Q&A with Rogelio Aranda, local news editor at The Charlotte Observer

Rogelio Aranda is local news editor at The Charlotte Observer. He started at the Observer in 1998 as a copy editor and page designer in the sports department, and he has served in various roles there over the years. In this interview, conducted by email, Aranda discusses working with reporters and how editing and headline writing have changed at the Observer.

Q. Describe your job at the Observer. What is your typical day like?

A. One thing I’ve learned since I became one of the Observer’s three news editors last December is that there’s no such thing as a typical day. News has a way of quickly getting a day off track, especially at 7 a.m. 

That said, my day usually starts with Slack alerts around 7:30 a.m., usually because a colleague has updated the homepage. I try to see what’s new on local news sites and Twitter while also juggling parental duties until we meet with our teams at 8:45. 

I work with the Observer’s legal affairs writer, two breaking news reporters and a public safety reporter (which is currently vacant). During our meeting, they give me a status check on stories they’re working on, and we look ahead to the rest of the day and week and how we could help our colleagues on their beats. At 9, we slide over to the all-newsroom meeting, which is followed by the editors session.

News dictates the rest of the day. If I’m not editing a story, in a meeting or on a call with a reporter or editor, I’m monitoring Parse.ly, tweets, social media, emails and local news sites, as well as dealing with administrative duties. 

We have a 6:15 print deadline, so we make sure to have high-priority stories wrapped up well before that time. Easier said than done sometimes, but we adjust. 

My day ends around 7 — sometimes later — by writing a script for our daily Alexa briefing. It can be a tedious process only because I have to make sure the AI correctly pronounces names. “Appalachian” or “Concord” have been challenging.

Q. How do editing and headline writing work at the Observer? How has that changed since you started at the paper?

A. I arrived in Charlotte in 1998 when the Observer, like most newspapers, had copy and design desks for news, sports and features. Back then, editors and reporters would suggest headlines, but ultimately it  was one of the copy desk’s duties.

Fast forward 23 years, and it’s obvious the seemingly endless waves of cutbacks across the industry have affected how news organizations edit and write headlines. 

Much of the copy editing happens between reporters and their editors. Reporters also are responsible for starting early versions of headlines and search engine optimization, which editors then fine-tune.

Fortunately, we also can rely on our growth team for helpful and valuable feedback on headlines and SEO. In many, many instances, they provide different and more effective approaches. It’s been a big help. 

Ideally, I prefer to edit alongside a reporter, talking over changes and ideas line by line. The pandemic and our work-from-home setup have made editing bumpier. Google Meet sessions help mimic the side-by-side process, but I’ve found leaving notes in the text and phone conversations more efficient. I do like to talk to reporters face-to-face on video chats mostly for brainstorm sessions and to discuss follow-ups. 

McClatchy’s Publishing Center, my home for many years, is responsible for changing headlines to fit our print editions, including the eEditions. 

Q. Charlotte is seeing newcomers such as Axios and the Charlotte Ledger enter the news landscape. How does the Observer compete with and complement what those organizations do?

A. I suppose this is the part where I get riled up and put up some bulletin board material about our competitors?  

In all seriousness, a competitive news landscape should be a good thing for the public. New organizations like the Ledger and the rebranded Axios (formerly Charlotte Agenda) bring different approaches and perspectives to their stories. The same holds true for other news organizations such as QCity Metro, The Charlotte Post and local TV. Our coverages can overlap, but these news outlets also fill in gaps we choose not to cover as closely, and vice versa.

For us, the big challenges are getting a major scoop or an exclusive story. A growing and diverse news landscape means sources have more options with whom to share tips and stories. We get scoops, they sometimes get scoops, and when they do, we try to provide more depth or another angle on the story.

Q. It’s almost internship season. What advice do you have for student journalists interested in opportunities there and at other McClatchy newspapers?

A. When I became an editor, the process for selecting 2021 interns was well under way. Here are some thoughts about internships after working with interns this past summer and back in 2019:

— Start looking for internships early. Don’t limit your search to specific markets or beats. Be open. An internship is a learning experience. Unless it’s an internship in a specific field, you should expect to report and write about many topics. 

— Present your best work during the application process, but be ready to explain how your final product came to be. Did it require a lot of polish from an editor or a colleague? The same would apply when applying for a full-time job.

— Become somewhat familiar with the news outlet and market where you apply. It can help you during the interview, and if you land the internship, you can hit the ground running once you start.

I checked with my editing colleague Anna Douglas, who coordinated the Observer internship search last year. The process typically begins with an open application process in December, and decisions are made by early spring, she said. 

Here’s what else Anna said: Yes, the internship is a training-on-the-job opportunity, but you’ll be most successful in getting a position and then building great clips at your internship if you do some student journalism in the semester — for example, working on student media. This helps build clips, which are typically carrying a lot of weight in the decision on who gets an internship. In other cases, you can have a professor or mentor write a reference letter to submit with your application explaining what classroom experience has given you.