Posts by andybechtel

I teach editing at UNC-Chapel Hill. I'm especially interested in word choices that editors make, and I am also interested in alternative story forms.

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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What I am teaching this semester

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Carroll Hall is home of the School of Media and Journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill.

The spring semester begins this week at UNC-Chapel Hill. Here’s what I am teaching:

  • MEJO 157, News Editing. This course focuses on fact checking, story editing, caption writing and headline writing for print and digital media, with a dash of social media. The class meets twice a week and has 20 students. Here is the syllabus.
  • MEJO 557, Advanced Editing. This course builds on MEJO 157 by incorporating specialty areas such as features, opinion writing and sports. Students also collaborate with other courses on projects such as The Durham VOICE. The class meets twice a week and has 15 students. Here is the syllabus.

Feel free to adapt, revise or ignore the materials here. You can also browse syllabuses from across the journalism school here.

Best wishes to all on a successful semester!

Giving thanks and giving back

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The Thanksgiving edition of U.S. newspapers is the thickest of the year. The bulk of that consists of advertising inserts from stores promoting Black Friday.

But my favorite part of the Thanksgiving edition of The News & Observer is about giving, not buying. The annual Triangle Gives section looks at the remarkable work that nonprofit organizations do in this region of North Carolina. It also offers advice on donating to these groups.

Today, on Black Friday, I will select a few organizations to help. As an editor, I am partial toward ones that promote literacy. But all of the groups in the Triangle Gives section deserve support.

If you missed the print edition or live outside the N&O’s circulation area, you can read about Triangle Gives on the newspaper’s website. I encourage you to take some time reading the profiles there and considering donating to the organizations of your choice.

 

Washington Post story on Roy Moore is real news

Last week, The Washington Post published a blockbuster story on Roy Moore, a Republican running to represent Alabama in the U.S. Senate. In the story, four women say that Moore pursued relationships with them when he was in his 30s and they were teenagers.

The story’s focus is Leigh Corfman. She told the Post that in 1979, Moore approached her at a courthouse when her mother was there for a custody hearing. At the time, Corfman was 14, and Moore was 32. She alleges that Moore, an assistant district attorney at the time, took her to his house, disrobed and touched her.

After the Post’s story broke, Moore called it “the very definition of fake news.” He said the Post had committed “intentional defamation.”

Let’s take a look at each of Moore’s accusations.

“Fake news” is propaganda. It’s false information that is designed to mislead, confuse and demoralize. The Post story is real news. It’s reported, edited and written to provide readers with the background and character of a person seeking an important office.

“Intentional defamation” indicates that Moore is considering legal action against the Post. To win a libel case, a public figure like Moore must show, among other things, that a news organization acted with “actual malice.” That means that he must show that the Post knowingly published false information or exercised reckless disregard for the truth.

A thorough reading of the Post story shows that it was meticulously reported, with two journalists interviewing more than 30 sources over a three-week period. For example, the Post looked into whether the accusers were supporters of Moore’s opponents in the Senate race:moore-politics

The Post also looked into whether the custody hearing that Corfman described had taken place that day. It did:moore-courthouseThis attention to detail shows that the Post’s reporters and editors did their homework. I will be surprised if Moore files a libel suit against the newspaper and even more surprised if he prevails.

 

Quoted and tweeted out of context

One of the topics in my editing course is about the ethical use of quotes in news stories. Editors should ensure that reporters quote sources completely and accurately.

On occasion, a celebrity or politician will accuse a news organization of taking a quote out of context. Typically, this is an attempt to deflect criticism for an outrageous statement.

But sometimes, a news organization does use a person’s quote out of context, warping its meaning. Here is an example that I have used in class for several years.

A news story quoted Brad Pitt about his early days in Hollywood. Before getting into acting, he drove strippers to parties. One of the women recommended an acting coach who proved instrumental in Pitt’s rise to stardom.

The interviewer asked: “So a stripper changed the course of your career?” Pitt’s response facetiously: “Strippers changed my life.”

The resulting headline from The Huffington Post takes this quote out of context:

pitt-strippers

It’s misleading and unethical. It’s clickbait. It’s a good example of what not to do.

My example is stale, however. I’ve been looking for a new one. And this week, Fox News provided me with a fresh example of a quote taken out of context.

Jake Tapper of CNN said this on the air as his cable network covered a terrorist attack in New York City: “The Arabic chant ‘allahu akbar’ — ‘God is great’ — sometimes said under the most beautiful of circumstances, and too often we hear of it being said in moments like this.”

Here’s how Fox News reported Tapper’s remark via Twitter:

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The tweet warps Tapper’s statement, implying that he approved of the violence in New York. Tapper responded on Twitter:

tapper-response

Fox deleted the tweet, but a story about it stayed on its website. Fox host Sean Hannity repeated it on the air.

I feel bad for Tapper. No one likes to be misquoted or have their words distorted for any reason, including political attacks.

But I want to thank Fox News for this tweet. It’s a beautiful example of what not to do.

Q&A with Courtney Mabeus, military reporter for The Virginian-Pilot

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Courtney Mabeus is a reporter at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia. Her beat is the military. She previously worked at newspapers in Frederick, Maryland, and Fayetteville, North Carolina. Mabeus has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from UNC-Chapel Hill and a master’s degree from the University of Maryland. In this interview, conducted by email, Mabeus discusses the military beat and her recent trip to Puerto Rico, where she reported on recovery efforts after Hurricane Maria.

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

A. I cover the military, which likes to report to work early, an idea that seems to be anathema to most of us in the journalism world. Seriously though, my days are generally pretty close to 9-5 as they can get, with some variations.

We’ve got every branch of the services here in Hampton Roads, but the Navy takes up the biggest chunk of my time because of Norfolk Naval Station. The naval station is the largest in the world, but in the post-9/11 world you can’t just drive on, so a lot of my in-office time is spent working the phones, coordinating interviews, talking with NGOs, think-tanks, etc.

I also cover veterans, and Virginia has one of the largest populations of former service members. I read of lot of national and other local coverage, to try to distill things down to the local level or just have a better idea of the bigger issues.

I’m also in a market that’s competitive with smaller, local papers, military-related trade publications and television, so sometimes, you’ve got to hustle. As an example, it’s 10 p.m. and I just got home from filing a 35-inch story that resulted from a 400+ page waste, fraud and abuse investigation that I got through FOIA. It arrived in my inbox at 3 p.m.

Q. What makes the military beat different from others?

A. The military speaks its own language and has its own culture, but, that said, the services are a microcosm of our larger society. Each service is different, too, and has its own traditions.

As I mentioned earlier, you can’t just drive on a base to talk to those you need. You’ve got to source harder, dig deeper and FOIA a lot. Few people these days serve, too, which means fewer people understand the important role our military performs at home and internationally.

Also, you don’t get to get underway on aircraft carriers or ride on Army Black Hawks when you’re covering a city council (no offense to those reporters, as I know several who thrive from covering politics and do a darn good job of it).

Q. You recently spent a week in Puerto Rico, covering the recovery efforts after the island was hit by Hurricane Maria. What was that experience like?

A. Virginian-Pilot photographer Stephen Katz and I flew in commercial to San Juan on Oct. 2, so we arrived a little less than two weeks after the storm. The airport was sweltering and full of people trying to leave, so that’s what we walked in to: chaos. It pretty much remained that way for the entire time.

Some places relied on generators, but most were without electricity. Communication was nearly non-existent in places outside San Juan and, all across the island, you’d see people pulled over along highways where they could get cell signals. We saw people lined up for ice, for ATMs, etc.

We were on the island for about a week and crisscrossed it while covering our local Marines and sailors. You really get a sense of the devastation while flying above Puerto Rico and in the central mountain region, where we went to cover Seabees (sailors that work construction) and Marines who were clearing roads. All across the island now, you see trees that Hurricane Maria stripped, leaving them twisted, broken and brown. It looked like winter, even though it was 90+ degrees most days.

We had a rough idea of the stories we wanted to cover before we landed in Puerto Rico based on conversations we had with Navy public affairs officers in Norfolk who were in contact with those already on Puerto Rico. In a disaster area, things are going to be in constant flux so we learned to roll with story changes and communications and travel challenges, which were constant.

We were also on a budget and had to juggle that when figuring out our own day-to-day planning. We spent a few nights sleeping on cots and on the USS Kearsarge, a Norfolk-based Navy ship, and rented a car once, only because we needed to get from Ponce, in the south central part of the island, back to San Juan, in the northeast. Even when we did stay in hotels, those were difficult to find; most were only renting rooms to first responders.

Puerto Rico was a huge logistical challenge. It’s going to remain that way for residents for a long time. We didn’t bring a satellite phone, which would have made communications with our newsroom and filing stories and photos easy. Instead, I brought two phones with me, one Verizon and one AT&T. Near San Juan, texting was easy, but getting email or making a phone call was hit or miss.

You truly realize how dependent we are on technology for so many facets of life when you have to scramble to find an internet connection to file your stories and photos. It was nothing short of a miracle that we were able to get each and every one of our daily stories filed, and that was because we were at the mercy of connections provided by military.

For all the challenges, going to Puerto Rico was rewarding. There are a lot of stories there and will be for a long time. Stephen and I didn’t get to every story we wanted before it was time to leave. The Marines and sailors we cover deployed in late August/early September and are still there. Unlike a typical deployment, they don’t know when they’ll be coming home. With so many newsrooms tightening their belts these days — including mine — it was a great opportunity to go and shed a little light on what our local men and women were doing on the island and send those stories back home.

Q. What advice do you have for students who are exploring careers in reporting?

A. Absorb the sort of work that you want to create. Reach out to people who are doing now what you want to do some day. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, even if you think it makes you sound “stupid.”

It’s a complete cliché, but many people will be willing to spend the time to help you understand their lives/jobs/culture if you demonstrate the willingness to learn.

Follow Courtney Mabeus on Twitter and read her stories at PilotOnline.com.