Q&A with Amy Seeley, communications coordinator at Autism Society of N.C.

Amy Seeley is communications coordinator at the Autism Society of North Carolina. Prior to taking that job, she worked as a copy editor and page designer at North Carolina newspapers, including The News & Observer in Raleigh and the Star News in Wilmington. She was editor of two of the N&O’s community newspapers, Midtown Raleigh News and North Raleigh News. In this interview, conducted by email, Seeley talks about her new job and the transition from newspapers.

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

A. I am part of the three-person communications department of the Autism Society of North Carolina, a nonprofit that has about 1,000 employees serving individuals with autism and their families across the state. My main focus is on editing and writing stories. I have a co-worker whose focus is design, and we report to the director of communications.

Obviously, with such a small department, we all do a little bit of everything. I feel like it is kind of an unusual communications job, because we have several audiences.

Many people probably think our big focus is on “awareness,” teaching the community about autism. That’s part of what we do, but our main audience is individuals with autism and their families, because if they don’t know what the Autism Society does, they won’t come to us for help. And of course, we do have the PR component, which we used to sneer at in the newsroom. But I have to say, asking for money and bragging about the good work of your organization doesn’t feel bad when it’s for a cause like autism!

Right now we are really focused on publicizing our Run/Walk for Autism fundraisers around the state – Raleigh’s is the last on Oct. 12. For each of them, I have looked for and written compelling local stories of how we as an organization have helped families.

These have been one of the most rewarding parts of my job so far, and also the hardest. As the mom of a son with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a hard time hearing some of the stories of what families go through.

We then put those on our blog so our families can read them and promoted them to targeted local media through emails. Besides the stories, I am writing basic press releases as you would expect and editing emails that go out to participants. I also work closely with the development department to edit grant applications so we can keep adding sources of funding.

At the same time, we are in a period of expansion, adding services and coverage areas, so that means brochures need to be redone, pages added to the website, promotional fliers created, etc. Much of that work means I receive content from other departments, and I need to edit it to varying degrees; sometimes it just needs a few commas, and sometimes I need to rework it so people outside of the service professions will understand it. I am also the editor for our twice-yearly magazine, monthly email newsletters and an end-of-camp magazine, all of which are for our families.

So in a typical day, I might interview a parent, write a story about them, edit material from a co-worker, update our website, set up Tweets and edit a grant application. I am often working across multiple platforms, but it all amounts to one thing: making sure families know how we can help them.

Q. How does the Autism Society use social media to get its message out?

A. We have a Facebook fan page, where our designer posts almost every day, doing a great job of adding images to content to attract attention. We also have an active group page and use Facebook event pages for major events. We also post to Instagram and Pinterest, but not as often. Last spring, they did a PSA campaign on YouTube for Autism Awareness Month.

I set up most of the Twitter posts in advance, using it to highlight not just upcoming events around the state, but longstanding services that we offer, with links to our website. We gain several followers every day, and I want to make sure they know all the ways we can help.

Recently I’ve been experimenting with seeking Retweets for our Triangle race from influencers; people have been mostly willing to help us out. We also use Twitter to link to autism news.

We also have a blog, as I mentioned, where we share news about our organization as well as informative articles written by our staff members for families.

Q. Before taking this job earlier this year, you worked at newspapers for nearly 20 years. What skills were you able to take with you, and what did you have to learn anew?

I think the most important skills I brought to my new job were news judgment and storytelling capabilities. Just as at the paper we were always talking about how to get people to keep reading, one of my focuses here is how to get people’s attention.

We need families to hear our message so we can help them, and we need others to hear it so they might donate to help us continue our work. A compelling story pulls people in, no matter where they read it. (And it doesn’t hurt that I have some idea of what an editor might be looking for in a story pitch!)

Having been a copy editor, designer and community paper editor, I also had plenty of organization skills and practice at overseeing an entire operation as I shepherded projects through to completion. Of course, here we do not have projects every day!

And that brings me to skills I needed to learn and am still working on. Outside of newspapers, organizations have more time, and more people want to have a hand in projects. I am still getting a feel for the coordination that is necessary to keep things moving but still involve everyone the way that they want to be involved.

Q. Other newspaper reporters and editors may be looking for a similar transition. What advice do you have for mid-career journalists who are considering that change?

A. Many of the skills that journalists have are in demand. We are deadline-oriented, adaptable, technologically savvy and knowledgeable about many topics. Plus, we have strong writing and editing skills.

I would say to make sure you focus on skills rather than projects. When I was a newspaper designer, I used a portfolio to apply for new jobs. When I wanted to work outside of journalism, I needed to sell myself more than my work. (But it obviously depends on the job.) I would also recommend taking development courses in areas that might apply to jobs you’d like, especially for technology. It shows commitment as well as adding to your skills.

But most importantly, I would say to find your passion. In the newsroom, we were all united for a common cause: putting together the best product we could. By midnight.

Make sure when you are looking at a new position, you will be working on a topic in which you have interest, because the in-the-trenches-together camaraderie won’t be there. You probably won’t have a daily deadline, and you probably won’t have people cursing you out, and you probably won’t be under threat of layoffs together. You’re going to need something else to make it worthwhile.

For some, the paycheck might be enough. Just make sure you know whether you are one of those people.


Celebrating the First Amendment

Now in its fifth year, First Amendment Day has become a tradition at UNC-Chapel Hill. This year’s celebration of free expression will take place on Tuesday, Sept. 24.

So what is the day all about? It’s about three things that Congress (and state and local governments, via incorporation) cannot do:

1. make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

2. make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;

3. make no law abridging the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Your First Amendment freedoms will be the focus throughout the day at UNC on Sept. 24. Here’s the full schedule of events. If you can’t be on campus, you can follow the fun on Twitter using the hashtag #UNCfree.

N&O hopes for friendlier comments

This week, The News & Observer switched to Facebook for reader comments. Other McClatchy newspapers, including The Charlotte Observer, made that change awhile ago, and others will follow.

Eric Frederick, the managing editor of the Raleigh paper’s website, explained the reasons for the change this way:

We believe that if you have something to say, you should be willing to put your name on it. And we think most of you will agree. It’s a standard we’ve always placed on letters to the editor in The News & Observer.

As on occasional commenter under the old system, I think this is a good move. Comments on the N&O site have been dreadful for some time, filled with trolling and race-baiting by people hiding by screen names and anonymity. That incivility is sadly typical for many news sites.

My hunch is that some readers will still behave badly even using their real names. And others will try to create fake Facebook accounts so they can continue to rant and rave anonymously. But this change will make it more difficult to do that, and I hope it will lead to more civil conversations about the news of the day.

Q&A with Charles Apple, Focus page editor at the Orange County Register

Charles Apple is Focus page editor at the Orange County Register, creating alternative story forms like this one (PDF). Before taking that job in California earlier this year, Apple had worked as graphics artist and editor at The Chicago Tribune, The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk and The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., among other publications. In this interview, conducted by email, Apple discusses his role at the Orange County newspaper and how the focus pages go from idea into print.

Q. Describe your job as Focus page editor. What is typical day like at the Register?

A. Basically, they give me a full page every weekday and tell me to “do something spectacular.” It’s that simple.

I’m free to choose my own topics, select wire stories to play off of or write my own. I can collaborate with someone or I can do it myself — and I normally do the latter.

I design my own pages. I can ask the photo department for help, or I can scrounge for art myself. I can illustrate if I want. I can ask graphics for a hand.

My friends have told me it’s the closest thing they’ve ever seen to a “dream job.” And they might be right.

I usually work at least a week ahead. Every Friday at 4:30 p.m., we have a “show and tell” session in which the paper’s three focus page teams post their pages on the wall and then explain them.

So my deadline is to have the entire week’s pages done by then. This means I’m only on deadline when we choose to do something live off the news. That’s only happened two or three times in five months.

So while I sit by the A-section desk and the wire and news editors, I’m pretty far removed from the daily grind. Which is a big change for me: I spent many, many years as a graphics editor.

I should probably tell you I’m having withdrawals, but that woudn’t be true. I’m enjoying the lack of — or, at least, some easing from — daily deadline pressure. I hope that’s showing up in my work.

Q. How do you come up with ideas for the pages, and how do you assemble the information for them?

A. It depends on the topic and whatever I can find.

Part of my sales pitch to the Register is that I wouldn’t feel compelled to limit myself to whatever I can find on the wires. If I see something good, I might use it (or modify it or rewrite it). But more typically, I come up with an idea first, and then I set out in search of a story or raw materials that I can use to build my page.

For a while, I was using one or two actual wire stories a week. But I didn’t like the way they were looking on my pages — they seemed awfully lifeless, compared with the alternative story forms and chunky-type experiences I was writing. So I’ve totally ditched them now.

If I use a wire story, I’ll chop it up and use only the nut grafs. Essentially, I turn it into graphic-like text.

At some point, I’m sure I’ll find a longer narrative I won’t mind using. But that’s not happened for several months, now.

For topics, I have a number of places I go for inspiration: I like looking at Twitter and Facebook to see what folks are talking about. A number of really cool pages have come out of social media conversations.

I also like to cruise calendar and anniversary sites. Everything I do needs some sort of peg, I think, no matter how oblique. So I might use an anniversary to springboard into some topic that intrigues me.

A couple of my colleagues have picked up on this and called me the “master of the obscure.” I like that. Perhaps I can get Sharon, my wife, to put that on my tombstone.

PinochetIn particular, I like finding historical tidbits that I didn’t know before: The quotes I used for headlines in my Pinochet or Martin Luther King pages, for example. Or puncturing urban legends about historical events. It’s a bit self-indulgent, but if something — anything — makes me stop and go “hmmm,” then I flag it for a possible Focus page.

Once I have my topic, then it’s a matter of research. And that’s always been one of my specialties: Back when I was a graphics guy, I often researched my own material. I’ll hunt for news stories, academic reports, press releases, book excerpts. Anything, really.

What I do for these Focus pages isn’t reporting as much as it’s aggregation. My 10 years of experience online reporting and blogging really helps me here.

One little trick: I’ll often go to Wikipedia early in the process. I don’t necessarily trust anything I read there — I like crowdsourced ideas, but not crowdsourced data. But I might follow the bookmarks at the bottom of an entry. That can be a huge time-saver.

I find myself using a lot of U.K. sources: the BBC, the Guardian. Some of that is due to those sites having a high Google profile. But some of it is because they do a really great job with the material I’m hunting for. Rarely have I put together a timeline that didn’t cite one or both of those.

I’m finding myself using less Associated Press material than at any point in my career, and I’m not quite sure why. I’m finding the AP less and less relevant to my needs. For a while, there, I was using a lot of McClatchy-Tribune material, but not so much now.

The key is to expose myself to as much material as I can quickly and then begin zeroing in on my angle and the elements I need. Generally speaking, I spent maybe two or three hours researching and then six to eight hours writing and designing. And that’s the way I do it: I generally write as I assemble a page. I do these in a very nonlinear way.

Which is why I don’t work in our CCI system. CCI operates in an old-fashioned, linear way: You set up a story, then you write it, then you design it. I’m skipping around in that process.

Early on, my editors gave me carte blanche to work outside CCI. I’m working in Adobe Illustrator, simply because I’m very fast in that program. But I could easily do most of my work in InDesign as well.

Q. How does headline writing and editing work for the pages?

Once I’m done with a page, I’ll print out a full-sized, black-and-white hard copy for the nightside copy desk. They’ll mark it up with a red pen — just like we used to do, 20 years ago.

This seems like awfully old technology, and it is. But unless we want to set up our desk with Adobe Illustrator, it’s the most efficient way to operate.

Having spent so many years as a graphics editor, I know several tricks to try to make my pages as clean as possible before I take them to the desk. Sometimes, I’m successful doing that. Sometimes, not so much.

Fact is, I’m pretty sucky when it comes to editing my own work. I count on my desk to keep me from making a fool of myself. So far, they’ve done pretty well, I think.

The headline writing has, in fact, been interesting. For years, I’ve always written my own headlines and then accepted changes from the desk. I’ve never really considered myself to be a good headline writer. In the past, my editors have rolled their eyes and told me I use way too many puns.

But here, the management just loves my headlines. Maybe they just like my approach. Maybe I’ve actually gotten better at it. I’m not sure which.

But I’m working in lots of cultural references and quotes and going for a much more conversational tone in my display copy. This is a pretty big change from what this paper has traditionally used in the A section, so it’s been a bit of a learning curve for all of us.

The management, though, loves my headlines and has encouraged me to keep on doing what I’m doing. The desk has been supportive in helping me shape these headlines into usable work.

And every once in a while, I’ll sit back and think: Hmm. Not bad at all.

This is the first job I’ve had in a long, long while in which I feel as valued for my writing skills as I am my design skills. That’s given me an enormous sense of satisfaction. As you know, there’s nothing like the empowerment a journalist gets from self-confidence.

That’s a credit to my editors and my colleagues.

Q. You were recently a speaker at workshop on visual storytelling. What do you see as the future of editing and design in that regard as more readers get news and information on smartphones and tablets?

A. For years, I’ve been preaching the value of alternative story forms — stories told in shorter, briefer chunks and intermixed with photos or graphics or other visual elements. Even longer narratives can be told in this way — the best example would be the New York Times’ now-famous “Snow Fall” piece. It’s more a matter of how you mix the pieces.

Not only do these ASFs make great print packages, they translate very well into tablet form. So I’ve always felt that journalists who know how to tell a great story as an ASF is perfectly positioned to move to the tablet medium.

Now, that’s tablets. Smartphones, I’ve been concerned about. I consume info via my own iPhone and I find it hard as hell sometimes: Download times are too long, and it’s hard to scroll around.

But then we recently moved my visual journalism blog from ACES to my own domain and rebuilt it as a responsive website, meaning you can now read my blog on a smartphone without having to zoom in and out and scroll back and forth. It’s not perfect, but it works well enough to give me hope that, yeah: If I had to spend the rest of my life producing material for one of these puppies, I could do that.

That leaves the business model. And I happen to be working for (relatively new owners) whose philosophy has been to invest in journalism, charge for the work and then make damned sure you give the reader more than she paid for. A LOT more. It’s a radical idea and completely opposite what most of the rest of the business is doing.

But darned if it doesn’t appear to be working. If this doesn’t make you giddy with hope, then you’re not paying enough attention.

Other examples of Apple’s pages (PDF):

UPDATE: Apple is now at The Houston Chronicle, where he continues to explore alternative story forms.

What we write in big type is a big deal

The American Copy Editors Society recently shared this video via social media. It’s about headline writing at the Winnipeg Free Press.

As I watched the 11-minute piece, memories of my own newspaper experiences came to mind. The personalities, editing skills and headline-writing styles of the editors at Winnipeg mirror those in the newsrooms in Greensboro, Raleigh and Los Angeles where I have worked.

Editors who write headlines care deeply about what they do. And they do it in relative anonymity. There’s no Pulitzer Prize for headline writing — not yet, at least.

Headlines are still important, in print and online. They tell us what’s news, and they lure us into reading more. Headlines reflect not only the content of the stories, but also the tone. And they need a human touch.

When the tone doesn’t match the topic

Longtime readers of this blog will recall that I am an advocate of alternative story forms. Formats such as the Q&A and a list can be memorable ways to convey information to readers.

The situation in Syria seems like a natural for these formats, so when several Facebook friends posted links to this Washington Post story, I took notice.

“9 Questions About Syria You Were Too Embarrassed To Ask” is both a list and a Q&A, with a helpful map added. It’s part of a series on various topics. This story offers a wealth of information about Syria generally and the civil war there, and it explains U.S. policy toward the country.

Where this story falls short, in my mind, is in its tone. The writing is peppered with the second person and first person, creating a casual feel. The story includes a musical interlude via YouTube.

The feel of the questions indicates that readers are probably bored, jaded or rushed — or perhaps all three. An example: “How did it all go so wrong in Syria? And, please, just give me the short version.”

Of my friends who posted this story to Facebook, about half expressed concerns about the story’s approach. The other half simply posted it as information to share with others, apparently unbothered by the way it was written and edited.

To my mind, the Q&A provides a lot of information, but it a mismatch of tone and topic, a serious subject treated lightly. And keep in mind, this is The Washington Post, not BuzzFeed or Gawker. That’s not to say that the Post and similar publications can’t use a light touch on occasion, but that approach seems like a bad choice here.

UPDATE: A novelist offers a satire called “9 Questions About Britain You Were Too Embarrassed To Ask.” And the Post interviews him.