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.