Q&A with Christina Cleveland, reporter for the Aiken Standard

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Christina Cleveland is a features reporter at the Aiken Standard in Aiken, South Carolina. She previously worked at The Journal in Seneca, South Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, Cleveland discusses her job at the Standard, changes in editing there and her journalism education.

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

A. Surprisingly — or not — I’ve learned to expect much of the same each day working in news. My schedule is pretty flexible, though I do feel editors would probably prefer to see (most of) our faces by at least 10 a.m.

Generally, I try to get to work no later than 9:30 a.m. My ideal time to start working, however, is 8:30 a.m. I find my goal humorous most weeks, because I can often be at the desk until 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. at night. I don’t recommend that, but it’s probably an unhealthy reality for me lately, so when I do work later, I try to come into work later.

The first thing I do when I get to my desk is read and respond to email, as well as any phone messages I may have received. Then, I pick up a print edition of the newspaper and/or check the e-edition online.

I prefer to read the newspaper as a product, not just the website. I just feel more informed about our stories, reader questions and the product that way. The Aiken Standard is unusual because our press is still located in the newspaper office, so production is right here.

During the day, I will also periodically check my social media pages. Twitter is my favorite social media forum for news gathering, sourcing and sharing. It doesn’t always produce the highest web hits for us, but it is a very valuable tool.

When it comes to writing, I try to schedule interviews for stories a little further out. I may have around two telephone interviews a day on average. As a features writer, I mostly prefer in-person interviews, where I can see firsthand what and who I’m writing about and get a photo. But sometimes you just have to pick up the phone.

Of course when I was a news writer, there were sometimes when a story broke in the morning or middle of the day, and I just had to make phone calls/conduct interviews as soon things were happening.

At both my current and previous job as a news reporter, I have written more stories daily than a reporter at a larger circulation daily would, which can be expected. I could produce up to three stories a day, and was always shooting to work on at least two per day.

Reporting news, I have been more comfortable with most of my content being ready by 2 p.m. before our 4 p.m. deadline to give my editors a fair enough time to read and make suggestions.

I also spend a healthy amount of time story planning for the weekend ahead during the day, too, because working for a daily newspaper with a smaller staff requires everyone pitching in content, especially interesting, well fleshed-out stories for Sundays — a big day for not only subscriptions but also single-copy sales.

I try to update the news budget for the next day, the day before. Eventually, after all of this, I go home. I can’t say news ever stops, but I’ve been trying to unplug when I’m off lately, and it helps a lot. I also heavily depend on Starbucks and Chick-fil-A, so those are my lunch break weaknesses.

Q. You recently moved from a news beat to features. How has that transition been, and what do you like about your new assignment?

A. My new assignment has been interesting so far — for many reasons. It’s somewhat of a full circle moment.

I started my reporting career as a crime reporter at The Journal newspaper in my hometown of Seneca, South Carolina. When I started writing for the newspaper, I was stringing or freelancing as a lifestyle writer. Sometimes, for more experience, I would cover local council meetings and general assignments, but I always felt like I wanted to be a features writer.

I took feature writing with professor Paul Cuadros my senior year at UNC, and after every journalism course I had taken throughout my undergraduate career, I finally thought, “That’s what I should be doing.”

Before deciding to pursue a career in news, I had always thought I would study and pursue music professionally, as choir and music theory was a huge part of high school for me and I have been singing since I was very young. It wasn’t until I got into feature writing that I really learned how to be a more effective storyteller. It reminded me a lot of the skills it takes to perform and turn compositions into something palatable for an audience. That meant bringing the audience into the story, something feature writing is designed to do — engage.

Likewise, I got to explore more human interest pieces, as well as arts and entertainment, which is what I love.

Unfortunately for me, when you’re at a small staff, writing about those topics aren’t often the priority. The Journal needed a crime reporter around the time I started, so there I was. But I found a way to squeeze in at least two feature stories a week because I loved it.

When I began in Aiken two years ago, I was floating around doing enterprise pieces, assignments and digital content. I was eventually assigned the local government beat and began covering a lot of the Aiken County legislative delegation in the S.C. Statehouse.

This was different, and to be honest, a little out of my comfort zone. I don’t consider myself to be very much of a politico and, less than an hour from our state capital, Aiken is an extremely political area. I believe I’m well-informed, but I’m very much a creative and free-spirited person. I had the idea that government and politics were way too rigid for me. I had to look at it from another lens, which mostly meant figuring out how government decisions truly affect residents’ day-to-day lives. Actually engaging with people really stuck with me.

When the features job opened up in Aiken after the longtime arts writer’s departure, I thought about it and then asked to be considered. These days are longer for different reasons, sometimes requiring monthly planning versus weekly planning. There are dozens of arts organizations, dozens of productions, restaurants and interesting people. I’m a “one-man band,” so I’m trying not to overwhelm myself but also tell the best stories possible.

We’ll see how this shakes out. I’m mostly happy to be among the arts crowd and feel like myself again.

Q. How do story editing and headline writing work at the Aiken Standard?

A. This has changed since I started in late 2015. When I began, the newspaper had an executive editor, a roughly four or five-member copy desk, plus an editor for each section — News, Living and Sports — along with a digital editor. We also have traditionally had a night/weekend editor.

At that time, after my story was done, my digital editor most likely conducted the first edit, because web publishing often happens first. Then, my news editor completed the second edit, and the executive editor could often also give stories a solid read.

The night editor read content in the evening before sending it off to copy editors who would be responsible for mostly checking grammar, style and writing headlines on the page. At both jobs I’ve worked at, reporters have been asked to write their own headlines, but it doesn’t mean that always goes into print.

The copy editors were also essentially the paginators and designed the pages.
The year after I started, the company decided to move design to a hub at the Post and Courier offices (our parent company) in Charleston. That move meant no copy desk in Aiken, but Charleston designers and our editors had to collaborate to put together the paper. Our stories had to be done earlier, so pages could be sent to Charleston and then back here for proofing, then sent back to Charleston, and back here for printing.

After around a year, our new publisher decided to bring pagination back to Aiken. Now, we have a desk of three designers, whose roles don’t delve as much into copy editing from my understanding, but they are placing stories and designing in our newsroom.

The executive editor role has become a managing editor. We no longer have an editor for Living (it’s just me), and we have two editors who rotate weekends and nights. We are also still — as much as I’m aware — hiring a digital editor to fill a vital role when it comes to producing web content, managing social media and the website, as well as assisting the news editor.

Q. You were a student in journalism at the University of South Carolina and UNC-Chapel Hill. What skills and concepts that you learned in those programs, and what new ones have you picked up so far in your career?

A. One thing I can say is as much as a bemoaned in college about “not knowing what I wanted to with my life,” I have been very blessed to attend both of these universities and their respective journalism schools.

At USC, my news writing professor was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. He worked for The State newspaper in Columbia, and I can genuinely say, without that course, I would not have understood one thing about news writing or reporting. Not one.

I also feel like I learned quite a bit in my graphic design course there, and it wasn’t until I moved to Aiken that I was reminded that my professor was from Aiken! The first advertisement I ever designed was about the city. (So ironic). That course taught me basic design and visual/photography skills.

At UNC, I think I got a stricter sense of why avoiding mistakes and errors were critical. I remember the first time I turned in a news writing assignment and instead of getting 2 points off for a style or spelling error, losing 20. It kind of shocked me, but it is probably why I read over everything I publish with a fine-tooth comb. Granted, I have still made my share of mistakes — some I wouldn’t dare repeat — but I’m mostly comfortable with the content that I produce.

I also learned quite a bit in my reporting course at UNC. I think that is when I questioned if I was actually going to make it in print, because I didn’t know if I was quite enjoying it. The deadline pressure was very valuable, however, because I am on deadline every day at work.

I do wish I would have taken more advantage of internships, but I will say, once I knew I was going to continue pursuing print, I freelanced where and when I could. That was very helpful, because hands-on experience is necessary.

I think, really, that is what my early career has been about: getting experience and valuing the experience. I’ve learned so many tools like good storytelling, being a more critical thinker, making relationships, and failing. Yes, failing. Failing until I know more, do and write better and try not to fail again.

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