Q&A with Susan Tart, journalist at China.org

Susan Tart is an American journalist living in Beijing, China, where she has spent the past two years. As a member of the staff at China.org, she has covered the 2008 Olympics, the one-year anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake and has even had the chance to interview the legendary “Back Dorm Boys.” Tart graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2007 with a double major in journalism and international studies, and a minor in Chinese. In this Q&A, conducted by e-mail, Tart talks about her job and journalism in China.

Q: Describe your job at China.org. What do you do on a typical day?

A. As any news job, it pays to be in-the-know regarding local and global events, so first thing in the morning I try to read-in. During the day, I usually copy edit several articles and then spend the rest of the time working on a broadcast story.

Most of that time goes into research. As a foreigner, I find it difficult to make contacts and know which organizations/companies will be likely to give an interview (much less trust me), so just the research for one interview can sometimes take longer than all other aspects of the story combined.

News in China is much more relaxed than in the States, so while deadlines do exist, I’m not usually stressed about getting a story done. Lunch is important in the Chinese culture, and so it takes place every day, with a minimum of 75 minutes … even when there is “breaking news.”

Q. You’ve found yourself doing copy editing as part of your job. As a person trained in broadcast, what is that like?

I knew I’d be copy editing when I took the job, although my main focus was to produce video stories and develop the video section of the site. However, the company is more like a state owned enterprise (SOE) — and in typical fashion of bureaucratic organizations, accomplishing that task has proved quite slow and difficult.

I think copy editing is almost inevitable when working in a country that operates in another language. Sometimes it can be amusing, as some of the articles are loaded with hilarious Chinglish words and phrases. Other times it can be frustrating.

Most of my coworkers studied English in school rather than journalism (much less broadcast journalism), so I often end up teaching how to write news articles when I copy edit them. It’s great to watch their writing skills make progress. The English and Chinese languages have very different ways of presenting the news, so even coworkers who have mastered the language don’t necessarily understand what’s important to include in an article targeted at a native English-speaking audience.

Q: The Chinese government controls the media there, and it blocks some sites such as Facebook and Twitter. What is it like to work as a journalist in a more restricted environment?

To be honest, it’s not as bad as I had originally thought it would be. Or maybe I should say it’s not how I thought it would be.

I was allowed to go after pretty much any story I wanted to in the beginning. Even though my boss never rejected me, I found that the people here would often censor themselves. As I learned only after running in circles from contacting government agencies day after day, it’s pretty much impossible to do some stories (even those with a positive message), especially with a camera. After the first three months, I was told to stop trying to cover the news, and I’d have more success. Truest thing I’ve ever been told.

About a month ago, there was a gas explosion at a Uyghur restaurant not too far from the office. However, everyone was informed to not cover the story, as it was potentially sensitive. We could only report what the main government news source said. That was frustrating as a journalist who is trained that such events dominate headlines.

Another time I recall is when the top boss told me I could go to Tiananmen on June 4th (though publishing a story about it wasn’t guaranteed). However, a less-high-up coworker freaked out and convinced the boss they’d all lose their jobs for life if I went.

The news is conducted in a hierarchical manner here, and fear of disrupting that system runs how it gets reported. Understanding that concept makes life a lot easier. Other than that, you have to have a sense of humor and be optimistic. Change and opening up takes time; you can’t force it.

Q. How do you think your experiences in China will shape you for a journalism career back in the United States?

It will no doubt be a huge advantage for me. As China’s power and influence increase, life in the U.S. will inevitably be affected by it more and more.

Whether it’s local, national or business news in the States, I think it will be vital to understand the Chinese culture(s), government and how/why everything is done the way it is in China. The importance of networking in China can’t be overstated, so the contacts I’m forming now will definitely prove useful later in life.

As the news here can’t really express dissent about the government, a lot of it tends to hate on America. While this can sometimes give me high blood pressure, I honestly believe I’m gaining valuable insight and learning crucial perceptions— which I think are important for the bilateral relationship China and the U.S. will have in the future.

UPDATE: In 2010, Tart moved to Blue Ocean Network, also based in Beijing.


To China and back


The newsroom of China.org.cn, an English-language website based in Beijing.

My visit to China is done, and although I’ve adapted once again to Eastern Daylight Time, I’m still thinking about my experience half a world away.

My colleague Laura Ruel and I spent about a week working with journalists of the China.org.cn news site. The English-language site has a staff of about 30 people, including a few Americans.

I was impressed with the dedication and skills of the China.org staff. It’s a different sort of journalism — run by and controlled by the government, created in an environment where Facebook, Twitter and most blogs are blocked. Yet, the staff there is doing much of what their Western counterparts do: trying to figure out the best to get the news to readers, in both form and content, while on constant deadline pressure.

I was asked to speak to the staff on several topics:

  • Story editing
  • Headline writing
  • Caption writing
  • Alternative story forms

I covered each of those topics in workshop sessions at the China.org offices. Each went well, and with each session, the staff grew more comfortable asking questions and offering comments.

On my final day in Beijing, I worked with staff members one on one in the newsroom. This was the most rewarding part of the week because I got to help people with the stories, captions and other content that they were working on at that moment.

I also got a surprising compliment from one editor: “Thank you for your help. And I would like to say that you are very handsome.”

Thanks to everyone at the site for their hospitality, and special thanks to Celine Chen for organizing the trip, showing us the city and and allowing us to bring a little bit of  American journalism to China.

A perfect parody

Editors and other journalists on Twitter have a new favorite to follow: FakeAPStylebook. It’s a dead-on spoof of The Associated Press Stylebook.

As The Onion does for news stories, FakeAPStylebook works so well because it mimics the tone and structure of its target. Here are a few examples of the style rulings from the fake stylebook:

  • Always capitalize ‘Bible.’ You don’t want to get letters from those people.
  • A surreal comma denotes a list of absurd items: fish mustache, one-legged spoon, glass violin.
  • The correct spelling is ‘Mr. T.’ People who type out ‘Mister’ are fools to be pitied.

Enjoy more on the Twitter page of FakeAPStylebook.

Q&A with Stephanie Beck, producer at WRAL

Stephanie Beck is the 6 p.m. news producer at TV station WRAL in Raleigh, N.C. Beck, who once aspired to be a features writer for a newspaper or magazine, started at the station in the mid 1990s as videotape editor. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Beck discusses her job as producer (which includes story editing) and WRAL’s online presence.

Q. What does the 6 p.m. news producer do on a typical day?

My day starts before I even get to work. I wake up with my alarm set to WUNC and peruse the online newspapers and my e-mail over my morning coffee.

When I get to work, it all starts with a morning editorial meeting at 9 a.m. There, producers for each show (5:00, 5:30, and 6:00 p.m.) and management put their heads together to assess what’s breaking, what’s news, what needs to be covered, what can be done another day and what everyone is talking about. We talk with the reporters about their pitches and discuss the stories until crews are assigned. Then we parcel out the stories to the shows across the 90 minutes of news so that viewers don’t feel they’re watching the same thing over and over again.

After the meeting, I jump into the day. I represent our station on a conference call of CBS affiliates in the state, trading stories and story ideas. I help write last-minute stories for the noon newscast.

I start working with reporters to design graphics to go with the stories reporters are working on for my 6 p.m. newscast. For example, maps to show viewers where smaller towns are in the area; interactive graphics to go in and around the stories on state government and economics and government spending; any way I can think of to make stories visually interesting to give them a slight boost and keep viewers’ attention. Then I sit down with graphic artists to make these ideas come alive on the screen.

This is also the time frame where I start looking for statistics, tidbits, previous stories and other items to put these stories in context and let viewers know why the stories we have chosen today will impact them and their daily lives. Oh, and did I mention that I try to start writing the show at this point?

At 1:45, there’s an afternoon editorial meeting. At this point, I have to justify every story in my rundown, from the 15-second copy story to the reporter’s package. I inform the same group of managers and producers what each crew has in terms of sound and video to make sure the packages fit the mold we were looking for.

After this meeting, it’s crunch time. Writing, re-writing and looking for stories through the afternoon until it’s complete, along with creating my own basic graphics. Usually, I try to finish the first write by 5 p.m.  That gives editors time to work on the video and me time to go back through and re-write and re-read my work.

At 5:55 p.m., I’m in the control room – after all that work, I’m not about to turn the reins over to anyone else if I can help it. Sitting in the producer’s chair means timing the show, communicating with live shots, and all around keeping the wheels on the train.

If breaking news strikes, it’s my job to get the director and the anchors on the same page to execute it as cleanly as possible. If things go as planned, it’s a slow day, and a rare day!

At 6:27:55 we dip to black and have a post-show meeting to talk about what went right and what went wrong that day.  Conversations ensue, and I’m done with my day between 6:45 and 7:00pm.

Q. How big of a role do writing and editing play in your job?

A. Writing is my job. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact in all that description that as a producer, it’s my job to choose stories and to write them in an easily understood fashion.

I am the person who condenses a Supreme Court ruling to a 30-second story or who sums up a murder case in 20 seconds. Doing so takes practice, distance from the story, and more practice.

Being concise is indeed an art form, and if you don’t believe it, just try this: Grab your local newspaper and pick a story. Try summarizing it in three to four simple sentences that are factually correct and don’t leave the reader forced to make assumptions. It becomes hard to decide what needs to be left out and what needs to stay.

Newspapers have the luxury of space. Broadcast does not, but we still have the duty to tell the story correctly and the need to tell it in an interesting fashion so that our audience stays with us.

That is where editing comes into my job. Rather than typical copy editing, I edit the story when I make decisions regarding what details go in and what details stay out. I do need to be familiar with AP style, especially for on-screen graphics, but the writing of the story itself is more conversational in style so that it fits the anchor’s delivery and personal style.

Q. You’re active on Twitter and other social media. What is WRAL’s strategy

A. WRAL’s strategy across the board is to be the news outlet people seek out when they’re in search of information. Weather, news, breaking news, traffic — you name it, we want to build the trust and name recognition with the public that we are where they go. Period.

Be first, be accurate, be informative, be investigative, be useful. It’s what we do in television news, our strategy for online presence at WRAL.com, and now they are the leading values we are taking with us into social media.

Q. WRAL’s history can be traced to the days of radio. It’s best known now as a TV news station and as a pioneer in HD broadcasting. With all of the changes in the media, is there a time ahead when WRAL will be online first and TV second?

A. One could say we’re nearly there. A few years ago, the phrase entered our vernacular that WRAL isn’t a television station with a Web site; we are an online news organization that includes a television station.

That’s not to say that TV news comes second, but to say that we are aware that television isn’t the only place that people get their news anymore, and we’re willing to meet them where they search.

If you read the Web site for your news, we’re there, with a number of features we do that are “web only.” There are plenty of content opportunities that stream live on the Web, sidebars that are placed on the Web to provide more context and interactive opportunities that television won’t allow. We stream our newscasts live on the Web for people who prefer to watch on their computers. We offer news updates for your mobile phone, in case you can’t make an appointment with a newscast.

A staff of online producers work hand in hand with reporters and producers to create a useful and informative Web presence. Our programmers wrote a WRAL app for the iPhone to keep you up to date on local news and weather.

If a conversation is happening on Twitter, we’re there. If it’s on Facebook, we’re there. As we proved with HD and the evolution of WRAL.com, we are very comfortable with the advances in technology, and I think we will continue to stay ahead of that curve.

Bound for Beijing

This blog will be quiet for much of October because I am going to Beijing for part of the month. I will be training journalists at an English language news site on topics such as headlines, captions and alternative story forms.

This trip is part of UNC’s ongoing relationship with this site. Here’s how it works:

  • In the spring, two Chinese journalists come to Chapel Hill for a semester and sit in on courses of their choice. They often select News Editing as one of those courses.
  • In the summer, two UNC undergraduates work in Beijing as summer interns at the site.
  • On occasion, faculty members travel to China for a week or two to lead workshop sessions. Previous visits led to the site’s recent redesign.

I’m excited about this opportunity and look forward to sharing my experiences when I am Stateside again. I hope to be able to offer updates on Twitter as things go along.

Thanks for reading, and see you later in the month.