Q&A with James Protzman of BlueNC

James Protzman is one of the founders and primary bloggers at BlueNC, a community-driven website about news, policy and politics with a focus on North Carolina. The site’s content is generated by a small group of front-page bloggers, with daily contributions from other community members. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Protzman offers a look at the inner workings of the site.

Q. What is the objective of BlueNC, and how does the site fit into the media landscape of the Triangle and the state?

A. BlueNC is a vehicle for creating community among progressives in North Carolina. Our first focus is North Carolina public policy, but that tends to give way to politics during election cycles. Unfortunately, those cycles are becoming a year-round blur.

We are not affiliated with the Democratic Party in any way. Some would say we are a source of annoyance to Democratic Party leaders because of our criticism.

Our blog has around 5,000 unique visitors a week for most of the year, peaking at close to 10,000 around elections. As such, we are a small fish in the media landscape.

One of our missions, however, is to watch the watchdogs. We cover the mainstream media carefully, taking laziness and bias in reporting to task. We are followed daily by many reporters, as well as by leaders in state government.

Q. You are one of several “front-page authors” who can highlight certain posts and other interesting content on BlueNC. How does that work?

A. I am the sole source of funding for BlueNC, but not the sole source of content. Our community relies on volunteers to stay on top of the countless technical and logistical details that have to be managed. For example, we have spam attacks and trolls nearly every hour. I currently spend five or six hours a day keeping tabs on things.

Over the years, a number of individuals have stayed with the blog, showing up regularly with strong writing skills. After careful vetting, some of those individuals have been given “admin” privileges.

That means they can delete offensive posts, remove trolls and spammers, and move posts to the front page. Those decisions are made informally, largely a function of who’s busy, what other posts have been made and whether the content is highly relevant to North Carolina.

Q. Do posts and headlines go through any sort of editing process before or after posting? What about comments from users?

A. We edit and clean up headlines routinely to keep control of the tone and tenor of the front page. If we have a problem with the substance of a post or comment, we generally do not edit. We ask the author to fix the material, or in some cases, delete it. Repeated offenders are banned.

We really have only one editorial guideline. Posts and comments that are “intolerably obnoxious” will be removed. I personally am the decider.

Q. You are a graduate of the UNC journalism school, and you have, on occasion, criticized it. How do you see the role of journalism education now and into the future?

A. My criticism of the journalism school has been confined to three areas:  (1) collusion with corporate funders, (2) the use of state resources by faculty to promote their political views, and (3) the blurring of the line between journalism and public relations. That said, I think very highly of the school – and believe leadership has done an extraordinary job navigating the tricky waters of the industry today.

From my perspective as a freelance writer, I see a steady increase in the value of writing, with growing appreciation among leaders across every industry and sector of business. If j-schools can keep producing great writers, everything else will be just fine.


Studying for midterms

This blog will be quiet for the next week or so. I’ll be busy with midterms:

  • I’ll grade midterm exams for my editing courses. The exam includes a story to edit and a headline to write. The other component is a set of sentences to edit for clarity, word choice and other issues.
  • I’ll attend the midterm meeting of the executive committee of the American Copy Editors Society. We’re gathering in Phoenix to plan for the national conference, which will take place at Arizona State University in March 2011.

I’ll still be active on Twitter now and again. Thanks, as always, for reading here and there.

The value of a Dow Jones editing internship

It’s Dow Jones News Fund season. Journalism students across the country are applying for this program, which offers summer internships in business reporting and copy editing. Here’s a look at some of the program’s alumni from UNC-Chapel Hill who had internships as copy editors.

Copy editor: Katie Schwing
Year of internship: 2005
Where she interned: New York Times News Service
Where she is now: Colorado Springs, Colo. “After three years as a copy editor on the night news desk at The Gazette (minus a two-month period during which I was laid off), I left to do editing and graphic design for an architecture/engineering/planning firm called HDR.”
How the Dow Jones internship helped her career: “It’s been invaluable. Having that on my resume made newspapers sit up and take notice when I was applying for jobs (both after college and when I was laid off), especially with such a large paper listed as my first internship. I constantly use the skills I picked up working the wire, having to trim Times-length stories to much shorter news bites — handy not only at a paper with a shrinking news hole but also in my new job, to help deal with wordy engineers’ writing. Dr. Ed Trayes was incredibly influential in my journalism education, even though he only taught me directly for two weeks. He really nailed into us the importance of both detail and big-picture editing (providing a broad education about the world in the process), as well as how to conduct ourselves professionally at what was, for most of us, our first time working in a ‘real’ newsroom. I also got to meet industry giants such as Merrill Perlman; without her workshops in our Dow Jones training and at the Times, I would have probably been intimidated to approach her one on one.”

Copy editor: Lindsay Naylor
Year of internship: 2008
Where she interned: Grand Forks Herald in Grand Forks, N.D.
Where she is now: Grand Forks Herald
How the Dow Jones internship helped her career: “The internship helped me get a lot of experience editing and designing pages at a newspaper. I was hired by my paper, and because I already had a couple of months of experience there under my belt, they were able to bump me up on the pay scale when I started full time. Before I took the job at the Herald, editors at other papers I applied at said specifically that one of the reasons they called me for an interview was that I had a Dow Jones internship on my resume. I’ve also kept in touch with a lot of the other interns I attended training camp with. We’ve contacted one another whenever our publication has been hiring, and a couple of the others have gotten jobs after another former intern has put in a good word for them.”

Copy editor: Pressley Baird
Year of internship: 2010
Where she interned: The New York Times
Where she is now: A senior at UNC-Chapel Hill and platform producer for the Reese Felts Digital News Project
How the Dow Jones internship helped her career: “Ask me this question again in a few months, and I can tell you if working for The New York Times actually helped me get a job. Right now, though, it’s made me a better journalist in several ways. I was able to read a wide variety of stories at my internship because I worked for the Metro desk. During a typical week, I’d handle a couple of stories about crime in the city, a political story about a new tax the mayor wanted to pass, an obituary of a well-known New Yorker and a few longer feature-style pieces for the Sunday Metropolitan section. Reading so many different — but all well-written — pieces improved my own writing. But the most beneficial part of working at the Times is that you’re working with the very best, all of whom are eager to help you. My coworkers took time to show me what I was doing wrong and tell me how to fix it. I got suggestions on where to apply after graduation, and I left the paper with a long list of people who were willing to serve as references. Connections like that are invaluable.”

From North Carolina to South America

In late 2001, when I was wire editor at The News & Observer, I proposed (or pitched, as we called it) a story about Argentina’s financial crisis for the front page. It was a hard sell, because I had to make the case for why it mattered to readers in North Carolina.

The story ended up at the bottom of the page, and then inside the newspaper from then on. Argentina’s problems, which included rioting and looting, faded from the North American media as the situation got better.

Nearly 10 years later, journalism students at UNC-Chapel Hill and Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina have collaborated on a multimedia website called What Now, Argentina. Using a variety of story forms and graphics, the site documents daily life in the the capital, Buenos Aires, and it explains the origins of the 2001 crisis. It does all of that in English and Spanish.

We’ve come a long way from a 25-paragraph wire story, photo and headline. I encourage you to take a look.

Q&A with Kevin Davis, editor of Bull City Rising

Kevin Davis is editor of Bull City Rising, a news blog that covers Durham, N.C., which is also known as the Bull City. Davis, a former writer and editor and technology columnist for The Harvard Crimson, works as a university administrator and lives in the Trinity Park neighborhood of Durham. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Davis talks about writing and editing at the blog, and about the media landscape in the Triangle region of North Carolina.

Q. What is the job of editor like at Bull City Rising?

A. As with many “hyperlocal” sites and publications, I’m the owner (via Bull City New Media LLC), main writer and editor of other readers’ submission — plus interlocutor between two outsourced ad placement companies and sponsors, plus the first-line of troubleshooting if the site doesn’t work. And I have to remember to renew the PO Box once a year, too, and to get those LLC annual reports filed.

Tongue out of cheek, this is nothing new for folks at many community news  sites — or for any startup small business. In my case, BCR’s a quasi-hobby, quasi-commercial enterprise I pursue in my spare time outside of a full-time job as a university administrator. BCR takes up the mornings, evenings and many weekends.

Of late, I’ve been doing more editing of others, with three correspondents/freelancers on board or getting started; one covers general news, politics, neighborhood issues and other items of interest; a second is focused on entrepreneurship and startups, a big area of interest in Durham right now; and a third is just now starting and will focus on K-12 education.

On a typical morning, I’ll wake up and peruse the local papers and a Durham-centric RSS feed I’ve built over the years to look for stories worth aggregating into the “fishwrap,” a list of links to key news stories of the day. I’ll typically then write or finish editing one or two other stories that get set for scheduled/timed posting during the day. Evenings are for writing or, in some cases, attending public meetings to get the news for  the next day.

Apart from writing, much of my time is spent playing traffic-cop for local stories coming in from readers, PR professionals, municipal PIOs and the like. I would love to see a study comparing the number of former News & Observer and other pro-jo’s in full-time PR to the number of actual professional  journalists left in newsrooms; based on the well-crafted, attractive prose arriving in my inbox each day that isn’t in my newspaper, I’m afraid we’ve gotten the balance wrong, though few of our newly minted PR pros chose those careers voluntarily.

My biggest weakness is time, especially when demands in the real work or,  of late, with an aging parent have squeezed out what time usually goes to the site.

Q. How does story editing, caption writing and headline writing work at the blog?

A. Bloggers have the freedom to ignore the column inch; a post can run 300 words or 3,000 words depending on the inclination of the writer and the subject matter. I’ve found my readership will stick with longer, more analytical posts with significant original research, but that the temptation to be sloppy and over-wordy for stories that don’t deserve that treatment is too easy.

Certainly the quality of my site suffers from the lack of an independent, separate editor — particularly for my own stories, which unlike those of my freelancers and correspondents don’t get an independent set of reviewer eyes. And frankly, as with anyone else in the business of reporting events, news and views,  timetables and deadlines can lead to mistakes. If I’m pressed on time and run with a story without taking the time to double-check core assumptions, data and links, I’ll almost invariably screw something up.

There’s not an easy answer to that, though. Some of the latest research I’ve read on hyperlocal media throws shadows on the concept of the  university- or NFP-trained community newsroom, with dozens of volunteers providing reportage and a few professionals editing and culling in the middle. The challenge being reported in those startups is that all the journalism training in the world is great, but “citizen journalists” (a term I have issues with) in that model aren’t highly committed and tend to wander away or quit or burn out quickly. It takes a mix of passion, love for the subject matter and OCD to stick with a hyperlocal site, and that comes when you’re invested as the publisher too often.

Hyperlocal/citizen media or what have you shouldn’t replace professional, paid journalism. In communities where it does so only accidentally, and hopefully temporarily, we need to find a way to make those ventures sustainable, with enough extra eyes to provide that independent editing hand, for instance, or a true editorial-advertising firewall.

Headline writing is much more fun in blogs than in my collegiate newspaper days. The temptation for overwrought headlines is always there, though for  sites like mine that send headlines to Twitter, that service’s 140-character limit — less room for bit.ly links to the story, less room for “RT @bullcity” messages you  hope others will prepend — make for tighter text. On the other hand, the ability to write excerpts from posts that appear in RSS feeds and via Facebook gives the opportunity for a little  more flexibility and creativity, especially in trying to encourage deeper reading.

Q. You’re on Twitter and Facebook. How important is social media to what you do?

A. Ironically, I use Twitter and Facebook intensively more because readers seem to expect it and because different readers come in through different channels — regular visitors, RSS subscribers, Twitter, Facebook, search and links. Personally, despite being on the cusp between GenX and the millennials, I don’t feel like a digital-native when it comes to social media, but I am astounded at the power of those platforms to magnify and augment a story’s reach.

Not that I consider them to be a replacement for longer-form work, of course. And I do think we sometimes conflate their use as a source for vox-populi reactions to stories and raw information with the informed lens that journalistic writing should bring to a story. For me, I find them to be very important as a broadcast tool, but less useful as a sourcing tool.

In  fact, as a hyperlocalist, one challenge is that social media tends to connect people in lots of different organizing mechanisms, but place isn’t always one of them. Neighborhood e-mail listservs and message boards are still much better story sources than Facebook.

Q. The Triangle has a lot of media options — print, online and  broadcast. Where do Bull City Rising and similar blogs fit into that? And what changes do you anticipate?

At present, I see BCR as an outlet for stories that print outlets don’t cover or don’t see first. Print journalists are fewer in number, and I tend to suspect that spreading the same corpus of work over fewer reporters is deepening the bias toward press-release and public meeting-driven stories over enterprise journalism. There are exceptions, like the N&O’s fine investigative  work, but I tend to find that newspapers don’t seem to be able to sell more analytical, entrepreneurial work to their readers or  their publishers.

Not  that my site’s work always, or even often, reaches that mark, though I think there’s been times it has. But it’s a similar dynamic to that in place at the Indy: By being able to target certain key stories or areas of coverage for deeper work while  taking an aggregator strategy to commodity news, my ultimate goal over time is to help deepen the discourse on issues that really matter for Durham’s future.

Take crime news. I don’t publish stories on who’s been shot or horrible, yet easily sensationalized, events like a father’s murder of his child in rural northern Durham County a couple of weeks ago. Those stories are well-covered by print and broadcast, sometimes to the exclusion of other stories.

But I do want to look at issues of root-cause of crime, such as some of the papers coming out of Duke’s Urban Economics course each year, or at the lens of multi-year crime trends. At the end of the day, the latter kinds of stories help citizens be more informed about what we as a community need to be doing to improve public safety or to understand the reality of Durham crime versus regional stereotypes.

I think new media entrants like BCR will play a larger role in community newsgathering as traditional media channels face deeper economic pressures. That’s not to say BCR in its current, blog-esque, editorial voice-forward design would necessarily absorb a larger role per se — or, heaven forbid, that we see part-time citizen writers trying to supplant professional, paid journalism. Instead, I think websites can provide a much more sustainable model and channel for supporting full-time, paid newsgathering “without fear or favor,” as the saying goes, than can modes that have high fixed overhead costs.

Among hyperlocals, the entry of Patch into markets is quite interesting, especially since most sites like mine are immature in their advertising take currently. Patch is focused on the sub-75k population cities and is reported to bring in at least as many ad sales staff in a market as they do journalists. It’s a smart strategy: become a local hero to small communities by providing a dedicated journalist to your town, while building a regional sales staff that can (in my guess) eventually let you swoop into the major metro cores with a prebuilt metro market engine that can sell ads and hire local journalists.

But as the question has gone with university and non-profit citizen journalist efforts: Is the passion there for this to work?

The headline verbs that we hate

Some words exist primarily in the world of newspaper headlines. I was thinking about this problem this week as students in my editing classes have begun writing headlines.

Many of the students are writing compelling headlines that communicate the news and lure readers into a story. A few of them are writing headlines that sound like headlines they may have read in their hometown newspapers — and not in a good way.

These “headline-ese” headlines use verbs that no normal person would utter in conversation, and they are often overused. It’s hard to imagine readers understanding or being attracted by these verbs. Confusion is a more likely reaction.

I started thinking about the headline verbs that I find particularly annoying. I also asked friends on Facebook and my Twitter followers. Here’s our list of those verbs that bug us:

  • Mull
  • Eye
  • Ax
  • Irk
  • Ink (as in “to sign”)
  • Rap (as in “to criticize”)
  • Bilk
  • Vie
  • Slate (as in “to schedule”)
  • Tout
  • Toot
  • Laud
  • Finger
  • Fete
  • Tap (as in “to select” or “to appoint”)
  • Pelt
  • Probe
  • Offer (on restaurant reviews)
  • Shine (about Scouts or students)
  • Nab
  • Opines
  • Quiz
  • Limn
  • Any HuffPo verbs: Eviscerate, destroy, hammer, maul, disembowel, go nuclear, skull#$*@

Thanks to @underoak, @laurenhough, @wisekaren, @lukemorris, @montyhobbs on Twitter and a host of others on Facebook for their contributions.

The evolution of editing

A friend invited me along to a talk the other day at Duke University by Richard Dawkins. He is a retired professor, noted author and outspoken atheist.

Dawkins is perhaps best known for his book “The God Delusion.” His latest work is “The Greatest Show on Earth,” in which he makes a case for evolution.

Before a full house at Duke, Dawkins opened his lecture with a bit of editing advice concerning the word “theory.” That word, as applied to evolution, he said, allows some people to be skeptical of evolution or dismiss it altogether. After all, “it’s just a theory.”

Dawkins suggested this edit: instead of calling evolution a “theory,” call it a “fact.” The National Academy of Sciences would agree.

“Theory” is a tricky word that has more than one meaning. Here are two from Webster’s New World College Dictionary:

  • “A speculative idea or plan as to how something might be done.”
  • “A formulation of apparent relationships or underlying principles of certain observed phenomenon which has been verified to some degree.”

It goes on:

“Theory, as compared here, implies considerable evidence in support of a formulated general principle explaining the operation of certain phenomena [the theory of evolution].”

Science asserts that this definition of theory is the one that applies to evolution. It also works for other scientific theories including the heliocentric theory, which states that the sun is the center of the solar system, with the planets revolving around it. But hey, it’s just a theory.