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 Karen Willenbrecht, editor at S&P Global Market Intelligence

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Karen Willenbrecht is associate coal editor at S&P Global Market Intelligence. She previously worked as a copy editor at newspapers such as Stars And Stripes, The Denver Post and The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, Willenbrecht discusses her job at S&P Global and her transition from newspaper editing.

Q. Describe your work at S&P Global Market Intelligence. What is your typical day like?

A. Our teams are divided up by the industries we cover. My team covers coal and is fairly small: We have two editors, two U.S.-based reporters and a reporter based overseas.

Our day starts at 8 a.m., and my boss, the industry editor for coal, scours news sources for story ideas, assigns stories and checks in with the writers to form a coverage plan for the day. If he’s out, I handle that. Throughout the day, I edit stories as they come in and post them to our site. I also do some writing.

Q. The S&P office is in Charlottesville, Virginia, and you live in Raleigh, North Carolina. What is it like to work remotely?

A. Working remotely has benefits and drawbacks. I’ve found that people collaborate better when they’ve met face to face, and I’m grateful that my training was held in one of the main offices so I could meet most of my colleagues in person. Communication is obviously vital, and we use chat apps constantly. I also found it helpful to set up office space in my spare bedroom and not go in there when I’m not working, so I don’t feel like I live at work.

The biggest drawback for me is that I’m a fairly social person and I miss having people to joke with and bounce ideas off of. I’ve partly solved that by joining a co-working space, which has the added benefit of much better Wi-Fi and coffee than I have at home. I usually co-work two or three days a week and spend the other days at home. I’ve tried working from coffee shops, but the Wi-Fi is often unreliable or too slow. Plus, I wind up spending too much money and eating too many baked goods.

I also have two cats, who love it when I’m home all day. I have to be honest, though — they’re terrible office mates. I often tell them I’m going to file an HR complaint over their failure to respect boundaries.

Q. The company has a policy of paying $50 when a reader finds an error on the site. How does that affect the work of writers and editors there?

A. I was a newspaper copy editor for years and watched sadly as paper after paper decided that editing wasn’t important, so I was excited to work for a company that still valued editing and accuracy. And I like things to be right, so I enjoy being surrounded by people who feel the same and strive for that.

Our culture is all about transparency and accountability — every time an error is found in a published story, it’s logged and everyone responsible is notified, even if it’s caught internally. Part of our annual bonus is based on staying within our department’s budget for errors that result in a payout, so accuracy is a team effort.

Q. You previously worked at The News & Observer and other newspapers. What has the transition to a digital-only organization been like? What advice do you have for editors looking to make a similar change?

A. Transitioning to digital-only was easier than I thought it would be, in part because the N&O had shifted to a digital-first strategy, so it wasn’t a huge jump from “print is not our priority” to “print doesn’t exist.”

One nice thing, as an editor, is that there’s no extra work for converting a story from print to digital, since it was never set up for print. So, for example, there’s no need to write a print headline and a web headline.

I also find that the writers think differently about timing — no one has the holdover idea that they’re working toward a print deadline and don’t need to file before 6 p.m. Stories are filed as soon as they’re written, and the writers do things like inserting links to related stories that are often done by editors or web producers at a newspaper.

That would be my main advice for an editor looking to make that transition: You have to let go of the mindset of working toward a fixed deadline and adjust to a real-time environment. I still sometimes miss that adrenaline rush of racing against deadline and the wave of relief once everything is done, but it’s probably better for my blood pressure that I don’t do that anymore.

How I am spending my summer

Summer is already here, according to the academic calendar at UNC-Chapel Hill. As I’ve noted in the past, this time of year for faculty members is not synonymous with a vacation. Here’s what I have planned for summer 2017:

  • Teach MEJO 157, News Editing, during a condensed term called Maymester. We’ll cover an entire semester’s worth of material in less than three weeks.
  • Review applications for a certificate program in media and technology, and help those who are admitted get settled in for fall semester.
  • Grade comprehensive exams for students in an online master’s program.
  • Teach the journalism component of a week-long jazz workshop.
  • Host a book reading by my friend and former colleague Kathleen Flynn, whose debut novel was released earlier this month.
  • Teach a workshop on alternative story forms at the Chuck Stone Program for Diversity in Education and Media.
  • Update the stylebook of the School of Media and Journalism.
  • Serve as a member of the ACES Education Fund on various tasks, including establishing a scholarship in honor of Bill Walsh, the noted Washington Post copy editor who died this year.
  • Attend two faculty retreats, including one looking at significant changes to the journalism curriculum.
  • Review and update course materials for the three courses that I will teach during the fall semester, which will begin in mid-August.

That’s plenty to keep me busy. Happy summer!

Q&A with freelance editor Heather E. Saunders

heathersaundersHeather E. Saunders is a freelance proofreader and STM editor who lives in Massachusetts. She edits material about mental health, aeronautics and cancer research, among other topics. In this interview, conducted by email, Saunders discusses her work, her new role at ACES and her viewpoints on the Oxford comma and the singular they.

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

A. As you might expect, a “typical” day is never guaranteed in the life of a freelancer. I have developed a general structure for my days and my weeks, but there must be an inherent flexibility to my schedule.

The morning is devoted to emails and house chores, and early afternoon is set aside for deep focus work. After a quick lunch and an extended puppy playtime, the rest of the afternoon is spent on lighter project work. I end the day with marketing, networking and follow-up emails.

I schedule new projects and check in on project updates early in the week and send invoices on Friday. I’ve developed a rhythm that ensures I have time for billed work, marketing for new work and professional development, even though those times might fluctuate a bit day to day.

Q. You were a journalism major as an undergraduate. How did you go from news to other types of editing?

A. During my studies, I fell in love with the copy desk. I started in journalism with a desire to write, but I found myself much more at home editing copy. Once I knew I preferred editing to writing, it was a just a matter of deciding what I wanted to edit.

Working in journalism actually helped me hone in on my passions; I learned very quickly which fields interested me, and I decided to pursue those right out of the gate. I’ve always been drawn to the sciences, and I studied astronomy and psychology as well as journalism. One of my first clients was an aeronautics journal, and from there I expanded to other areas.

Q. You were recently elected to the executive committee of ACES, the Society for Editing. What inspired you to run, and what do you hope to achieve as a board member?

A. I’ve loved being a part of ACES since I joined to attend my first conference in Las Vegas. I ran for the board so I could contribute to this organization that does so much for our field. I was the Boston chapter coordinator for the Editorial Freelancers Association for three years, so I felt prepared to offer my time and skills.

As a board member, I hope to help develop more training opportunities for intermediate and advanced editors as well as more opportunities to connect with colleagues, be that at local meetings, through mentoring, or at other events. There are many new things happening at ACES that I am excited about.

Q. What advice do you have to people interested in careers in editing similar to yours?

A. There is certainly no one path to a career, and I found mine through study; I studied editing and linguistics as well as news and current research in fields that interest me. And I continue this study regularly. Together, this learning keeps me current on the fields I work in as well as keeps my editing skills sharp, which continually creates new opportunities.

Q. Lastly, what’s your view on the two topics that editors get asked about a lot: the Oxford comma and the singular they?

A. I enjoy the Oxford comma in my reading, but rarely use it in my personal writing (a holdover from my early days in journalism), so I live in both worlds.

I like seeing it on the printed page, but generally only put it there if style dictates or if I’m writing for a broad audience. If Oxford comma usage was banned or made mandatory tomorrow, I wouldn’t lose sleep either way.

As for singular they, I encourage its use and am pleased to see style guides finally adopting it.

Check out Heather E. Saunders’ website and follow her on Twitter.

A caption can tell us what we can’t see

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Captions are an underrated device in journalism. Used well, they provide a helpful layer of information, a connector between the headline and the story text. Too many captions belabor the obvious, contain errors or omit information.

A successful caption (or cutline, if you prefer) connects the photograph to the theme and content of the story it goes with. It describes the image but also tells us what we can’t see.

This caption on the front page of The Wall Street Journal does that. Here’s what it says:

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, left, and Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, right, share a laugh during a White House meeting with President Trump. The photo was taken by Russia’s state-owned news agency TASS; Wednesday’s meeting was closed to U.S. media.

The caption tells us who is who, where they are and when they met. And it mentions the unusual circumstances surrounding the photograph. That explains the newsworthiness of the image.

One edit: Find a better phrase than “share a laugh.” It’s a tired one to avoid in captions, along with “all smiles” and “looks on.”

Student guest post: Editors, let your reporters prove you wrong

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 15th of those posts. Ryan Wilusz is a senior majoring in journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill. He has written for the College Town website, and after graduation, he will work as a reporter at The News Herald in Morganton, North Carolina.

As a journalist, I hate to bring up old news; what’s done is done.

But with Bill O’Reilly no longer a member of Fox News, I have naturally reflected on some of his most outrageous moments from, what Indira A.R. Lakshmanan of The Boston Globe calls his “bulletproof bully’s pulpit.” But perhaps the most noteworthy (and meme-worthy) moment of his long career happened off the air during his time on “Inside Edition.” In outtake footage that surfaced in 2008, O’Reilly can be seen screaming about the teleprompter as he struggles to decipher what exactly his lines are supposed to mean. In the end, he yells profanities at his coworkers and decides to override the script using his own words to end the show.

With O’Reilly’s talent and political knowledge, perhaps you would make an exception for such behavior. But as an editor, imagine for a moment that one of your reporters disagrees with your editorial decision and stands up for his or her choices. Perhaps they don’t stand up quite as strong as O’Reilly, but they stand up nonetheless. What do you say? What do you do?

Being an editor is all about managing reporters and making things right. But don’t think for a moment that the editor should always be the one who is correct. I would argue that good editors should encourage reporters to prove them wrong. In fact, I would say good editors should embrace healthy forms of insubordination. There is such a thing.

But don’t listen to me; listen to legendary investigative reporter Bob Woodward when he said, “All good work is done in defiance of management.” Now I’m not saying you editors out there should let your reporters stomp on your work and disregard your title. You still are the ones in charge, after all. But what happens when reporters begin to accept everything you say? What happens when they begin trying to satisfy you and not the readers?

It may sound silly, but it can happen so easily. Even as a student, this has happened to me. I have found myself, after receiving feedback on early-semester assignments, attempting to write in a way that avoids being counted off for things my professor didn’t like. But the professor is just one reader. The professor is, in a way, the editor. I could sit there and argue about my grade all day, but it wouldn’t change a thing.

But when you encourage arguments and healthy insubordination inside the newsroom, you encourage reaching a conclusion together, you encourage dialogue and you encourage reporters to be inquisitive. If reporter can’t feel comfortable standing up and questioning their editors, how can those reporters feel comfortable asking the hard questions of sly politicians?

And just as politicians will fight back, you should too. After all, good journalists are often the ones who are rough around the edges — ones who refuse to accept what is handed to them until they know it is correct.

I read in Carol Fisher Saller’s “The Subversive Copy Editor” that the editor who makes and stands by his or her countless changes is often not the best editor. Believing there is a standard way to do something and blocking out other voices means you only have a few tricks in your bag.

So I encourage editors: add some tricks. And let your reporters throw in a few tricks of their own. Reporters who feel comfortable standing up for themselves and asking questions will do the same in the field. Practice how you want them to play.

Remembering Mark Binker

One of North Carolina’s best journalists, Mark Binker, has died at age 43.

For a dozen years, Binker covered state government and the General Assembly for the Greensboro News & Record, WRAL and The Insider, a newsletter affiliated with The News & Observer. His Twitter feed was an essential follow for anyone interested in North Carolina politics.

Here’s a sampling of reaction to his sudden passing:

  • “Mark Binker was an outstanding journalist who uniquely understood complex issues and explained to viewers and readers why they should care.” — Gov. Roy Cooper
  • “Binker always called himself a ‘scruffy old reporter,’ but his humility couldn’t hide his sharp intellect – he was a policy wonk at heart who always did his homework.” — Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger
  • “In many ways he represented the very best of North Carolina, and no one knew or covered the General Assembly better than Mark Binker.” — House Speaker Tim Moore
  • “Binker would be laughing at all these politicians praising him. ‘That’s not what they said before. They want something.’ ” — John Robinson, former editor at the News & Record

I never met Mark Binker in real life, but we did communicate via social media on occasion. He was helpful, humble and humorous.

I’ve also mentioned Binker to journalism students interested in covering politics. Whether in print or on screen, he exemplified the best of journalism: careful, thorough, ethical and open-minded. Binker was a role model and mentor to many.

On Twitter, political strategist Alfredo Rodriguez suggested that the North Carolina Press Association create a Mark Binker Award “to honor journalists for their dogged and honorable pursuit of truth.” I support that idea and hope that the NCPA will consider it.

In the meantime, I offer my condolences to Binker’s family, friends and colleagues. We will all miss him.

What’s on the final exam in an editing course

It’s the last week of classes for the spring semester at UNC-Chapel Hill. Final exams are ahead.

Here is what’s on the exam in my section of MEJO 157, News Editing:

  • Using WordPress, edit a news story for everything we have covered in this course: AP style, punctuation, grammar, spelling, clarity, word choice and story structure. Check for fact errors, bias and libelous material.
  • If you have a question for the reporter, ask me. I’ll play that role.
  • Add at least two links to the story.
  • Write a headline of about 65 characters.
  • Write a tweet of up to 140 characters.
  • Place a photo that goes with the story and write a caption for it.
  • Proofread a map or chart that goes with the story.

You may use any resource you wish, including the AP Stylebook. Good luck!