Q&A with Sapna Maheshwari of BuzzFeed

Sapna Maheshwari is a business reporter for BuzzFeed. Prior to that job, she worked at Bloomberg News. In this interview, conducted by email, Maheshwari discusses her beat, her recent career transition and BuzzFeed’s new business section.

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

A. My job is to write about retail for BuzzFeed’s new business news section. My typical workday is a lot like it used to be — reading analyst reports, talking with sources, contacting companies, reading filings and so on. I spend a bit more time on Twitter and other social networks than I used to, looking for information on the companies I cover in those spheres.

Q. Why is BuzzFeed, known for its animal photos and “listicles,” going into business journalism?

A. BuzzFeed has been expanding its news coverage for quite some time — especially in politics, where the team there has really made a name for itself.

Business news is a big part of the social conversation. Clearly, it’s something people care about and talk about. We’re a small team but think we can write smart scoops and analysis about business that people want to read and share.

For my beat, retail, it’s an obvious fit: writing about the businesses that people shop at and interact with on a daily basis. Our goal is for everything on the vertical to be funny or exclusive, and hopefully, we’re hitting that goal so far.

Q. You previously worked at Bloomberg News. What has it been like to go from the Bloomberg Way to BuzzFeed? What are the differences in reporting, writing and editing?

A. It’s very different. At Bloomberg, the writing was more formulaic, and my audience was typically investors or traders, except when I was writing feature-type stories for Businessweek. I also had more editors, and the fact-checking was more rigorous. I had to put in a ticket to get a photo attached to a story.

Here at BuzzFeed, it’s obviously a smaller operation. I can put together the posts myself, and it goes out much quicker. We’re also not writing up earnings stories and stock moves, so I can spend more time reporting and researching.

That said, the reporting itself is largely similar, but I have less data at my fingertips without a Bloomberg terminal. Working at Bloomberg for so long definitely made me a fair and careful reporter, though, and I’m so glad I started my career there.

Q. You graduated from the UNC School of Journalism in 2009. What is the most important thing you learned there, and what new skills have you had to pick up since college?

A. Wow, hard to pick out the most important thing I learned at the j-school. I’m definitely extra careful with facts and spelling thanks to my classes there.

I think one of the most important things I took away was from my business and the media class — learning about the role of PR in business journalism and how the two fields can work together despite often having different goals. I have always kept to the rule that a story shouldn’t be a “surprise” for a company and that transparency from my end goes a long way in building trust with them. Having so many friends that went the PR route in the j-school reinforced that for me.

As far as new skills, I’ve gotten more adept with company filings and using social networking tools to find sources for stories. I also became a bit of a pro on the Bloomberg terminal after working on one for 3.5 years!

UPDATE: In June 2016, Maheshwari announced via Twitter that she was moving from BuzzFeed to The New York Times.


Let’s have breakfast in Washington, D.C.

The Breakfast of Editing Champions returns to the AEJMC national conference in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Aug. 9. I’m the organizer and moderator for the event, succeeding the wonderful Deborah Gump in that role.

The breakfast, which will begin at 8:15 a.m., is open to anyone who teaches editing, appreciates editing or just likes to hang out with editing professors. That should be pretty much everyone, right?

This year, Howard Finberg of The Poynter Institute will be the breakfast’s featured speaker. Finberg has been leading a conversation on the future of journalism education, and he will offer his thoughts on how editing (in all facets) plays into that future. Is online education here to stay? Can AP style be taught as a MOOC? Should it be?

Another highlight of the breakfasts has been the Teaching Idea Exchange, in which we swap assignments and strategies. Jill Van Wyke of Drake University will again handle the exchange this year, so send your best teaching idea or tip to her at jill.vanwyke@drake.edu by Wednesday, July 31. Send her a few paragraphs on your idea and be ready to discuss it for a minute or two at the breakfast.

Coffee and tea will be provided, and perhaps donuts and bagels. The breakfast is free, but please RSVP by signing up using this online form. The deadline is Monday, Aug. 5.

Special thanks to the sponsors of this year’s breakfast:

See you in Washington!

UPDATE: Breakfast is over, and it was satisfying and nutritious. If you couldn’t be there, you can see what you missed, and you can read about Howard Finberg’s thoughts on the urgent need to change journalism education. Thanks to everyone who attended, and I hope to see everyone at next year’s conference in Montreal.

Q&A with Kirk Ross of The Carolina Mercury

Kirk Ross is editor of The Carolina Mercury, a website that focuses on North Carolina news, issues and politics, including the state’s General Assembly. In this interview, conducted by email, Ross talks about the site, his job and online and print journalism.

Q. What is the purpose of The Carolina Mercury as a self-described “filtered aggregator of news with occasional bits of analysis”?

A. Eventually, we want the Mercury to be a mix of longer essays, visual elements (slideshows, video) as well as the shorter posts were doing these days to clue folks about issues and news events. Right now, we’re just trying to keep up with a news cycle that’s in hyperdrive because of the legislative session, so most of our posts are in the shorter style.

I think one of the big problems with aggregators, both the automatic ones and the human-initiated kind, is that they give you little or no context. My favorite new phrase for what we’re trying to do with our shorter posts is “curated aggregation,” and it means not just a link and a pull quote, but adding a reason why the story is important and giving the reader some context by noting previous, related stories as well as doing some taxonomy work.

For the various news feeds and Twitter feeds on the site, we’ve actually done some filtering. The Twitter feeds on the site monitor a mix of individuals, organizations and hashtags. The #NCGA (North Carolina General Assembly) and #NCPOL hashtags can occasionally be dominated by trolls, junk posts and people who keep writing tweet after tweet hyping some ideological view, so we’ve got those tweets filtered out to make the feed a better information tool.

Q. What is your role at the Mercury, and what is your job like from day to day?

A. Like I said, right now it’s a madhouse keeping up with legislation and the General Assembly, so that dominates life at present. I’m covering the legislature for two news organizations, one in the mountains and one on the coast, and have two columns a month on public policy to write as well.

My day starts with seeing what bills have been filed or are on the calendar, reviewing them and letting folks know if there’s something significant coming. The volume is so great at times that it’s all triage.

I either drive to Raleigh or tune into the committee hearings and House and Senate session via the web and blog accordingly. I coordinate with Lucy Butcher, who is the other main reporter/editor at the Mercury, on things that are coming up or what’s breaking. It’s all fairly reactive, which is not my favorite mode to be in, but that’s the news business when things are, well, newsy.

After the session, things will change a bit. I’m going to drive around the state for a while looking for interesting stories that do not include the word “legislation.”

Q. What are some of the challenges of covering the General Assembly and state government in general?

A. Keeping calm and carrying on. No, seriously, that is a big part of it because a lot of important changes are being pushed through.

There’s a temptation to cover something because it is outrageous, but you have to have some discipline. You can’t let yourself get distracted by every crazy piece of legislation that comes along. You have to stay focused on what actually might become law.

The longer I’ve done this, the more I dislike politics and all the noise that comes with it. I much prefer a good policy tussle.

The hardest thing about the NCGA this session is that there are so many new members. More than half of legislators are in either their first or second term, and at times, it really shows. There’s such a rush to change things that there’s not a lot of time for legislators to really understand what policies are now and why they’re in place before being asked to change them.

The rest of state government in this era of supermajority is a strange beast. The addition of three times as many political appointees and years of worry about having one’s budget slashed has taken a toll.

Nobody wants to get on the radar screen, meaning no one wants to say anything to the press that could bring down some heat. There’s a lot of self-censorship, and I’m not seeing any headway on making things more transparent.

Q. The big question with digital media is financial. How can sites like the Mercury become economically viable?

A. Do good journalism. Break some stories. Don’t let the site meter run your life, or you’ll end up chasing celebrities, pumping up scandals and ignoring stories that actually make a difference in people’s lives.

If you can do these things, you can find an economic model that works whether that’s a tip jar, subscriptions or some big grant. Whatever you do, don’t think you can do it through advertising. It’s been tried.

Q. Previously, you were editor of The Carrboro Citizen. What has the transition from a print-centric publication to an exclusively online entity been like for you, and what advice would you have for journalists looking to make a similar transition?

A. I always told people that one of the great advantages the Citizen had was that I got to integrate the web and print versions from the start. That was enlightening because it got us past the idea of adapting or converting and into a combined creative process.

It changes your writing if you know you’re going to be able to put the full text of a bill at the bottom of a story or be able to quote extensively from a report. You have to consider how to format, how people read online and how they share stories with each other.

I learned how to make newspapers when they were still made out of molten lead and you had to know how to count headlines. That shaped the profession long after offset changed everything.

You still see the same short verbs and slang created by clever editors for single-column stories. The mental exercise of composing a headline under those circumstances always helped me better understand the story I was writing.

Thinking about how you’d tweet something or post it to your Facebook page isn’t something you’re forced to do since that the big, mean Internet took your print publication away. It’s how information flows now and, frankly, it smells a hell of a lot better than those old linotype machines.

Visit the Carolina Mercury on Facebook and follow its Twitter feed.

Editing your life’s story

The journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill held its commencement Sunday. This is a smaller ceremony that takes place shortly after the universitywide commencement.

This year’s speaker, Ken Lowe of Scripps Networks Interactive, concluded his remarks to the journalism school’s graduates with this observation:

You’re well prepared for the future, which is really about taking lots of facts, lots of information, lots of details, and editing them down to precise, usable and focused takeaways of information and, yes, stories. The world, in my opinion, belongs to you, the editors of our future.

When you think about it, just about everything in life is edited, isn’t it? This program today is edited. This building was edited. The streets on which you came over today were edited. The menu where you ate lunch today was edited.

Curation and the ability to take complex and sometimes difficult information and get it down to something that people can understand is very powerful. You have that in your hands.

It is a message to remember. Even in an age where copy desks are being cut and consolidated, editing is still an essential part of communication and, indeed, life.

Thank you, Ken, for your wise words, and good luck to journalism graduates across the country.

Why course evaluations matter

Earlier today, I received an email attachment containing my student evaluations for the spring semester.

At UNC-Chapel Hill, students are asked to evaluate their courses using an online form. I was happy to see that most of mine had taken the time to provide feedback.

Course evaluations are useful. Here’s why.

To the instructor: I read the evaluations carefully, taking time not only to see how students ranked various aspects of a course, but also looking for comments that can help me teach a course better the next time around. Over the years, I have adjusted readings and assignments based on student feedback.

To the department and university: Course evaluations play an important role in decisions regarding tenure and promotion. They are the primary method for assessing a professor’s effectiveness in the classroom. At UNC, tenured professors are reviewed every five years on teaching, research and service. Again, the student evaluations are essential.

Thanks to the students this semester for their kind words and constructive criticism. I’ll consider your suggestions.

I cannot, however, honor your most frequent request: Eliminate 8 a.m. classes. You’ll have to take that idea to the chancellor.

My son: mad man in the making?

My son, a seventh-grader at a Raleigh middle school, worked on an assignment this weekend in which he created an advertisement. It was part of a unit on persuasive writing and propaganda.

Students could pick any product or service, real or fictional. The assignment asked them to identify a target audience, pick a medium and write a message that would sell the good or service. Other tips: use a celebrity endorsement and use the bandwagon appeal.

My son used Xtranormal to create this ad for a personal hygiene product. I find it to be highly effective spot, and I am glad that he’s learning about advertising techniques so he will be a savvy consumer.

Who knows? Perhaps my son will grow up to be a “mad man” of the 21st century — or even better, the next Darrin Stephens.

Q&A with Ashley Leath, copy editor at Southern Living

Ashley Leath is a copy editor at Southern Living magazine. She has also worked as a freelance editor on the topics of food and travel. In this interview, conducted by email, Leath talks about her job at Southern Living, including editing recipes, and the magazine’s outlook in the digital era.

Q. Describe your job. What do you do on a typical day?

A. A typical day involves a combination of Travel and Food stories. I began my career in Southern Living’s Food department as a recipe editor, so a lot of my experience involves recipe-related copy editing. When I moved to the Copy Desk in 2011, I took over the Travel department’s copy editing as well. This means that my day is spent balancing the needs of both departments’ copy.

For my Travel stories, I’ll begin the day by making fact-checking calls, which means that I reach out to contacts as varied as park rangers, interior designers and PR reps. We make a concerted effort to maintain the factual accuracy of our stories, so this is an important step in the editorial process, and the bulk of this responsibility falls on the Copy Desk.

In addition to fact-checking stories, I’ll edit the text and input any changes into the copy on the network (we use InCopy to manage our stories). It’s a simple process — but multiply it by 15 stories per issue with anywhere from 1 to 50 sources to check per story, and you’ve got a lot to balance while maintaining accuracy.

Food stories are an entirely different animal. Our recipes are developed in-house by our Test Kitchen, and each one goes through a complicated testing phase before it reaches my desk. When a story is ready for copy editing, a manila folder will find its way to me, and that means that the recipes inside it have passed the Food department’s review and are ready for my read.

We have a strict food style that is outlined in a 200-page stylebook, and I use this as my guide when I edit the recipes. I begin by doing a top read of all the recipes in a story (on average, four to six of various lengths). Then I examine the testing notes for each recipe. This means I read handwritten notes from each stage of testing (a minimum of two to three). I’m looking for discrepancies: Did the amount of flour stay the same from one test to the next? The lemon zest was increased in test two but not updated on the latest version of the recipe. Should it have been?

These are easy questions in and of themselves, but recipes are complicated endeavors with important things at stake. One wrong word, and you’ve ruined Christmas dinner (or worse, burned down a kitchen). If I find a discrepancy, I work with the Test Kitchen to get it resolved. At the end of this process, I once again enter my edits into the story copy on the network.

In between all of this reading and editing, I have the luck of attending a taste testing each day with the Food department. A lunchtime break for my eyes is very welcomed, and the food isn’t too shabby either.

Q. What are some challenges of editing for the magazine? Rewards?

A. Time is a copy editor’s worst enemy (perhaps right next to a spell-checker). We are not a weekly publication, but when we head into production, stories can move through the pipeline swiftly.

You may need a full day to get a story into perfect shape, but because of that looming deadline, you’ll only have a few hours. You have to learn to be smart with your time, balance multiple deadlines, and still produce the top-notch work that is expected of you.

As for rewards, there are many. First, my co-workers. You spend more time with the people you work with than you do with your family (especially during production), so you need to really like your co-workers. Southern Living has a great staff, if I do say so myself.

Also, for someone who loves to eat, you can’t beat a slice of fresh-from-the-oven apple-carrot cake (destined to grace the magazine’s cover) on a random Tuesday afternoon. I leave work every day with a very happy stomach (and sometimes snag leftovers for my husband too).

Q. Southern Living has an internship program for copy editors. What does the magazine look for when selecting interns?

A. First, an error-free resume and cover letter. This is your first chance to introduce yourself to us, so make sure each of these items is without error.

Next, enthusiasm! We want you to be excited about working with us and helping with our work. Copy editing is meticulous, but rewarding. It will be much more fun for all involved if you enjoy it as much as we do.

Lastly, experience. This doesn’t have to be another internship necessarily, but we do look for what you’ve been involved in that has exposed you to the type of work you’d do for us: fact-checking, copy editing, researching.

Be involved on campus with organizations that will give you exposure to this (The Daily Tar Heel, Blue & White, etc.), and you’ll be able to tout these skills on your resume. It will also help you find and nurture references, which we check with before hiring anyone.

Q. Much of the news media, including magazines, are going digital. What do you see as Southern Living’s place in the changing landscape of news?

A. This is a complicated time for magazines. We’re trying to find our niche in this new digital landscape, and it’s a quickly moving beast.

Southern Living has made huge strides in this arena in the past few years. We’ve carved out market share on our website and in social media. Did you know you can follow us on Instagram and get behind-the-scenes pictures of our taste testings?

We’ve done this by harnessing our relationship with our readers. They feel an ownership of the magazine that is unique to SL.

We have to carry that bond to all platforms that the brand explores — web, video, tablet and more — and be able to maintain our core message successfully. We have to keep our readers’ trust and give them what they expect from us where they expect it, and that means providing content on more than just paper.

We’re striving to continue what we’ve done best all these years — represent Southern culture and tout the wonderful people of our region — on digital platforms that can reach a wider audience than ever before.