Q&A with Gary Moss, managing editor of the University Gazette

Gary Moss is managing editor of the University Gazette, a publication for the faculty and staff at UNC-Chapel Hill. He has been at the Gazette since 1999 and previously worked as a reporter at The Fayetteville Observer for many years. In this interview, conducted by email, Moss discusses his job and the role of the Gazette as a news source for the campus.

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

A. The Gazette publishes twice monthly, which sets the pattern and rhythm of what I do. The day after we send one publication to press, the Gazette staff (there are three of us) spends an hour or so going over story ideas to develop for the next issue. Based on that discussion, the Gazette editor, Patty Courtright, sends out a list of story assignments to complete for the next issue.

I try to set up interviews as early in this cycle as I can in order to have more time to think about how to approach each story. This is particularly valuable with feature/profile writing.

I also must cover various meetings and special events, including the selection of our new chancellor this spring. I did the initial reporting for the UNC homepage when Carol Folt was hired as chancellor, then wrote a follow-up story the next week for the Gazette.

From time to time, I write Spotlight features for the UNC homepage, but more often, feature stories I have written for the Gazette are slated for that spot. The most recent example was the “Man of 1,000 faces” feature on Ray Dooley.

This past summer, I attended video bootcamp at the journalism school and, with great difficulty, managed to put together a video on Oliver Smithies to accompany the feature story that appeared in the Gazette. The video has been viewed nearly 500 times on YouTube, and I am told, helped draw eyes to the feature in our online edition.

Q. You previously worked in newspapers. What was the transition to the Gazette like?

A. I worked as a newspaper reporter for 15 years, and there are dimensions of that work that I loved and will always miss. I saw it as a license to talk to anybody I wanted, not so much to get the story first, but to imagine the story that was possible in each situation I encountered and to craft it in a way that was the most compelling for readers.

Generally speaking, a reporter who has to be told what to do is not worth much. Enterprise (leaving the office and coming back with a story to fill the next day’s pages) was both demanded and rewarded.

University Relations, on the other hand, was a top-down organization that doesn’t like surprises. Stories were planned with “strategic purposes” in mind. It amazed me that you had to get permission from a host of people to do some stories, and that some stories had to be vetted by people in positions of power.

Grudgingly, I came to accept that these protocols, cumbersome as they are and unnecessary as they can sometimes seem, serve a valuable purpose. University Relations, of which the Gazette is a part, exists to further the mission of the university and clarify and advance the messages of its leaders. Getting that charge right before we publish rather than afterward makes sense and builds a level of trust that allows us to do our work.

On the other hand, a place like Carolina is filled with an infinite number of fascinating people, and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to tell some of their stories. I actually have come to believe that good storytelling is the highest form of PR precisely because it doesn’t look and feel like PR. And I think that form of PR is something that the Gazette, under Patty Courtright’s leadership, has come to embrace.

Q. How does story editing and headline writing work there, for print and online?

A. Patty Courtright edits all copy, although Courtney Mitchell, our associate editor, and I are called upon on production day to proofread. I write headlines for most of my stories, but Patty has the discretion to change them.

Q. We’re seeing more people go online for news and information. How is the Gazette addressing that? Will we continue to see a print edition in the years to come?

A. Courtney, who joined our staff nearly two years ago, designs and posts our online edition and has done great work in using social media (Facebook and Twitter) to draw attention to some of our content.

But if you think in terms of “market penetration” the Gazette has a unique franchise precisely because a copy of the Gazette arrives in the mailbox of all faculty and staff on this campus, filled with stories that could be written about any one of them. In that sense, it is the only publication that invites people from one department to take a peek inside another and learn something about it. It is the only publication that has the capacity to connect people to information they do not know they would be interested in until they actually start reading it.

At the same time, the cost of publishing and mailing these 12,000 or so “hard copies” is relatively small.

One thing I would like to see come to an end is the artificial fragmentation of our target audiences. Not internal or external. Not student or alumnus. Not faculty or staff. But interesting stories directed toward all of them in ways that generate and build connection.

The UNC homepage attempts to do that, but its window (the Spotlight) is too narrow to capture the rich tapestry of this place.

I’d like to see a publication to emerge (perhaps a digital magazine to be produced quarterly that could include great videos and pictures) that serves a “community” of people who feel connected to Carolina in some way.

Students should have access to stories about what alumni have done with their lives in order to help imagine what might be possible with their own.

Everyone who works here should be interested in the lives of the students and invested in some way in their hopes and dreams.

The great writing that Endeavors had done over the years about our research enterprise deserves to reach a wider audience.

Mixing all these different points of view together, I would argue, would inform and enlighten and entertain readers in ways that “specialized” publications cannot.

In such a world, the Gazette might disappear altogether.

Journalism students still read newspapers — sort of

At the start of each semester, I ask students in my editing classes at UNC-Chapel Hill how they get their news. It’s a good way to start a conversation about the state of the news media and where editing fits in.

This semester, that conversation took place shortly after this report mentioned that newspaper readership is down among journalism students. With that in mind, I wondered whether my students’ responses would reflect that finding.

Well, yes and no. As we went around the room, student after student mentioned familiar names: The New York Times, the Washington Post and USA Today. A few of them mentioned The News & Observer or their hometown newspapers.

But these students were referring to the websites, Twitter feeds and apps of these news organizations, not the print editions. The only print publication that got a lot of mentions was The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper. (It probably helps that the DTH is free, readily available and publishes a crossword puzzle.)

So journalism students, at least in my classes, are still reading newspapers. They’re just reading them in digital form.

Q&A with J. Andrew Curliss, investigative reporter

J. Andrew Curliss is an investigative reporter at The News & Observer in Raleigh. This summer, he wrote a series of articles about the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center. (You can read the first installment and related content here.) In this interview, conducted by email, Curliss discusses the origins of the “Spending in the Shadows” series and its impact.

Q. How did you come up with the idea to do this series on the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center?

A. This is not an easy question to answer. I had been interested in the work of the Rural Center for some time. I first gathered information in 2011, actually, when I obtained the center’s grants database.

While working on other stories, I would receive updates of the database and also continued to analyze it. I was looking at all aspects of its grant-making functions — the basics of where the money went, who got it, that sort of thing. The database has a wealth of information in it, including lengthy descriptions of projects.

In 2012, the center popped up as an issue in the budget debate. I continued to gather information.

By the beginning of this year, as I bore in more on the data, several story ideas emerged. Some would eventually make the paper. Others not. I worked on tax loopholes series with a colleague in the beginning of 2013 and then turned my attention full time to the Rural Center.

I requested about 90 files for review as part of that. I began looking at specific files in May 2013, and the articles were published in mid-June.

Q. The series consists of two long stories, sidebars, a graphic and photos. How long did it take to report, write and edit write it all?

Well, see above. It’s not a clean-cut answer: I started on x and finished on y.

I will say that I really was not dedicated to this project full time until early May — and we published in mid-June. I worked every day but one during that time frame, which included Memorial Day, Sundays, etc. Many days, I worked 12- to 15-hour days.

Q. What role, if any, did you have with the copy editing and headline writing for the series, including its “Spending in the Shadows” title?

A. I was involved in all aspects of the series, including the title.

It is a collaborative process. But we try to deliver everything to the copy desk with suggested headlines in place.

Q. On occasion, newspaper stories like this lead to policy changes. What’s the reaction been to this series, and how do you think it will affect the future of the Rural Center?

A. Reaction to the series was swift, if not immediately apparent to readers.

Until the series ran, many policy makers in North Carolina believed the Rural Center was doing a great job. Its leader, Billy Ray Hall, had told me in an interview he would be surprised if I raised questions about any of his grants. Of course, we did. After the series, the Rural Center board said it would conduct an aggressive review of all its practices, led by a former lawmaker.

At the time the series ran, it was not clear how budget deliberations would end up — with full funding, reduced funding or no funding for the center. The series clearly gave lawmakers reason to question continued funding for the center, and they did.

There was a major effort underway by the center to try to preserve its funding, but it was unclear exactly how that was going to end up because … As that process was going on, the state auditor issued an audit that also raised questions about the center’s oversight of grants. The audit looked at a much smaller slice of the center’s work than we did and did not focus on performance of grants as we did, but for the most part supported what we had written.

We had also published a follow-up article that showed how board members at the Rural Center were benefiting from the center’s grants. In the end, the president (Hall) resigned, and the state froze funding to the center as well as prevented it from spending state money. Lawmakers created a new entity, housed in the Commerce Department, to oversee rural efforts in North Carolina.

What I am teaching this semester

The fall semester at UNC-Chapel Hill begins in late summer, on Aug. 20. I’ve spent the past couple of weeks revising my syllabuses* and other materials. Here’s what I am teaching this semester:

Two sections of JOMC 157, News Editing. This undergraduate course focuses on story editing, caption writing and headline writing for print and digital media, with a dash of social media. Each section has 16 students; the class meets twice a week in a computer lab in three-hour segments. Here is the syllabus for the course along with a handout on noteworthy names in the news.

One section of JOMC 711, Writing for Digital Media. This graduate-level course focuses on different types of online writing, including blogging, digital headlines and social media. It has 22 students, and it meets all the time online. Here is the syllabus for the course, and you can learn more about the certificate program that it is a part of.

Feel free to adapt, revise or ignore the materials here. You can also browse syllabuses from across the journalism school here, and don’t forget the syllabus exchange at Poynter’s NewsUniversity.

* I follow the Associated Press stylebook on this plural word, but if you like “syllabi,” it won’t bother me.

Raleigh newspaper goes retro

birthdaypageThe News & Observer turns 119 today. To mark the occasion, the Raleigh newspaper published its front page in a retro style, and editor John Drescher wrote this column about its founder, Josephus Daniels.

The throwback design is a fun idea for a front page. A bit of old-timey language (“to-day”) is a nice touch.

It helps that the birthday comes on a Monday in August, a typically slow time for news. It’s a good opportunity to surprise your readers with something unusual.

The house ad at the bottom of page, however, feels incongruous in color and content. On a similar note, I knew about the retro page via Twitter before I fetched the actual newspaper off my driveway this morning:

Regardless, I wish the N&O a happy birthday. As a former editor there, I am proud to be a part of its history, and I look forward to reading it in print and online in the years to come.

UPDATE: The North Carolina Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill has posted that first issue of the N&O from 1894.

Image courtesy of the Newseum.

Q&A with Jeff Gauger, executive editor of the News & Record

Jeff Gauger is executive editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. He previously worked as an editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Ohio and Nebraska. In this interview, conducted by email, Gauger discusses his transition to North Carolina and the News & Record’s future under new ownership. 

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

A. I’ve not met the typical day yet, which is one of the blessings of my job. The one constant, I suppose, is meetings — news meetings, small-group staff meetings, one-on-one meetings with staff, department-head meetings with my peers and the publisher, meetings inside and outside the office with people who want my attention or with folks whose time I’ve sought. Today, I’ve had two meetings, a light day. Tomorrow, four. The next day, seven.

I spend time daily reading our content before and after publication. I also read other news websites and news trade publications. I look for talent, even when we’re not looking to hire immediately. I interact with readers by email and phone.

There’s always nitty-gritty administrative stuff: handling vendor contracts, dealing with occasional personnel issues, etc. And I write for my blog and a Sunday column, although I have and spend less time writing than I’d like.

I try, with more success some days than others, to make time to think. It’s easy with the daily scrum in a newsroom to stay busy. It’s harder to discern what not to do now to make time for thinking — about content next week or next month, about how to meet the business challenges we face, about how to succeed in a competitive market.

Q. Before coming to Greensboro in 2012, you worked at newspapers in Ohio and Nebraska. What has it been like to make the transition from the Midwest to the South?

A. I also worked for a newspaper in Illinois and for a handful of weekly newspapers in my home state of Washington. By far, though, I spent most of my career in the Midwest before moving to Greensboro.

The transition has not been difficult, with one exception. My newspaper career has taken me to five states and eight communities. I’ve learned that there are good people everywhere, good things about every community and problems in every community.

I’ve also learned that no one is harder on a community than the people who live there. I choose, consciously and deliberately, to like where I live. It isn’t hard. There’s always much to like.

The Midwest and South (with Greensboro and a few trips around the state as my reference points) have much in common, including a continuing appreciation for agriculture and the land. They share a hard-to-define sense of being places apart, proud of what they are and sensitive about hints of disdain from what they view as urban elites elsewhere.

In the Midwest, it’s sensitivity about what’s implied by the phrase “flyover country.” I’m less sure how to describe it for the South, so I won’t try to put words to it. Also, people in both regions embrace family and tilt red on the political spectrum.

There are differences, of course. Greensboro has more newcomers, more residents who have moved from other states, than the parts of the Midwest where I’ve lived. The Midwest has lots of churchgoers, but Greensboro has more. Labor unions, including those representing government workers, are a much bigger presence in the industrial Midwest (not in Nebraska, a right-to-work state).

Parts of the Midwest have stunning outdoor wonders (don’t knock Nebraska as a flat state if you haven’t seen its remarkable Sand Hills or Ohio as an industrial rust belt if you’ve never driven through the lush rolling hills of the Holmes County Amish country), but little with profiles as high as the Outer Banks and Atlantic Ocean or the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The Civil War remains a living presence in the South, which is a revelation to a newcomer, even to one who lived nearly five years in Ohio, which paid heavily in blood during that war. I suppose my surprise stems in part from my roots in Washington, which achieved statehood only in the 1880s. From Washington, the Civil War can seem an abstraction because the Pacific Northwest is so far from where the war occurred. The war is not an abstraction here.

The exception to my otherwise comfortable transition to the South was a column I wrote just a month ago. The column presented fictional characters discussing issues undertaken by the N.C. legislature.

My presentation prompted criticism from readers who suggested I was an elitist outsider mocking North Carolinians. A “Condescending Ahole,” according to one email that now hangs on my wall. While many readers praised the column, the depth of the critics’ anger surprised me.

In every community where I’ve worked, in every state including North Carolina, people have said: “Folks won’t think you belong here until you’ve lived here for 30 years.” From the new scrapes and bruises of my recent experience, I think I can say that’s more true in the South.

I’m an outsider, and for my critics, I played to type. I learned a lesson.

Q. You’ve announced a reorganization of the Greensboro newsroom, including new hours and roles for some copy editors. What’s the reason for the change, and what do you hope it will accomplish?

A. We blended three separate copy desks — news, features sports — into a single “universal” desk. The goal was to reduce staff for print page-making and to reassign those positions to digital work and news-gathering. The change permitted us to create new positions for online news editors and a community engagement editor. We also added a business news reporter.

The changes were difficult, but necessary. Copy editing and page design are important crafts. They’re also more scalable, within limits, than news-gathering.

With finite resources, we must continue to find ways to devote a greater proportion of our human effort to making and presenting a digital report and to engaging with readers and consumers. Our changes got us closer to those goals.

Q. The News & Record was bought earlier this year by Berkshire Hathaway. What does that mean for the newspaper, and what do you see as the future of the News & Record in print and online?

A. It means resources. Unlike many newspaper companies, Berkshire Hathaway is well capitalized (newspapers account for little more than flea in its family of companies, hardly enough to make a blip in its earnings reports).

No one is handing out bags of cash, and there’s no less focus on expense control. But we have replaced worn-out equipment, and we are talking about investing in new print and digital products with a seriousness I haven’t seen in newspapers since about 2006.

It means standardization of some vendor relationships and consolidation of some back-shop functions that the consumer doesn’t see.

It means cooperation and collaboration among Berkshire Hathaway newspapers in North Carolina, which include the Winston-Salem Journal, the Hickory Daily Record and the Statesville Record & Landmark. Former competitors are beginning to share content. In time, we’ll see deeper, more meaningful cooperation.

Finally, and most importantly, it means focus on going all-in with digital. We’ll have a strategy and a roadmap for getting to the mountaintop, with technical support to provide the needed tools.

UPDATE: In April 2015, Gauger resigned as executive editor of the News & Record.