Q&A with Laurie Beth Harris of the American Press Institute

Laurie Beth Harris is editorial coordinator at the American Press Institute in Arlington, Virginia. Among her duties there is to write and edit the Need To Know email newsletter. In this interview, conducted by email, Harris discusses her role at API and how she puts together the newsletter.

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

A. As editorial coordinator, my job is to manage the editorial direction of API and our website. The biggest part of my job is curating and writing API’s morning newsletter Need to Know, so I’m also always staying up to date on what’s going on in the media industry. Working on Need to Know, it sometimes it feels like I get paid to read the Internet, which is the dream job for a lot of people.

The production of Need to Know frames the schedule of my workdays. I start my day by working from home to write Need to Know and send it out to subscribers, and I come into the office later in the morning. I spend the afternoon at the office keeping tabs on what people are talking about on Twitter and what stories are being published.

In between that, I’m working on the other projects, such as writing and editing posts for our Good Questions series, social media outreach and supporting the research API does, such as our fact-checking journalism project and in-depth reports.

Q. How do you go about putting together Need to Know?

A. I read a lot. We have some great RSS feeds of media blogs and news sources, as well a Twitter list of people in media and journalism. My go-to sources include Nieman Lab’s What We’re Reading feed and Mediagazer, which aggregates the day’s trending news stories.

I read a lot more articles than what ends up in NTK each day, and a big value of the newsletter is that we do the work for you and tell you what’s of importance so that you can get back to doing your job, hopefully armed with information that helps you do it better. Some of my favorite newsletters have been days where big, breaking news happened, such as the release of Columbia Journalism School’s review of the Rolling Stone article or Vox Media’s acquisition of Re/code, and I sorted through the noise to make sense of what was going on for our readers.

While I’m in the office during the day, I’m reading Twitter and scanning our RSS feeds in between meetings and other projects to get a feel for what news is happening and what people are talking about. I collect links by dropping them into a Google doc, sometimes with notes about the most interesting part of the story or something related that we’ve written about before.

In the evenings, I take a few minutes to sift through what I’ve collected, read through anything I didn’t get to and make a rough outline for what will go where in the newsletter. Need to Know is organized by each story’s utility to the reader, rather than by topic, which is a big part of what makes Need to Know unique and more useful to readers.

I wake up around 5:30 a.m. and immediately start writing that morning’s newsletter from home. I start my mornings by catching up on what news happened overnight that might need to go in the newsletter and revising my outline of the newsletter with those links. By 6:30 a.m., I’m writing the headlines and blurbs for the main stories in each section, working my way back around to the supplementary links in each section and finishing with writing Off the Top, our take on the big story of the day. Around 7:45 a.m., we’ve started editing the final version of the newsletter, and Need to Know shows up in subscribers’ inboxes by 8:30 a.m.

Q. Before coming to API, you were a copy editor at Southern Living magazine. How was that job similar to the one you have now, and what are some differences?

A. My job at API and at Southern Living are radically different in a lot of ways.

At Southern Living, I was “in the trenches” of the day-to-day production of a monthly magazine. At API, I’m more of an onlooker to the industry, recognizing what’s being done well in journalism and identifying ways we can do better. In some ways, working at API feels like being back in journalism school, because we have the time to think about new ways to do journalism better and watch what other people are doing in a way that can be hard to do when you’re caught up in production cycles.

The biggest similarity between my job at API and being a copy editor at Southern Living is that I’m still utilizing my editing skills, but I’m now using them to edit my own writing, not just someone else’s.

Q. You are a 2014 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What skills that you learned there are you using today, and what are some new ones you have picked up since graduation?

A. Like I said, working at API is a lot like being back in journalism school — we’re thinking about the lot of the same ideas my journalism classes were talking about when I was in school.

I’m most thankful for classes where we discussed the state of news industry and what we could do better, because those classes were what really prepared me for my job now, as well as giving me a lens through which to think about what a traditional news organization like Southern Living could do better. I’m also thankful for News Writing every morning as I write the newsletter — it taught me to write concisely, cleanly and pretty fast!

As far what I’ve learned since graduation, networking is so important. As a new graduate, I felt like the media industry was huge, but it’s really not. Everyone knows each other. Maintaining those relationships with your professors, internship supervisors and classmates can lead to great opportunities.

Follow Laurie Beth Harris on Twitter, and subscribe to the Need To Know newsletter.