Student guest post: A first-hand look at a championship win in a student newsroom

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Staff members of The Daily Tar Heel hand out copies of the newspaper the day after UNC won the national championship in men’s basketball.

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 11th of those posts. Hannah Smoot is a senior journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill. She spends most of her waking hours working at The Daily Tar Heel.

On April 3, UNC won the NCAA national championship in men’s basketball. As a senior at UNC, this was a dream come true. As managing editor of The Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s independent, student-run newspaper, my feelings were a little more complicated.

More than anything, I was excited — this year, The Daily Tar Heel stopped producing a print newspaper on Tuesdays, but we had a special edition championship edition in the works.

Part of me was apprehensive at the same time. While we’re used to putting together a print paper every day, this would be an especially taxing night.

In preparation, we moved our print deadline to 2:30 a.m. — and missed it by about an hour. We were stuck waiting on writers in Phoenix (the site of the Final Four) to find Wi-Fi and send in their stories. In this situation, we had to figure out how editors can effectively communicate with writers and hold writers to a deadline.

Before we sent writers to Phoenix, we sat down and asked them what a reasonable deadline would be. We talked about how long it would take them to check stats, interview players and finish writing, and then brought that deadline to our printers and worked out a deadline.

Of course, the night of the game, this deadline was much harder to hold our writers to. Holding writers to a deadline can be difficult enough when they’re in the same room as you — but we realized just how hard it could be when they’re not even in the same state.

While we missed our deadline, we were able to get the pages to the printer in time to start handing out papers at 7 a.m. This was in part because we were firm with the writers — and made sure they knew why the deadline needed to be followed as closely as possible. Communication is always important, but in this case, over-communicating our needs with the writers was critical to printing a paper at all.

When we finally got the stories, we sped-read the stories, checking for accuracy in record speed. We went to bed, woke up at 7 a.m. and started handing out papers.

In all, I got about one hour of sleep and worked over 30 hours almost nonstop in two days. While it was one of the most exhausting days I’ve had at the DTH, working for a student newspaper during the NCAA championship was an incredible experience unlike any other Franklin Street rush.

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Q&A with Kathleen A. Flynn, author of ‘The Jane Austen Project’

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Kathleen A. Flynn is a copy editor at The New York Times. Her debut novel, “The Jane Austen Project,” will be released May 2. In this interview, conducted by email, Flynn discusses how she researched and wrote the book, and how it was edited. (Photo by Bryan Thomas, 2016)

Q. How did you get the idea for “The Jane Austen Project”?

A. It came to me in a flash, not everything, but the main idea: a time-traveling physician sent on a mission to Jane Austen, a terrible price for achieving an amazing thing. I felt chills go down my spine. I thought, I can totally do this! For some reason I never stopped believing that.

But no idea comes from nowhere. It had to do with what I was reading at the time: the Aubrey/Maturin books by Patrick O’Brian (“Master and Commander,” etc.) about a British naval officer during the Napoleonic wars and his friend, a doctor. These are like Jane Austen novels, except with sea battles – in their wit and subtlety, their depiction of human nature – and of course they take place in her time. Two of Austen’s brothers were captains in the British Navy and could have met Jack Aubrey, had he been real.

These books make the past come alive in a way that is very unusual and hard to do, and they made me start thinking about Jane Austen as I never had before: as a person, not just an author, and wondering what she was like. Because she wasn’t famous in her lifetime, there is a lot we don’t know about her. I found myself wishing there was a way to go back in time and get some answers. It made me sad we couldn’t. Then it struck me that I could — in a story.

Q. How did you go about researching, writing and pitching the book?

I reread all of Jane Austen’s novels; other novels by writers of her time that she would have read; biographies and discussions of her work. I also read to try to get a sense of what life was like then: books about household management and 19th-century cooking, biographies of some other important people of the time.

Eventually I traveled to England, to see the neighborhood where Jane Austen would have stayed in London (unfortunately her brother Henry’s house has been replaced by something larger and Victorian), and some other notable things, like a house museum and this weird museum about the history of medicine. I went to Chawton, where the Jane Austen Museum is in her last house, and to Winchester, where she died.

Although I had read many novels and even attempted to write one earlier, there was a lot to learn: about the architecture of a novel, about how to convey information gracefully, about sentence structure. How to keep going, how to make it all cohere. What to show, what to summarize.

When I finally had a draft that I didn’t completely hate, I did a manuscript workshop. There were five of us, and we all, plus the instructor, read and commented on each other’s novels. This was a big step because I finally had to show it to someone. It was also helpful reading other people’s work, thinking about what worked and didn’t.

I revised it for another year or so after that, and then I started trying to identify agents who might be a good fit and sending them queries. And mostly heard no or nothing.

It’s hard to think about how to describe your own work, how to interest an agent who’s never heard of you and has an inbox full of queries. I was not connected to the literary world at all. How I found my agent was this: I read a recently published novel that I liked very much and learned (by reading the acknowledgements) who the author’s agent was. I emailed him and said: I really loved X, I’ve written this book that is not like X exactly but has these certain similarities, would you consider taking a look?

It’s important to emphasize that all these things were true — I don’t think this approach would work if they weren’t. And that’s no guarantee it would have worked in any case, although it did in mine. Eventually.

Q. You’re a copy editor. What was it like to be edited?

A. It was fascinating and humbling. Naturally, I am a fan of copy editors and believe in the importance of editing.

I imagined I had done a pretty good job with at least that part of it, but the copy editor found several mortifying things I’d missed, including typos, a wrong birth date for a character and a number of dangling modifiers. And HarperCollins has its own house style rules on things like hyphenation, numbers, and the serial comma, which I had repeatedly violated. Everyone needs an editor!

Another cool thing was the “style sheet” they sent to me along with the page proofs. Part of it was a list of words from the book that needed style attention or a ruling of some kind, like capitalization or hyphenation, for consistency.

Reading this list was a strange experience, because the words seemed so odd out of context: banditti (pl), beetroot, bell cord, belowstairs, brickworks, coal smoke, country-gentry (adj), curlpapers, dairymaid. … Another part was a list of the names of all the characters in the book, the page where they first show up, and age and eye color, if mentioned.

This seemed quite obsessive! But also important for consistency. How to remember otherwise, a hundred pages on, if someone had green eyes and now they have blue? It made me realize how copy editing a book must be more challenging than editing even the longest piece of journalism.

Q. What advice do you have for other journalists who want to write fiction?

A. Journalists have some advantages: They are used to working with words, they are sensitive to the power of story, they are used to being edited and being rejected. But most of us tend to think in the short term; it is a big mental adjustment to the long time horizon required to write a novel.

I think writing journalistically is also something we need to overcome. Newspaper prose is functional: Its main aim is clarity and directness, but it can also be clunky. Ideally fiction should be a pleasure to read, with a kind of subtle music created through word choice, variations in sentence length, rhythm. So there are some habits to break, and new ones to get into.

I would advise reading lots of fiction – all kinds, but especially the kind you want to write. Read analytically, thinking about what works and what doesn’t. Get in the habit of writing regularly, and try to find a community of people who are also interested in writing.

One useful piece of advice I came across is that there are two basic ways to keep writing despite discouragement and setbacks: developing a work ethic that keeps you going even though the world does not care or notice, or having an idea that you are so on fire with that you can’t help working on it, because you’d rather do that than anything else. Ideally you’d have both, but sometimes having one is enough for a while, and then you can see your way to the other.

Follow Kathleen A. Flynn on Twitter and Facebook, and order a copy of “The Jane Austen Project.”

How a college newspaper won the national championship

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People line up to buy extra copies of The Daily Tar Heel a day after the men’s basketball team won the national championship. (Photo courtesy of Jock Lauterer)

Like many college publications, The Daily Tar Heel is free and distributed via newsracks placed across campus and in downtown Chapel Hill. That makes it easy to pick up a copy on the way to class.

But that system broke down one day in 2009. The men’s basketball team won the national championship, and people grabbed more than one copy of the DTH from newsracks. Some snatched dozens and sold them on eBay. A lot of people missed a chance to get a souvenir of UNC’s victory, and the DTH missed a chance to make some money.

This week, UNC did it again, defeating Gonzaga to win the NCAA Tournament. But this time, the DTH changed the way it distributed this keepsake edition of the newspaper.

To do that, DTH staffers handed out newspapers at various locations on campus — one copy per person. If a person asked for more than one copy, the staff member told them that extras were available at the DTH office for $1 each.

“We wanted to ensure that everyone in the community got their one free copy and avoid people getting 50 copies,” said Erica Perel, the newspaper’s adviser.

The plan worked. Basketball fans got souvenirs. The DTH gave away or sold more than 50,000 papers compared with 10,000 on a typical day. That’s significant for a news organization that has struggled financially in recent years.

So, congrats to both groups of Tar Heels — the men’s basketball team and the student journalists. You both won big.