Q&A with Sam Oches of Food News Media

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Sam Oches is editorial director at Food News Media, a B2B communications company in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, Oches discusses how the company covers the restaurant industry and what he looks for in candidates for jobs and internships.

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

A. My job is very much spinning a lot of plates.

I oversee editorial direction and strategy for both QSR and FSR magazines, which are trade publications for the national restaurant industry. That includes overseeing the production of monthly print issues for both magazines along with our ever-expanding digital presence, managing our five-person editorial team and maintaining a pool of a couple of dozen freelance writers.

But increasingly the job is oriented toward innovation and new products, as well as being an ambassador for the publications. So I’ve rolled out a new podcast for QSR called “Fast Forward” (which I also edit, produce, etc.) and launched a networking-event series for restaurant owners called Fast Casual Meet Ups, of which we’re doing 10 this year and 12 next year. Then I’ll also moderate panels, give speeches and talk with consumer media whenever appropriate.

My typical day depends on the timing of the month and deadlines we have on the horizon. Usually I’ll have a week where I’m mostly assigning stories and working with writers, then a week where I’m copy editing first drafts, then a week where I’m proofing the books and maybe a week where I’m doing more content creation, including writing and podcast editing.

In and among all of that I’m conversing with restaurant owners, executives and experts; researching trends and new restaurant concepts; and developing a plan and RSVP list for our next event. Then, of course, every day includes lots and lots of emailing.

Q. How do story editing and headline writing work at Food News Media’s magazines?

A. Every piece of print content usually has three or four sets of eyeballs on it before it gets published. Each editor here has sections they manage, and they give each story a first pass in editing. Then another editor will give it a second pass before it gets laid out by design.

After the design team has laid out the entire issue, two editors proof each book, and we also have a freelance proofer who gives it a careful read. Then we have a 24-hour window right before publishing when each editor gives the book one final pass. Suffice to say, we rarely have typos or mistakes.

As for headlines, print headlines are usually established in the first or second pass at editing. We ask that the writer suggest a couple of possible heds.

Our digital process, of course, is a little different. Due to time demands, stories get much less editing attention, and so we have to trust our digital writers to create content that is as clean and quality as possible. I’ll often give our premier digital content a read just after it’s been published, to try to catch any mistakes that might have made it through.

Digital headlines are always crafted with audience engagement in mind — and yes, that means we’ve had to explore the more acceptable components of clickbait when possible. Our digital team is very good at walking right up to the line of clickbait without crossing it. Also, all of our print content gets new headlines when published online, because again, we have to consider audience engagement.

Q. You are a graduate of the journalism program at Ohio University. What skills and concepts that you learned there do you use today? What new ones have you picked up?

A. I graduated from OU a decade ago, but it might as well have been a generation ago based on how much journalism and storytelling have evolved since then. We were just kicking the tires of social media when I graduated!

I learned all of the basics in school, of course, and copy editing and storytelling techniques were particularly important. I cannot stress enough how important it is to be good at copy editing. The world is filled with sloppy writers!

But the biggest thing I took away from my time at OU was learning about business-to-business journalism. During my junior year, my adviser pointed me toward a class she taught on B2B; I assumed it would be all about economics reporting and numbers, but it was far from it. We learned how you could take a niche subject and break it down into the nuts and bolts, then explore those nuts and bolts using reporting and writing.

To that point, I was hellbent on being the next Lester Bangs, but the B2B class helped me understand that the path to journalistic success was much more varied and had much more opportunity than I’d thought. That class led to an internship at an architecture trade pub, and that internship helped me land the associate editor gig at QSR when I graduated in 2009 — a big deal since we were in the thick of a recession.

Q. What do you look for in applicants for jobs and internships? Any advice for students interested in B2B writing and editing?

A. Believe it or not, the most important differentiating factors among applicants are usually passion, drive and curiosity. Your resume may be short and your clips may not be super sexy. But if you come into an interview demonstrating that you’ve researched our publications and that you’re committed to continuous learning — and *cough* you ask some good questions *cough* — then I’ll probably want to find room for you on my team. We can probably teach you the rest of it.

My advice to anyone interested in the B2B field would be to go out and find some publications covering subjects you’re interested in or know a lot about — there is a trade for just about every single subject, even in the arts (Billboard and Variety, anybody?). Read those publications and get a feel for how they approach content. Develop some pitches and send them to the editors.

Even if they don’t assign you the story, it’s great to have a foot in the door. Most editors will even jump on the phone with you to describe their process and how to get included in their freelance pool.

Follow Sam Oches on Twitter and learn more about Food News Media at its website.

Eating well with style

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The Durham Farmers’ Market is one of several farmers markets in the Triangle area of North Carolina.

Two recent tweets have had my mind working — and my stomach growling — about some food-related style choices.

  • First, Merriam-Webster tweeted a link to this post about “farmers market” versus “farmer’s market” versus “farmers’ market.” The one near my home calls itself the Durham Farmers’ Market, going with the plural possessive. That’s fine, but when writing about such places in general, I prefer “farmers market,” using the argument that the farmers gather there but do not own the space. The AP Stylebook makes the same recommendation.
  • Second, BuzzFeed tweeted that it was changing its style from “doughnut” to “donut.” For fun, I conducted a Twitter poll to see what my followers thought, and “donut” prevailed by a comfortable margin. I also prefer that spelling, which strikes me as more contemporary. The AP Stylebook sticks with “doughnut” in its latest edition.

I look forward to eating a donut soon at the farmers market. Yum!

Student guest post: How recipes fail readers

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the 12th of those posts. Erica Johnson is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill studying reporting and creative writing. She covered food for INDY Week, The Daily Tar Heel and Italy’s The Florentine, and she will work in business development after graduation.

Recipes are remarkably averse to teaching people how to cook. Through listing out precise measurements — 1 cup of flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt and 4 large eggs — recipes create the illusion that there is one precise way to cook. There’s one way to make chocolate chip cookies, rather than myriad variations.

In an article for Public Broadcasting Service, Jacques Pépin, an American chef and TV personality, said that cooks should use recipes as references rather than strict rules. When writing a recipe for pears in caramel, Pépin cooked the pears for 30 minutes. When Pépin repeated the recipe, however, cooking the pears ranged from 10 minutes to 1 hour depending on the ripeness and type of pears. Disaster or disappointment can result when readers think they should follow recipes exactly.

Recipes also fail to tell readers why they are doing something. What is an emulsion? Is acid necessary for a salad dressing? How do I know when I’ve added enough salt?

While these questions could take pages to answer, they can be summarized. Let’s take pasta dough, which requires one egg for 100 grams of fine flour. You mix it with a fork and roll it into a ball.

I make pasta at home so often that my roommate found a recipe online to make. As I was rushing out of the house for a date, she was struggling in the kitchen. Her dough was a crumbly mess.

I told her to add water. She said that she followed the recipe exactly, and the recipe didn’t mention that.

Most recipes don’t require a chef watching over you, but following instructions can lead you astray. Recipes rarely cater to your senses, but senses are the only way to explain what you want from a pasta dough.

Pasta dough shouldn’t be powdery or watery. It should be smooth and hold together. It should feel and look like Play-Doh. If the dough has cracks, you should add water or an egg yolk. If the dough doesn’t spring back after you push it, you should add flour. It’s harder than most bread doughs and softer than most cookie doughs. My written instructions fall short of a video, which editors can add in digital format.

If my roommate’s recipe explained rather than directed pasta dough, I would’ve been on time for my date.

Explanations may be difficult to write. They seem to require a feature writer’s touch. But Samin Nosrat, a former chef at Chez Panisee, dedicated an entire book, “Salt Fat Acid Heat,” to explaining cooking techniques to novice chefs.

Her book received rave reviews. A review in The Atlantic, “The Why of Cooking,” is about writer Joe Pinsker’s quest to find a book about cooking itself. Nosrat’s book follows the senses and science, providing simple answers to Pinsker’s question: Why am I doing this?

Like a 1999 version of the AP Stylebook, recipe style is outdated.

If the goal of recipes is to teach people how to cook, then editors should clarify the variables and science in cooking. What sights, sounds, smells and textures should I look for? What is the quick explanation of browning? What happens if I use a different apple variety in my pie?

If my roommate uses your recipe for pasta, could you please tell her what a dough looks like? I like to be on time.