash. Another graphics editor, Denise Lu, and I updated the page periodically throughout the day as more information became available. As we pushed out updates to the page, we were sharing them on our @postgraphics Twitter account. We were also working on a couple of other projects intermittently.

I should also mention that the members of our team regularly solicit and offer feedback to one another about projects in progress.

Q. How does editing and headline writing work for graphics at The Washington Post?

A. Any graphic I create goes through several layers of editing, including my own editors on the graphics team, other content-specific reporters and editors, and a small army of very attentive copy editors.

Headline writing is a team effort here, for sure. While we’re writing a headline, we do a lot of sharing and testing to see what connects with people. Often that means sharing headlines in an internal chat room and asking others to offer suggestions for how to improve something.

Often, the most valuable feedback you can get on a headline is from someone who has no preconceived notions about the story. This helps you see how much interest your headline generates and make sure your story (whether it takes the form of text, graphics, video or some combination of things) delivers on whatever you promise in the headline.

We also have a new-ish tool that helps us A/B test promotional material for our stories (headlines, deks and — especially helpful for our graphics — promo images) You can read more about it here. We’re fortunate enough to have a tremendous engineering team to build tools like this one.

Q. You graduated from the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2014. What skills and concepts that you learned there do you use day to day? What have you had to learn on the job?

A. I think the most obvious thing I took with me out of the journalism school, and many nights in The Daily Tar Heel, was a keen sense of news judgment. By that I mean being able to identify the crux of a story and making sure that it is coming across in the way it is presented. It also means recognizing stories that are not being told and finding a unique way to tell them.

That reminds me of another thing UNC taught me, which is how to learn something that I don’t know. There are plenty of new skills and concepts that didn’t exist when I was in school just a couple of years ago. The key is knowing how to adapt and learn them.

Q. Being a graphics editor at The Washington Post sounds like a good gig. What advice do you have for journalism students considering similar career paths?

A. Well, first let me say it IS a good gig!

As far as advice goes, I would say students should not be devastated if they don’t get their dream internship or job on the first try. Never cut off a relationship with someone at a company you want to work for because you assume they don’t want you. For all you know, you’re at the top of their list for the next open job.

This one can be awkward but really pays off: Ask what you could do to improve your chances for the next time around. Do you need to beef up your portfolio in some way? Need to show more similar experience on your resume? Occasionally send them an email when you publish something you’re really proud of. Don’t underestimate the power that putting yourself on someone’s radar has for your future prospects.

I also recommend getting involved in professional organizations such as the Society for News Design, the Online News Association or the American Copy Editors Society. The annual conferences are great ways to meet people and learn more about what’s happening in the field you one day hope to work in.

Q&A with Laura Fiorilli-Crews, web content specialist at RTI International

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Laura Fiorilli-Crews is a web content specialist at RTI International in North Carolina. She previously worked as a homepage editor at TBO.com in Tampa, Florida. In this interview, conducted by email, Fiorilli-Crews discuss her job at RTI, its new website and her transition from the newsroom.

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

A. I work on RTI’s beautiful Research Triangle Park campus, about a 25-minute drive from my home in Raleigh (though the trip back can be much longer). A typical day for me involves working on project stories, expert profiles and other content for our recently launched website. Leading up to the launch, we also spent a lot of time learning about the institute and planning our content strategy.

The overall pace is pretty relaxed compared with what I was used to in a 24/7 multimedia newsroom. I leave at more or less the same time every day, and I have the ability to telecommute as needed.

Q. RTI recently launched a new website. What are some of the major changes, and how did they come about?

A. The redesigned RTI website is much more streamlined than what we had before. Our goal was to make it easier for potential clients and partners (such as government agencies, foundations, and universities) to understand what RTI does and reach experts who can help solve their problems.

We overhauled the site architecture and changed the emphasis of the writing, replacing dozens of pages of descriptive but dry text with stories about the impact of our various projects around the world. We also worked with outside designers and developers to make the site modern and mobile-responsive.

We have also added a section aimed at members of the media. Our Emerging Issues pages will help inform journalists that RTI is a leader in research on some important, quickly developing topics. Right now, that includes Zika virus, marijuana, electronic cigarettes, drones, and noncommunicable diseases (i.e. cancer, diabetes, etc.) in low- and middle-income countries

Q. You previously worked for news organizations such as TBO.com. What skills from that part of your career do you use at RTI, and what new skills have you had to learn?

A. The slower pace described above is the biggest difference, and it ripples through many aspects of my work. TBO (which is sadly dormant right now after the purchase and closure of its partner, the Tampa Tribune) was, during my seven years there, one of the nation’s pioneering converged newsrooms. You simply don’t get that atmosphere of constant change and urgency in many other places. I’ve often called it “the emergency room of news.”

In my office at RTI, you might say we are running a wellness clinic. There is much more time for strategic decision-making — which is something I felt was sorely needed at my old job.

The writing process is different as well. People are more inclined to deliberate over every word. That’s true within our office and also when dealing with the distinguished academics who conduct the scientific work that RTI is known for.

Diplomacy is an important skill here. I think most journalists assume that a PR role, at least in the absence of a true crisis, is pretty cushy — that everyone you work with will appreciate that you are on their side. In reality, even though we are working to support the public image of the entire institute, everyone doesn’t share the same opinions on what that looks like.

RTI is so diverse that we must customize our web content to each constituency, while being fair to all. Plus, our requests are far from the most pressing thing these researchers deal with each day. Working in marketing communications doesn’t make you immune from the problem of unreturned phone calls.

Q. What advice do you have for journalism students seeking to work at places like RTI?

A. My top piece of advice is the same as ever. Get some life experience. Pursue what you like to do both professionally and personally. Learn a little about a lot of different subjects.

Working at RTI is probably comparable to working for a university. RTI appreciates curiosity and interest in diverse fields in health, science and social science. The words “improving the human condition” figure prominently in our mission statement. This is a great place to work if you like feeling that you are contributing to a larger cause.

What I’m doing this summer

It’s summer, at least according to UNC-Chapel Hill’s academic calendar. As I’ve noted in the past, summer for faculty members is not synonymous with a vacation. Here’s what I have planned:

  • Teach JOMC 157, News Editing, during a condensed term called Maymester. We’ll cover an entire semester’s worth of material in less than three weeks.
  • Review applications for a certificate program in media and technology.
  • Grade comprehensive exams for an online master’s program.
  • Teach writing for social media as part of a week-long jazz workshop.
  • Research and write a proposal for a course on freelance editing, with a focus on nonfiction.
  • Contribute to a top-to-bottom review of the curriculum in the journalism school, with an eye toward major revisions.
  • Read the new edition of “The Subversive Copy Editor,” which I use as a textbook in my Advanced Editing course. (This is my beach book.)
  • Review and update course materials for the fall semester, which will begin in mid-August.

That’s plenty to keep me busy. Happy summer!

A challenging word

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This front-page headline in the Sunday edition of The News & Observer surprised me for a couple of reasons:

  • The newspaper had landed an interview with Jan Boxill, one of the people connected to the scandal involving bogus classes at UNC-Chapel Hill.
  • The headline used the word “refuted,” which indicated to me that Boxill had argued successfully against the many accusations (such as these from the NCAA) against her.

Our friends at Merriam-Webster list two definitions for the word:

  • to prove wrong by argument or evidence
  • to deny the truth or accuracy of

The use of “refute” in the Boxill headline matches the second definition well enough. But it’s unclear in the story whether she has proven the accusations to be false. That conclusion lies in the mind of the reader.

The Associated Press Stylebook advises against this use of “refute” because it “almost always implies editorial judgment.” With that in mind, I would suggest other verbs for the Boxill headline: challenge, dispute or deny. Each of those would reflect the tone and content of the story without overselling it.

I’m open to rebuttals.

Q&A with N&O reporter Mandy Locke on the Deadly Force series

Mandy Locke is an investigative reporter at The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her recent series, Deadly Force, examines violent incidents surrounding the sheriff’s office in Harnett County, including the death of an inmate who was shot with a Taser. In this interview, conducted by email, Locke discusses how the multimedia series came together and how the N&O published it in print and online.

Q. How did the Deadly Force series come about? What were some of the obstacles you faced in your reporting?

A. I wish I could claim some sort of brilliance, but the initial tip to this story came because of a relationship. I had a long-ago source, an eccentric lawyer whom I met as a cub reporter in 2004. He would now and again leave me ranting, raving voicemails late at night over the years.

He left one of those in December. John Livingston, he said, shouldn’t have died. A deputy who was at the wrong house with no permission to enter had killed Livingston.

Naturally, this sounded important. But, it was one of about eight important stories on my list in the new year when I met with my investigative teammates and our editor. How or why I bit this off first may have been simply random; it may have been fate.

Within hours of my visit to Harnett County, to the place where John Livingston died, I was convinced this was something. I didn’t know how big and wide and tough this “something” would be to report, but my gut said, “Whoa, stop. Listen. Think.”

Obstacles? So many. Where to start? Simple sentences:

  • Officials here rarely dealt with reporters.
  • I had few established sources.
  • I was an “outsider.”
  • My subjects had become distrustful; they were beleaguered.

Q. The series was available each day in the print newspaper or all at once on the website. It also has a video trailer and a podcast. Why did the N&O decide to present this story this way?

A. In the last several years, The N&O and our parent company, McClatchy, have learned much about storytelling and how best to harness our platforms. Our digital audience had different engagement patterns than our print audience. Our audience increasingly engages better through video and infographics.

We launched the first part of the series online on a Friday, when our online audience is high; same story ran in print Sunday, when our print audience is high. It takes a mind shift.

I learned this year that there is no shortcut to reporting. You must dig and push and press. However, there are so many ways to tell a story.

Though I love to write, I had to check that sensibility at the door. What is the best way to tell this story? Video? Podcast? How do I help people relate and respond to this work? We do not have the luxury of expecting people to digest our work in traditional formats because they must.

Q. How did editing, fact checking and headline writing work for the series?

A. We are rigid at the N&O. For good cause.

For each and every word and fact, I must present the document or the audio interview or transcript to my editor, Steve Riley. It takes about a day for me to prepare one story for this test. It takes another day to go through it with Steve.

We do not employ fact checkers, and even if we did, there is no shortcut to shoring up a significant story for public scrutiny.

Headline writing is by committee. A team evaluates and challenges, and eventually, we settle on something that works.

Q. Investigative reporting is expensive and time-consuming. What do you see as its future as newspapers continue to face reductions in budgets and staffing?

A. This is the most pressing question in journalism in my estimation.

I give credit to John Drescher and other top leaders of the N&O for preserving and expanding our investigative efforts in the age of falling revenues and layoffs.

As a breed, investigative journalists are expensive. Our work is risky, time-consuming and often does not endear us to those who keep this business afloat through advertising revenues.

Investigative journalism exists because people like John Drescher refuse to relinquish it, despite the expense. It exists because readers tell us over and over that his is what they want and expect from our news organization. We do this because it is our duty.

Read the Deadly Force series and follow Mandy Locke on Twitter.