Q&A with Sara Pequeño of INDY Week

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Sara Pequeño is digital content manager at INDY Week, an alternative weekly newspaper and website that covers the Triangle region of North Carolina. A 2019 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, Pequeño was a student journalist at The Daily Tar Heel and an intern at Our State magazine. In this interview, conducted by email, Pequeño discusses her work at INDY Week, including coverage of COVID-19, and what she learned in journalism school.

Q. Describe your job at INDY Week. What is your typical day like?

A. My title at INDY is “Digital Content Manager,” but I think a more apt title would be “The Person That’s Always Online.” During a normal workday, my job has three components: I add events to the INDY calendar (in print and online), I manage our social media accounts, and I write.

When it comes to writing, I don’t have an assigned “beat,” like some of our other writers. I have written stories that need to go out in minutes, exposed racists, reviewed music, and even got to talk about my love of opossums.

While I don’t know if anyone has a “typical” day in news, I would say the days I have most often go something like this: I get to the office and start scheduling tweets if I didn’t do them the night before. I have to schedule them from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., so I try to make sure we have a nice mix of news and culture stories.

Once I’ve finished that, I do one of three things: Ask our editors if there’s a story we need to get out, search for quick stories on Twitter and other social media sites, or start working on a print piece that requires more reporting. Generally, once I’m done with this, I do things to wrap up and prepare for tomorrow: scheduling social media posts, setting up interviews, and making sure that I’m ready for another day of crazy.

Q. How do headline writing and story editing work at INDY Week?

A. The editing process depends on if the story is for print or online.

If you’re writing a blog post, you tend to edit as you go and write your own headline. Then, you may hand it to someone else, be it another reporter or our editor-in-chief, to glance over and edit. Then once the final changes are made, it gets published on our website. Certain stories go through multiple rounds of fact-checking.

For instance, when I wrote about a Durham business owner calling someone the n-word on Facebook, my EOC and I spent two hours alone going over every single piece of evidence I’d compiled. And this was after I had personally fact-checked and screenshot every comment, phone call and previous issues.

Print is a bit different. We go to print on Tuesdays (although sometimes we have an early deadline on Mondays), so we try to get stories to their respective editor by Friday. From there, we workshop a headline, and you’ll look over any edits they made and shoot it back to them. Then, once it’s laid out on the page, it is “pencil-checked,” where we look for grammatical errors.

All of this is happening with the six writers we have on staff, so it’s pretty important that you make sure your copy is clean and that you’ve caught as many grammar and spelling errors as possible. Normally, I look over these stories once more before they hit the website, just to make sure there weren’t any stray commas or small spelling errors.

Q. The big story of the year (so far) is COVID-19. How has the coronavirus crisis affected your work and INDY Week generally?

A. This is the busiest I’ve been in the six months I’ve worked here.

We are trying to provide people with as much insight and information as possible, but it’s difficult when people are no longer picking up your print copies at their coffee shop or bookstore. We’ve switched to printing every other week for the time being, but we’re still trying to post as much as possible on our website.

This switch to digital puts more pressure on me to break stories, keep our articles circulating on social media and look for voices that are being left out of the narrative. It’s been challenging, but it’s also nice to feel like my job matters this much more.

I have a daily blog quota of ~2 posts a day, and again, I have no beat. I’ve been covering Orange County’s coronavirus response (thankfully I covered the Orange County Health Department for a college class). This week, the paper focused specifically on folks who were being left out of the typical “coronavirus narrative,” and those that could easily fall through the aid program cracks — bartenders, undocumented migrants, tattoo artists, etc.

Q. You are a graduate of the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. What skills and concepts that you learned there do you use in your job, and what new ones have you picked up?

A, Everything I learned about writing, I learned in the journalism school. I’ve always been a writer, but journalism wasn’t even on my radar before I came to college. My professors taught me how to write for news by ripping apart my stories and showing me how they could be stitched back together.

When I went with the MEJO 584 class my senior year to Medellín, Colombia, I realized what makes a good reporter. No one is kidding when they say you have to do your homework; the hours we spent learning bits of Spanish, reading everything we could on Venezuela and the migrants fleeing the economic collapse there.

It also nailed home one of the most important things to learn in journalism: You have to separate your human emotions from your job. I was writing about a family struggling to get adequate health care for their children as undocumented migrants in Colombia. The children were all under 10, and the family had been through a lot in their journey and continued to go through a lot in their new lives in Medellín. It was really hard to separate the human need to help immediately from the greater good of highlighting the Venezuelan economic crisis as a whole. To be honest, I think I could have separated myself more. But I’m glad I learned that in school, rather than reporting a hard story in the field and getting too attached to a subject.

On the other hand, working in a newsroom is a lot different than the imaginary one we create in the j-school; it’s even different from the traditional style of The Daily Tar Heel. Working at an alt-weekly means I don’t have to shy away from picking a side on things I care a lot about: I can call racism what it is. I can advocate for blue-collar workers. I can tell a U.S. senator to resign. It’s been a new experience learning to develop my voice in this way, after working for years to remove any bias and just get to the facts.

UPDATE: In August 2021, Pequeño accepted a position as an opinion writer for The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina.