Thanks, Dean Jean

Today is the last day that Jean Folkerts will be dean at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is stepping down from that role, but she will remain on the faculty.

As noted in a recent News & Observer column, Folkerts has led the j-school at a challenging time for our profession. She has done so with verve and commitment.

Folkerts has also been a friend and mentor to junior (i.e., untenured) faculty members. During her five years as dean, she has encouraged and enabled us to excel as teachers and scholars, and as servants to the journalism profession and the state of North Carolina.

As someone who benefited from that mentoring, I want to say thanks to Jean for her leadership and offer my congratulations on a job well done. Best wishes to you, Jean, and thanks for being a great boss!


Technical difficulties

This blog is experiencing technical difficulties. Please stand by, and we will soon rejoin our regularly scheduled postings, already in progress.

UPDATE: I fixed the problem. A little bit of HTML knowledge goes a long way. I changed the WordPress theme while I was at it, so let me know what you think.

Q&A with Melanie Sill, former editor of N&O and Sacramento Bee

Melanie Sill is Executive in Residence at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California. Before her recent move into academia, Sill was editor of the Sacramento Bee and The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. In this interview, conducted by email, Sill discusses her new job and the future of the news media.

Q. Describe your position at USC-Annenberg. What are you and the school hoping to achieve?

A. I knew Geneva Overholser, director of USC Annenberg’s School of Journalism, through many professional connections including judging the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting, which the school oversees.

I spoke at the journalism school earlier this year and, in talking with Geneva, found my interests and the school’s work wonderfully aligned. We both saw opportunity in working together on questions related to the changing role of journalism in the digital age.

The school (both the communication and the journalism sides) is rich in creative and innovative faculty and student work. I bring experience, knowledge and ideas that I hope will contribute in a variety of ways.

My first step is to catch up with some of the numerous experiments under way across the media landscape. I also expect to be writing online, doing some public speaking and working on a project (now in the early stages) focused on one or two ideas about how journalism can help people get interested and involved in public life.

Q. What has the transition from the newsroom been like? Any surprises? Regrets?

A. Leaving the role of newspaper editor hasn’t been an overnight transition for me but a process that began some time ago and continues to prompt reflection and discovery. Yet this was a logical step driven by interests and questions that had intensified for me in the last two years, so the shift itself has been surprisingly seamless.

I’m finding a lot going on, some of it under the radar, so I’m staying pretty busy. After 30 years in newsrooms, of course, it feels odd to get up in the morning and not see evidence of what I did yesterday. I value people more than processes, so I miss colleagues and reader interactions more than anything else.

Q. You recently began a personal blog about journalism. What is that like, and how is it different from blogging you’ve done as editor of The News & Observer and Sacramento Bee?

A. I wrote a weekly editor’s column in Sacramento and in Raleigh, wrote regular notes to the staff about journalism and our newsrooms, and corresponded with thousands of individual readers over the years via email, phone calls and snail mail. I was missing that outlet, so started the journalism blog both for expression and potential dialogue.

The blog is focused on my professional view, not personal life. Yet it’s different from The N&O blog and Bee columns, where I spoke for news organizations as well as myself.

Q. You were at the N&O when it was sold to McClatchy, and you’ve been part of that company’s ups and downs as a newsroom manager. What do you think newspaper companies can do to survive and thrive?

A. That’s a logical question that many people smarter than me are trying to answer every day. Like most, I know we’re in the midst of change, not at the end of anything, which means both the challenges and the opportunities persist.

People who worked with me in Raleigh and Sacramento can testify that I pressed a few consistent themes. One was the need to look outward — to focus on what was happening in people’s lives and what information they needed that we could provide. Find things out, and tell people – in smart, effective, imaginative ways. Another was the need to be genuinely valuable and excel in ways that gave readers tangible experience of that value.

In an age of exponential growth in competition, I believe those who provide real value will win. That’s not always pocketbook value – it can also be enjoyment, intellectual reward or convenience.

Print readership is still significant both in size of audience and impact of coverage, and that often gets lost in the discussion.

Digital information has become the driving force in our world. I think some of the current “digital first” discussion, as sensible as it is in many ways, overlooks the fact that each medium presents differently and is used differently by readers, with overlap but also real separation in audience habits. I think newsrooms that publish on different platforms need to excel in each medium, not just take Web stories and recycle them print – or the reverse, as we all did in the first decade of online publishing. You can’t just push the same stuff through different channels, whether it’s a TV news script or breaking news Tweet; each needs different editing and audience understanding.

The biggest advantage of the digital age is the ability for people to connect directly. That’s the frontier of journalism, I think, that point or plane of connection where we can provide value. To me, the opportunities for journalism both commercially and civically are found on that frontier.

At the Sac Bee, we developed a regional blog network called Sacramento Connect that now has 150 blog and Website partners, an amazingly rich collection of views and voices. The network has become not just a Web resource, but also a relationship-builder for and the local digital community.

The challenge for us at the beginning was creating a frame of reference both internally and externally. Sac Connect wasn’t a new version of any newspaper technique or product; it was a new thing. Recognizing that helped set goals and measures of both quality and quantity.

Organizations, especially those with long histories, are driven mostly by culture and some of the newspaper industry’s greatest challenges are cultural, not strategic. (This is also one of the most underestimated challenges). We’re part of a much bigger wave of technological and societal change that comes perhaps once every half-century. These forces require transformative change, and for me that means understanding embedded culture both for its assets and values and its potential limitations.

Q. Your position at USC is a temporary one. What do you hope to do next?

A. I’m not ready to say specifically, but I thrive on the front lines of journalism and as part of collective effort. For now, I’m giving full attention to my USC role and expect to gain from the experience.

I’ll be immersed in the work and, as the semester begins in August, in getting to know the talented faculty and students around the school and the extended network of labs and related programs. It’s an ideal place for me at this stage of my career.

For more, follow melaniesill on Twitter and read her blog.

UPDATE: In December 2011, USC-Annenberg released Sill’s report, “The Case for Open Journalism Now.” Read it here and take a look at her recommendations.

Meet us in St. Louis — for breakfast

The Breakfast of Editing Champions returns to the AEJMC national convention in St. Louis on Thursday, Aug. 11.

The breakfast, which will begin at 8:15 a.m., is free and open to anyone who teaches editing, appreciates editing or simply likes to hang around editing professors. That should be pretty much everyone.

This year’s breakfast is BYOB: Bring Your Own Bagel. As in years past, coffee will be provided. If you would like to attend, RSVP by signing up on the event’s Facebook page.

The agenda is simple, yet fundamental to journalism that matters: the future of editing and editing education. This year’s breakfast will include a panel discussion on the fast-moving changes in our field:

  • Joy Mayer, associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism. In addition to her academic duties, Mayer is an editor at the Columbia Missourian, the community newspaper run by faculty and staffed by Missouri students. Her focus at the newspaper is community outreach and engagement.
  • Merrill Perlman, freelance editor and consultant. Perlman spent 25 years at The New York Times in jobs including business copy editor, managing editor of the New York Times News Service and director of copy desks. She is an adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and writes the Language Corner column for the Columbia Journalism Review.
  • Teresa Schmedding, president of the American Copy Editors Society. Schmedding, a frequent presenter on managing creative people and other newsroom issues, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, the third largest paper in Illinois.

A highlight of the breakfasts has been the Teaching Idea Exchange, in which we swap assignment and strategies. Jill Van Wyke of Drake University will handle the exchange this year, so send your best teaching idea or tip to her at by Friday, July 29. Send her a few paragraphs on your idea and be ready to discuss it for a minute or two at the breakfast.

Thanks to our sponsors for making the event (and coffee) possible: the American Copy Editors Society, Poynter’s News University and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. Thanks also to the Newspaper and Scholastic Journalism divisions of AEJMC for their support.

See you in St. Louis!

Commandments of commenting

In recent weeks, I’ve been commenting on news sites on occasion. I try to be a voice of reason amid the chatter, usually attempting to clear the air on misconceptions about journalism.

It isn’t easy. As anyone who has spent time reading comments, they are often vitriolic, sometimes idiotic.

News organizations have talked about trying to improve the level of discourse. After all, they can decide whether to allow comments and which ones will be published.

Here’s my suggestion for those of us who want to read and write comments on websites and blogs in a constructive way. I’m calling them the 10 commandments of commenting. They apply to comments on desktops, laptops, smartphones and (of course) tablets.

Maybe if we could agree to these guidelines, comments will improve. We could discuss the issues of the day, challenge each other and (maybe, just maybe) learn something.

I’m willing to live by these commandments. How about you?

1. Thou shalt use your real name.

2. Thou shalt not use animated avatars.

3. Thou shalt not be a sock puppet.

4. Thou shalt not use the -tard suffix.

5. Thou shalt use attribution, including links, when making disputed assertions of fact.

6 Thou shalt not use ALLCAPS.

7. Thou shalt not violate Godwin’s law.

8. Thou shalt not issue imperatives for the “sheeple” to “wake up.”

9. Thou shalt not bear false witness.

10. Thou shalt stay on topic and remain civil.

A tribute to N&O copy editors and page designers

Disastrous. Unbelievable. Shameful. Messed up. Breathtakingly bad. So sad.

These are just some of the adjectives used on Facebook and Twitter regarding McClatchy’s decision to shut down the copy desk and design desk at The News & Observer. That work will be done at an editing/design hub at The Charlotte Observer, which is also owned by McClatchy.

McClatchy is offering the N&O journalists a chance to keep their jobs, but they must move to Charlotte to do so. They have until July 1 to decide. So far, not many seem willing to uproot their lives and families to do that.

I spent the bulk of my newsroom career at the N&O, so this news hit me hard. I am sad for my former colleagues, and I worry about the quality of the newspaper that I still read every day. I am also angry that hard-working journalists must bear the brunt of McClatchy’s debt and business decisions.

N&O reporters, editors and designers (both past and present) have been expressing similar feelings on Facebook. Here’s a sampling of what’s being said there:

  • The News & Observer’s copy editors and designers are the most creative, smart, funny, reliable, kind and hard-working journalists you could ever hope to meet. They deserve better.
  • My heart’s with my editing and design friends left with the unenviable choice between job and community. And the work that is being sent isn’t merely “production.” It’s editing, design, news judgment, awareness of local community standards and interests. The chain doesn’t clearly understand that, or these positions would remain in Raleigh.
  • Well done, McClatchy. I hope you choke on your precious cost savings.
  • How can you have a newsroom without the excitement that rips through a copy desk when you’re getting out a paper with late-breaking news that’s important to people?
  • Another risky thing about having all the copy editing and page design for several newspapers in one place is that when a hurricane blows through and destroys the building or at least causes a lasting power outage, there is no desk in another location to pick up the work.
  • One good thing about this N&O nightside mess: When we have an inevitable get-together (picnic, anyone??), no one will have to take a raincheck because “someone has to put the paper out.”
  • I think I know how the people of Bến Tre felt.
  • Our desk will be lost in The Cloud; we’ll be lost in a fog. Readers and advertisers will feel the loss too.
  • It makes me sick to think that copy editing and page design are considered factory work, but I know that my colleagues and I are journalists and professionals.
  • That’s our heart and soul leaving.
  • Who’ll save my ass now?

I wish my friends at the N&O the best. I hope that they find fulfilling jobs where they can put their journalistic skills to good use.

Newspapers in education: Scotty edition

Scotty McCreery has been big news on the pages, website and blogs of The News & Observer this spring. Scotty, as he is known on second reference, is the winner of this season’s “American Idol.” He’s from Garner, N.C., just outside Raleigh, so his run to the “Idol” title is local news.

When Scotty was proclaimed the winner in the competition last month, his victory dominated the front page of the N&O. Only one other story made it above the fold in that edition. As expected, this level of coverage drew criticism, but other readers defended it.

The News & Observer published a follow-up article this week about how Scotty and his family are adjusting to life in the spotlight. The story includes this reference to that front page:

The McCreerys hope McCreery’s faith and upbringing will help him make good decisions as he tackles stardom. Judy [his mom] said to him that The News & Observer front page celebrating his victory also had a cautionary tale about the poor decisions that can come with celebrity: a story about the federal investigation of former U.S. Senator John Edwards.

Who knew that a newspaper’s layout, news judgment and headlines might help a young man stay out of trouble? And yes, you can buy a T-shirt with this front page on it. Maybe the unexpected combination of Scotty McCreery and John Edwards will inspire you too.

For more on how the N&O covered Scotty’s victory, check out this post at Charles Apple’s blog.