Q&A with Wes Platt, news editor at the Herald-Sun

Wes Platt is the newly appointed news editor at the Herald-Sun newspaper in Durham, N.C. He previously served as a reporter covering K-12 education. In this interview, conducted by email, Platt discusses his new job, which includes writing editorials and contributing to the paper’s social media presence.

Q. Describe your job. What does a news editor do on a typical day?

A. Right now, my days are mostly atypical, because we’re in the process of replacing me on the K-12 education beat. Until that happens, I’ll occasionally throw my reporter hat back on to cover a school event or board meeting.

But on days that are close to normal, I start from home in Watts-Hillandale, posting news from the Herald-Sun website to our Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Around 2 p.m., I arrive at the office and get caught up on what’s going into the next day’s paper. I talk with Bob Ashley, our editor-in-chief, about the plan for the night and what I’ll editorialize about. I start building a budget of national and world interest stories for Section C. I select and upload cartoons for the op-ed page.

About 5 p.m., the day starts blurring, because reporters are submitting copy for editing and I’m often writing an editorial. Once I edit an article, I upload it to our internal system for the page designers and then to the website. When I finish an editorial, I send it to Bob and our publisher, Rick Bean, for review and feedback.

As fresh material starts popping up on the newspaper’s website, I get busy promoting it through our social media outlets. I try to limit this to just a few links in each burst.

Later in the evening, I may be waiting for a reporter to file a late article from a government meeting or special event. That quiet time is often when I peruse the paper for editorial topics to explore in the coming days. But it’s also when I keep an eye on other media and our breaking news alerts.

After all copy is edited and uploaded everywhere it needs to go, I shift into air traffic control mode and wait to review the pages for the next day’s paper online.

Before calling it a day, I’ll send Bob an email outlining what’s done for the next morning if I am able to work ahead.

Q. What kind of a news town is Durham? What stories do you find most interesting?

A. It’s an eclectic town with so many interesting facets. I am always interested in stories that defy stereotypes and show real moments and genuine personalities.

I hear a lot of people painting Durham as a sort of “little Detroit” when it comes to crime. But while we do have rough areas, we’re also incredibly diverse, creative and forward-thinking, from our universities to the Research Triangle Park. I love to read (and write) stories that go beyond the superficial stereotypes.

Q. You also handle the editorials for the newspaper, which is not typical for a news person to do. How do you balance those aspects of the job?

A. It is unusual, but I don’t think it is intended to be permanent. I’m handling some reporting duties during this transitional period until a new reporter is hired.

As I noted earlier, although I write editorials, I don’t do so in a vacuum. These are intended to reflect the editorial board’s opinions, not just mine. Bob and Rick may offer feedback, suggesting a different tone or other changes that allow the piece to truly represent the newspaper.

Once we’ve got a new K-12 reporter, I’ll start writing columns to keep me out in the community and sharing my voice with readers. Beyond that, I expect my byline on objective articles to become an exceptional rarity.

Q. You are active in social media. What are you and your newspaper hoping to achieve there?

A. Bottom line: We want people to put their eyes on the Herald-Sun website and print edition. Twitter’s an incredibly crowded breakroom with lots of people gathered around the water cooler. We want to be part of their conversation.

Through these outlets, we want people to know that their local Durham newspaper is still here, and we’re still telling great stories about their hometown. We want to connect with our readers so they can share more wonderful stories with us, and then we can shout about those on the internet too. It all helps feed the daily beast.

Q. It’s been a difficult period for the newspaper business, with staff reductions at the Herald-Sun and other publications. What do you see as the future of newspapers?

A. So far, the 21st century has been apocalyptic for many print newspapers. Really, there’s no way to sugarcoat that.

But it is truly evolution in action. I am optimistic that papers like the Herald-Sun can survive because of our concentration on local news.

Social media won’t be our salvation. To me, social media is the new billboard, a new sign on the side of a downtown bus, the little ad on the restaurant menu. It reminds the people who are listening that we are still here.

It helps spread the word and gets people talking about us, which is great (and inexpensive, which is also a big plus), but it doesn’t guarantee survival.

Our salvation will be readers who recognize and appreciate the local coverage we offer each and every day, and who challenge us to cover more and better.

Follow Wes Platt on Facebook and Twitter.


Student guest post: An education in editing and style

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the sixth of those posts. Jordan Moses is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in editing and graphic design. She recently returned from Australia and plans on writing and editing for a travel magazine.

“Oh, and by the way, leave the commas outside the quotation marks; the Jamaicans are using a British style.”

I admit, it wasn’t something I expected to hear that morning, but my internship has taught me to be prepared for anything. I recently undertook working with Technical Information Publishing Solutions, or TIPS, a small publishing company that I learned about through The Editor’s Desk.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve come to understand a great deal about what it means to be a copy editor. As editors, there are a lot of forces that draw our attention. After all, we must choose who to serve and how.

The first rule I learned about editing is that a copy editor only exists through whatever stylebook they’re using; everything else is superfluous.

TIPS uses the Chicago Manual of Style since they primarily deal with e-books. However, many journalists favor the Associated Press Stylebook, including UNC-Chapel Hill’s journalism school.

Having to jump between my Advanced Editing class and my internship, I’ve stumbled across several inconsistencies. An apostrophe s at the end of duchess might have been welcomed in class, but it shouldn’t have existed at work. And I would have received an actual timeout had I put the dash in “time-out” during class.

However, from working with both styles I’ve come to appreciate the differences between the two handbooks, and more importantly that copy editors cannot be expected to edit if the rules that need to be conformed to are not established. In this instance, I had to know who my audience was and what style the writer wanted to use to best reach them.

So it was with no great peril that I seamlessly transitioned into inversing first authors’ names, but not second authors, rid references of serial commas and struck out Jamaica every time it appeared beside Kingston. Two hours later, when I would sit in front of an Apple computer in class, my brain would once again switch to AP mode.

Once a style is chosen, we then come to a thin line of distinction that rarely any copy editor gets right the first time. It is the line between editing for style use and maintaining the author’s voice. There are certain turns of phrase or colloquialisms that writers insist upon using without which their writing would cease to be their own (at least that’s what I’m told.) Striking through every “out of this world” when you know the writer is going to return a paper full of angry red STATs is probably not the best approach. An agreement has to be made between the author and editor to do what’s best for the reader.

Carol Saller, who works as a manuscript editor at the University of Chicago Press, has an insightful book called “The Subversive Copy Editor” that can help you deal with those authors who just won’t budge. From what I’ve experienced, I think Saller is on to something.

The most important thing I’ve learned both in class and at my internship it is that the goal of any copy editor should be to know how to balance using a style manual and making compromises with the author to present the best package for the reader. The audience is who we should be serving.

How a seventh-grader knows that it’s a snow day

As I drove home from work yesterday, I heard reports on the radio of wintry weather headed toward the Triangle region of North Carolina. That, of course, was followed by reports of delayed openings for some schools.

That’s how I typically get information about closings: radio and television. When I worked in the newspaper business, we published such announcements in print. Newsroom deadlines and school administrators didn’t always work well together, however.

When I got home, I mentioned to my son, a seventh-grader, that schools might open late Friday because of bad weather. He hadn’t heard anything about that possibility, so I was his initial source for this news. Then he looked at his iPad for more information.

I asked: “How do you and your friends find out if schools are closed or delayed because of weather?”

He replied: “Instagram.”

I had asked the same question of high school students two years ago. Their answer then: Facebook.

My son’s choice of news source was confusing to me, because I think of Instagram as a place to look at photos posted by friends, not for breaking news. But sure enough, a little after 9 p.m., he said: “Ah-ha. We’re on a three-hour delay.” He showed me that several of his friends were posting screen-grab images from Twitter and the school system’s website making the announcement.

It turned out that our area got nothing but a cold, hard rain on Friday morning. No white stuff, no black ice. And no snowy scenes worth posting to Instagram.

Student guest post: How much jargon should we allow in sports stories?

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the fifth of those posts. Michael Lananna is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill who majors in reporting with a focus on sports. He is a senior writer on the sports desk of The Daily Tar Heel and an intern at ACCSports.com.

A colleague of mine once quipped that it’s impossible to write a baseball story without using clichés.

I think he’s right.

With baseball season fast approaching, we’ll soon be hearing again about pitchers who can dot the corners, sluggers who swing for the fences and teams who play one base at a time. Phrases like those are very much interwoven in baseball culture. Heck, Wikipedia has an entire glossary full of baseball-derived idioms.

But should we use that kind of language in our stories?

In this great journalism school of ours, we learn that clichés are bad, jargon is worse and that both should be avoided at all costs. But I’ve always believed that there should be a lot more leeway when it comes to sports stories.

How do you decide what to print and what to axe? For me it comes down to three main questions:

Who’s reading the story? As the most popular sports in the country, baseball, football and basketball pose an interesting dilemma. On average, stories on these sports will draw a readership from a far wider segment of the population than, say, a bridge tournament. As a result, you’re going to have readers who know everything there is to know about those sports as well as readers who have only a loose understanding of what a touchdown is.

So whom do you favor: the diehards or the casual fans? As a sports writer, I tend to favor the diehards a tad, but it’s important not to lean too far in either direction. You don’t want to confuse the average reader, but you also don’t want to insult the intelligence of the avid fan.

For events like that bridge tournament I was referencing, I think it’s OK to load up on jargon because you’re only going to be reaching a niche audience anyway — an audience composed of people who play bridge. So if you’re writing a bridge column, go ahead and give advice like this: “When it is no-trump and you believe an opponent has four-card length in your long suit, even if you have three touching honors, it is often right to lead low, so that the suit does not become blocked when partner has a useful card doubleton.” I’m not exactly sure what that means, but it sounds like practical advice.

How common and accessible is the language? I once had an impassioned dispute with a non-sports editor about using the word “bloop” in a baseball story I wrote. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a bloop essentially is a soft, high-arcing hit that strikes the ground just past the infield or in the shallow outfield. I argued that the term was ubiquitous enough in baseball lingo that most readers would know what I was talking about. I won. Bloop lived.

Other times, though, it’s better to bite the bullet and clarify, especially when it comes to strategy and coachspeak. If a basketball team switches from a man-to-man defense to a zone halfway through a game, it might be beneficial to explain to the reader exactly what that change means instead of assuming that he or she understands the terminology.

Is there a better way to word it? As writers and editors, we should always aim to present things creatively. While I believe some clichés and common phrases are acceptable — and often unavoidable — in sports stories, we shouldn’t lean on them. If there’s a more compelling and creative way to present something, go for it. In the case of “bloop,” there truly wasn’t a more concise or practical alternative for me to turn to, but that certainly isn’t the case every time.

I don’t pretend that I always know the answers to these questions, but they’re still important questions to ask on both sides of the writer-editor relationship. In my short time as a sports writer, I’ve encountered this scenario quite a bit. I’m not sure that I’ve always made the right decisions, but when I err, I err on the side of bloop.

Student guest post: Can an app replace a copy editor?

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the fourth of those posts. Laurie Beth Harris is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in journalism and Southern studies. She is the copy desk editor for The Daily Tar Heel and a former intern for WRAL.com.

In late January, The Washington Post released a prototype of its new TruthTeller app. This app fact checks a live political speech, with the help of PolitiFact, Factcheck.org and The Washington Post.

TruthTeller takes what the speaker says, figures out the factual elements and provides links to previous fact checks of similar facts verified. It removes the human element from discerning fact and fiction in political discourse and leaves copy editors with the question — is this the future of copy editing and fact checking? Could our jobs be replaced with an app?

Granted, this kind of technology, while not the first of its kind, is not advanced enough yet to be able to be applied to fact check everything a copy editor edits. But fact checking a basic news story not a far stretch from fact checking a live speech — an algorithm is able to write a basic sports story now.

The technology behind the TruthTeller app relies upon providing facts verified by humans. For live political speeches, TruthTeller has the potential to be extremely useful for checking claims on the fly. Beyond quickly checking facts, a program can’t replace the work of a good copy editor.

Spelling and grammar check has already proven that spelling correction can be automated, but we all know that spelling and grammar check also has its limits. How many times have you written a grammatically correct sentence, only for Microsoft Word to underline it in that annoying shade of green?

Automated fact checking has the same limits. For example, let’s say someone claims that tuition at UNC-Chapel Hill will rise by 20 percent next year. The fact-checking app might bring up the result of a link to a news story tuition proposal for a 20 percent increase, a proposal which later fails. The facts and numbers look the same on the surface, but one small element changes the situation entirely. A fact-checking app can make the process easier, but a human still has to be on the other end, making sure the results are logical and relevant.

Besides just checking facts and grammar, copy editors ask the question — does this make sense? Do the facts presented make sense in context of each other?

A program cannot read an article for clarity or logic. A program doesn’t read with an audience in mind. A program is simply reading the letters and words alone, all implications and subtleties are lost. Until we can write a script to read for continuity and understanding, the work of a good copy editor cannot be replaced by an app.

That’s not to say that such applications don’t have a place in the future of copy editing. There’s no doubt that such programs have the potential to vastly improve the accuracy of publications and catch errors than a human would simply miss. The key is integrating developing technology with the existing system to produce more accurate and precise editing.

Warren Buffett comes to Greensboro

My first full-time job in newspapers was on the copy desk at the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. I worked there in the era of pica poles, sizing wheels and composing rooms.

So last week, I read with great interest that the newspaper had been sold to Berkshire Hathaway’s BH Media Group, a k a Warren Buffett. So how did I hear about the sale of the News & Record? On TV or in the newspaper? No, on Facebook.

When I was at the News & Record (long before Facebook), the paper was owned by Landmark Communications. That company also owned daily newspapers in Virginia and Maryland, and perhaps most notably, the Weather Channel. During my time in Greensboro, there were occasional rumors in newsroom that Landmark would expand by buying other newspapers. The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., was often mentioned in that scuttlebutt.

That never happened, and in the 2000s, the company has contracted. Landmark sold the Weather Channel in 2008. In recent years, the News & Record and other Landmark papers have laid off staff members as a part of the drastic reduction in newsrooms across the country.

So what now for Greensboro? I defer on the details to my friend and former News & Record colleague John Robinson, who has been blogging extensively and intelligently about this change. I share his optimism (hey, BHM is hiring, after all) as well as his concerns that the company will be tempted to consolidate editing/design duties with the newspaper in neighboring Winston-Salem.

No matter what, I will always be grateful for my time in Greensboro. In a little more than two years on the copy desk, I learned lessons and made friends that have had a lifelong impact. I wish the newspaper well under its new ownership.

Student guest post: Working to close the gender gap in the media

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the third of those posts. Rebecca Dudley is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in editing and graphic design, with a minor in folklore studies. She plans to move to East Asia in August with a Christian organization.

How much attention should journalists give to gender?

With the Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta’s lift on the military’s ban on women in combat last week, the discussion of women in the media is a timely one.

There were dozens of stories published by all sorts of media on Panetta’s decision. Some, like the article published by The New York Times, did a decent job of quoting and picturing women in the story.

However, other news sources, like Fox News and The Houston Chronicle, did not give readers a proportional amount of female voice in their articles about women. The Fox News article was written by a man and did not include any quotes by women.

Americans like to think that we are past the time of sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination. Especially in the liberal university environment that many students are part of, it is easy to forget or even realize that there is a gender gap in our current media.

According to the annual “Who Makes the News Report,” although women consist of 51 percent of the American population, only 24 percent of the people mentioned in print, radio and television news are female. In contrast, 76 percent of the people in the news are male.

At the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication, about 75 percent of the students are female. This statistic is the same in other journalism schools throughout the country. So, the question is, why is this disconnect happening? Why are female journalists discriminating against themselves?

More importantly, why should we worry about this issue? It seems that editors have enough to keep track of, especially with deadlines looming. However, if we want to see the face of American media more accurately represent what the American people look like, we would do well to make sure that our writers are quoting and writing about women.