Q&A with Mechelle Hankerson of the Virginia Mercury

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Mechelle Hankerson is a reporter at the Virginia Mercury, a new news organization based in Richmond. She previously worked at newspapers in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Norfolk, Virginia. In this interview, conducted by email, Hankerson discusses her role at the Mercury and offers advice to journalism students.

Q. What is the Virginia Mercury? What are the goals of the site?

The Virginia Mercury is a nonprofit news startup covering Virginia state government.

A lot of the news organizations that used to cover the state have pulled back from that or stopped altogether. The Mercury is meant to fill that hole for readers, especially when the General Assembly isn’t in session and for topics that tend to pop up in state agencies but not the legislative floor.

Q. Describe your role there. What is your typical day like?

A. I’m a reporter covering government and politics.

Right now, most of my time is dedicated to the congressional races. I usually start by 8:30 to write a blog post about any major, breaking political developments and then spend the rest of the day reporting on whatever longer story might be brewing.

Sometimes the day involves going to meetings of state boards and agencies — which is a lot like going to a City Council meeting.

Q. How do story editing and headline writing work at the Mercury?

A. We’re a small team — only four people — and we all have to be our own (and each other’s) copy editors and headline writers. It taps back into skills that haven’t been my primary focus in a while.

Q. You previously worked at The News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot. How is reporting for the Mercury different?

A. The reporting process here isn’t significantly different from working at The N&O and The Pilot. But the overall effort here is a lot different.

We’re a nonprofit startup, so there isn’t a century’s worth of tradition to dictate what we cover and how we cover it. We really get to define what The Virginia Mercury is and will be, so I feel some added pressure to always report the heck out of a story and publish something really good.

Q. What advice do you have for student journalists interested in working for a news organization like the Mercury?

A. I think the funding setup and startup nature of The Mercury is where a lot of current journalism students will end up at some point in their careers.

Traditional newspapers are changing, and those jobs are getting scarce. Journalism will never go away, but the way people consume it already has changed. So the way news organizations are run has to change.

That being said, the best advice is to stay focused on the reason you pursued journalism in the first place. It’s incredibly too easy to get caught up in who’s buying what, what’s being cut and how things used to be. It’s easy to get discouraged. You shouldn’t ignore the big changes, but try to remember your primary concern should be finding and telling good stories.

The news industry is going to change no matter what, and all you can do is the best work possible.

Follow Mechelle Hankerson on Twitter and read her stories on the Virginia Mercury website.

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Tweets tell AP to name the winner: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

The results of an election in New York this week caught many people by surprise.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old newcomer, beat Rep. Joe Crowley, a 10-term incumbent, in a congressional district that includes parts of Queens and the Bronx. Here’s how The Associated Press reported this news on Twitter:

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Many Twitter users wondered why the wire service didn’t identify Ocasio-Cortez as the winner in the tweet, with many imploring the AP to “say her name.” Here’s a sampling of other responses:

  • When do you think she will be worthy enough for her name to be published?
  • How about: “Incumbent congressman defeated by 28-year-old progressive Latina activist, Boston University graduate, and entrepreneur Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez”?
  • She has a name, y’all.
  • Ladies and gentlemen, the next member of the US House of Representatives: Young Challenger.

I understand the pushback, but I do not think the AP intended to slight Ocasio-Cortez by leaving out her name in this tweet.

Editors were probably using the news judgment that I did when I worked at newspapers: Names of people familiar to readers appeared in print headlines; lesser-known people were described by job title, geographic area or affiliation to a company, university, etc.

In this instance, Crowley is a high-ranking Democrat in the House. Ocasio-Cortez is running for office for the first time. He’s more prominent, so his name is in the big type.

That’s an old way of thinking, however. Print headlines typically have room for four to six words. Tweets have a generous limit of 280 characters, so editors at the AP had plenty of space to identify both candidates by their full names there.

Subsequent tweets by the AP include Ocasio-Cortez’s name, as they should. She won, and her name is now recognized across the political landscape.

 

Show off your headline skills at #ACES2018

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Hundreds of editors will gather this week at the Palmer House hotel in Chicago.

It’s ACES week. The national conference of ACES: The Society for Editing starts Wednesday, April 25, and ends on Saturday, April 28 in Chicago. I’ll be there.

The sold-out conference has an impressive schedule of sessions. I’m also looking forward to the silent auction, the spelling bee and keynote speech by linguist Lynne Murphy. If you can’t attend, you can follow the fun with the #ACES2018 hashtag on social media.

This year, I am organizing and taking part in a new session called “Sharpening Your Skills: A Headline Workshop.” My co-hosts are Vicki Krueger of BayCare Health System and Teresa Schmedding of Rotary International.

The session will be a “pop up” contest in headline writing. Here’s how it will work:

  • We will begin with a short discussion on what makes an effective headline for digital media. We’ll also talk about email subject lines and push notifications.
  • Next, we will give audience members three posts, including a news story and a press release. We’ll ask them to write a headline for each one. For the third post, we’ll add a subject line and push notification.
  • We’ll ask audience members to email their entries to us, and we will judge them during the session.
  • Writers of the best headlines, subject lines and notifications will win fabulous prizes.

I’m looking forward to a fun, informative conversation and competition. May the best headline writers win!

Q&A with Lisa Tozzi of BuzzFeed News

Lisa Tozzi is global news director at BuzzFeed News, a position she has held since 2013. She previously worked at The New York Times, contributing to coverage of the 9/11 attacks, the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina. In this interview, conducted by email, Tozzi discusses her work at BuzzFeed and offers advice to student journalists.

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

A. I oversee the breaking news, newsroom operations teams and curation (the team that helps manage and grow BuzzFeed News’s presence on various platforms) and work with the editors and reporters from other BuzzFeed News desks like world, investigations, politics, tech, etc. to coordinate news coming from their reporters. I also have the great fortune to be media editor Craig Silverman’s editor and to work with him and Jane Lytvynenko on fake news and debunking.

Breaking and curation is a 24/7 operation, and we have a reporters and editors in New York, Los Angeles and London and hand off to one another, which is especially critical when big news happens overnight or early in the morning.

I tend to loudly and nervously laugh when someone asks me what a typical day is like because I don’t remember typical days. Most days begin with looking at Twitter too early in the morning and needing a lot of coffee.

But every day is a bit of a wild ride, particularly over the past few years when the world feels increasingly chaotic and it is more important than ever that we are providing people with clear, reliable information around the clock. Luckily, I work with a magnificent team of reporters, editors and producers who are incredibly creative and smart and collaborative and just make me feel I won the lottery when I come to work no matter how crazy things get.

Q. Before working at BuzzFeed, you were at The New York Times. What was that transition like?

A. It wasn’t a shocking transition as I had long been more digitally focused at the Times and loved doing breaking news. But there were definite differences I noticed immediately.

One was that I suddenly didn’t have to think at all about a legacy product. I love The New York Times, I grew up reading the New York Times, I still get the print paper delivered to me on weekends. But it was interesting — dare I even say liberating — to not have to think about cutting a “web story for print” or ordering column space for Sunday on Thursday afternoon anymore. Stories didn’t need to be held for a slot on Page One, we could run them when they were ready to go. (I should note that The Times has changed a lot in the five years since I left.)

Also five years ago, news at BuzzFeed was very small and newish, and I had a chance to help build an operation and a culture rather than try to change a long-established one. Oh, yeah: There was also the whole bit of reporters having to constantly spelling B-U-Z-Z-F-E… when on the phone with sources when identifying themselves (DOESN’T HAPPEN AS MUCH ANYMORE!) and reading stories about BuzzFeed that talk about whether a site that is “known for cat GIFs” can do news. (STILL, SHOCKINGLY HAPPENS!)

Q. BuzzFeed is known for its headlines. What trends in headline writing are you seeing?

A. I don’t have any clear-cut trends to report, but we’ve always talked about writing stories people want to read and share at BuzzFeed. Some of what goes into that is thinking about how you frame a story vis-a-vis the headline.

We always stress that headlines should be conversational and not include jargon, as if you are telling a friend about the piece you’re writing. We experiment with different headlines in a story to see how they perform which can teach us a bit and help us inform future decisions. (Sometimes the headline conventions that a lot of people claim to hate are the ones readers respond to.)

Q. What advice do you have for journalism students interested in working for BuzzFeed?

A. I think a big mistake some journalists make is they come out of school and expect to immediately be an investigative reporter or think that they must immediately have a beat as if they’re picking a college major. At BuzzFeed News specifically, and for journalists in general, it really helps to be flexible and to experiment with different types of reporting and writing styles.

One of the many tragedies about the collapse of local newspapers around the country is that they were the best training ground for new journalists. I got my start as a general assignment reporter at a newspaper in New Jersey and covered everything from City Council meetings to crime to courts to political campaigns, and it was incredibly valuable to learn to be fast and versatile.

Reporters and editors on the breaking team at BuzzFeed News need to be able to write about everything from natural disasters and mass shootings to how YouTube and Instagram are changing celebrity to the viral story about a woman flushing her hamster down an airport toilet. We take social news really seriously and apply the same rigor we do with “hard news” to the quirky talker, and readers respond to that. Newsrooms shouldn’t think they’re above a certain kind of story if it is something that readers really care about, which is something we’re really conscious of.

Also: Learn how to spot misinformation and fake images. And read a lot.

Follow Lisa Tozzi and BuzzFeed News on Twitter.

Q&A with Liz Bell, reporter at EdNC

Liz Bell is a reporter at EdNC, covering K-12 education and policy across North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, Bell discusses her work, her beat and her experience at the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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

A. There truly is no typical day for me. Depending on the time of year, I could be at the state legislature and in education committees, regularly covering policy on class size or school choice or educator preparation.

Even when the legislature is in session, EdNC’s senior reporter Alex Granados and I switch off what we are covering. We could both be at the legislature covering separate topics, or one of us could be visiting a school somewhere three hours away while the other holds down the fort in Raleigh.

When the legislature isn’t in session, my day revolves around what story and what kind of story I’m working on. I recently finished a video project on racial equity in N.C. schools, so my days included a lot of traveling to Charlotte and eastern Edgecombe County, interviewing and filming subjects in courtrooms and classrooms, at churches and conferences, on sidewalks and in their workplaces.

Before in this most recent project, my days revolved around a written feature of a high-poverty school in Winston-Salem struggling with its academic performance but making large strides in students’ learning growth. I would travel to the school on some days, work from home at times and write and work in our office in downtown Raleigh at others.

EdNC is flexible as far as the specifics of where and when we work, which has helped me figure out what keeps me personally motivated and the most effective at my job.

Q. What do you like about reporting and writing about education?

A. When I was in journalism school and writing for The Daily Tar Heel, I wasn’t set on writing about education — or any other beat. I had dabbled in political reporting but mainly wrote about social issues affecting UNC students and communities as a University Desk/investigative team reporter.

When a job covering education opened up, I was interested to see what focusing on a more narrow issue would be like. In some ways, zooming in on one issue helps me feel like I know the broader context to whatever story I’m working on. Everything is connected, and I usually know what sources to reach out to and what gaps in my background knowledge I need to fill.

In another sense, however, writing about education really means writing about kids and their families. Children’s development and education don’t just happen inside the school building and are affected by economics, family structures, housing, health care, the justice system, etc. An education story often ends up being about a mix of these and tons of other factors.

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

A. I did not anticipate how much headline writing and self-editing I would be doing after journalism school. I was used to there being multiple layers of editing for content, copy editing, and headline writing with tons of different people (and opinions) at the DTH.

We have a managing editor, Laura Lee, who plans and manages content for the long term and also does daily story editing, along with a million other things. She does an amazing job but is only one person.

I always try to read through my stories multiple times, fact-check everything, read them out loud and make sure they’re the best they can be content and organization-wise before I send them over for Laura to edit. I write my own headlines as well, which are sometimes changed and sometimes are not.

Q. You are a 2016 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What skills that you learned there do you use now, and what new skills have you acquired?

A. As I mentioned, I do a lot of self-editing. All of the basic and important writing and editing skills I learned in journalism school are put to use every day.

I’m also constantly trying to improve upon the foundations of reporting (asking tough questions, getting sources to open up, managing uncomfortable conversations) I learned both in the journalism school and at the DTH. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without the love for storytelling (both journalistically and creatively) that I developed during college with help from professors and peers.

Since graduation, I have filmed and edited video throughout the months-long production of a short film series. Though I knew the basics of Premiere Pro from an audio/video class in journalism school, I have learned most of what I can do now through lots of Googling and learning as I go. I take photographs for all of my stories and never took a photojournalism course in school. I also feel I’ve grown in areas like public speaking, event planning, social media management and radio/TV appearances.

Read Liz Bell’s stories on the EdNC website and follow her on Twitter.

Q&A with Travis Greenwood of Movie Heds

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This headline from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” is among Travis Greenwood’s favorite examples of headlines from the movies.

Travis Greenwood is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. He recently started a Twitter account called Movie Heds, which collects newspaper headlines from movies. In this interview, conducted by email, Greenwood discusses the origins of Movie Heds and some his favorite cinematic headlines.

Q. What inspired you to start Movie Heds? What are you hoping to achieve?

A. The roots of Movie Heds can be traced back to a previous job with a pair of partnered e-commerce sites, one of which had an identity anchored around movies and pop culture. Among other responsibilities, I was charged with developing special content projects -— what some might call linkbait (not to be confused with its more defamed cousin, clickbait) — and this included shareable things like illustrations, tutorials, and “supercuts,” or videos edited around movie tropes.

(A playlist of said videos can be seen here; my favorites remain the two at the top, which are cobbled together from the best seen-on-screen T-shirts.)

While none of these really broke out in a major way, most racked up view counts in the five or six figures and surfaced at places like Digg, io9, VICE and Sports Illustrated. But for every video I made, there were probably at least three or four that never made it past the conceptual stage, and one of them was … wait for it … newspaper headlines.

For whatever reason, I kept returning again and again to the idea this year, but I was hesitant to act on the impulse because these projects can be time-consuming to research and edit and the genre has lost its luster — fewer sites cover them now. And because newspaper scenes can be kind of static, I wasn’t sure a 3- or 4-minute clip consisting entirely of them would be all that compelling.

But that’s when it hit me: a Twitter feed, publishing two to three times daily, would be a better format for this kind of content. (Plus, the debate around “fake news” gave it a topical and convenient peg, but that’s mostly just for yuks on my end.)

After a bit of research, I settled on the current handle, penned a pithy little bio and started posting, and well, here we are. It’s been fun to watch a community come together around the account! It’s a bit of insider baseball, so I’m not sure it’ll ever attract a mass following, but the early returns have been promising.

As for goals, this is largely a pet project, but it’s also one that, depending on the potential employer and role, I’ll include in my portfolio to showcase my editorial skill set (I currently freelance as a writer and editor for Cuteness.com on the trending animal beat, but I’m hoping to transition back to full-time work in 2018).

Q. What makes an effective headline in a movie?

A. Ah, good question … and I’m not sure I have the authority to say. While I’ve been writing and editing on the web for 10+ years now (with bylines at publishers like Spin, Yahoo, and BuzzFeed) and can turn the occasional gem, I don’t actually have experience working in print.

But that’s where the community comes in. One of the feed’s followers, @LeCineNerd, is a professional copy editor, and she routinely shares technical critiques that touch on things such as style, formatting, layout and the like. While this was unexpected on my part, I totally welcome insights like this that afford a closer look at how professionals would approach the challenge of creating prop newspapers.

It’s interesting because a lot of the older examples — like this one from “Rocky III” — feature filler text and elements that are completely off-topic or unrelated and were probably splashed together by the art department in a pinch. My guess is that the filmmakers never expected the audience would look deeper, but in the age of streaming and Blu-ray, when every frame can be frozen and inspected, these things fall apart under closer scrutiny. Newer films seem to have course corrected for this but you still find some strange juxtapositions.

Q. What are your favorite movie headlines?

A. My favorite prop headlines skew funny and would include “Goofy Cleared Of Spy Charges” from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Disaster Seen As Catastrophe Looms” from “The Iron Giant” (a fantastic sight gag that works in context — the character reading it pulls the paper close as a futile defense in the face of a crashing wave, which is mirrored on his sunglasses — and is itself a callback to something similar in “Lady And The Tramp”), and a pair from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (“Drunken Billionaire Burns Down Home” and “Billionaire Absconds With Entire Russian Ballet“) that are funny little asides but help flesh out the world-building.

I’ll also always love the one from “Old School” because it provides denouement for Jeremy Piven’s character (an obnoxious college dean who gets his comeuppance) and it’s one of the first headlines-in-film that I really noticed.

Q. You’re focusing on print examples so far. Do you expect to include digital headlines or tweets in your collection as news organizations move in that direction?

A. This is actually something I’ve been wrestling with internally. I’m interested in curating a balance of headlines in all of their various forms (in part because directors use them in so many ways), and this includes print, photocopiesmicrofiche, digital and whatever other forms they might take.

Aside from one scrolling headline pulled from “The Matrix,” I haven’t included digital headlines in the programming yet, but that’s just because I’m working through a long list of movies with print heds. Look for more of these as the project matures!

Follow Movie Heds on Twitter and see examples of Greenwood’s other work at his website.

Q&A with Ryan Wilusz, reporter at the Morganton News Herald

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Ryan Wilusz is a breaking news reporter at the The News Herald in Morganton, North Carolina. He is a 2017 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. In this interview, conducted by email, Wilusz discusses his job reporting and editing at the News Herald.

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

A. I will describe my job for you, but I don’t know how much of it will be typical. In the two months I have been a breaking news reporter with The News Herald, I have reported from funerals and emergency rooms, and I have witnessed multiple car chases, a water rescue and a large warehouse fire (just to name a few things). Each day is completely different, and that’s why I love what I do. But there are some routine parts of each day.

As soon as I wake up, I turn on the police scanner if it’s not still playing from the night before. I have it playing in my car, and it will continue playing throughout the day as I work. It’s just something you have to get used to.

Another typical part of my day is going through the arrest and incident reports on the local law enforcement websites. If I find anything notable, I follow up during the day.

I also make sure to load the software we use to track our stories as soon as I get in the office. It’s very important to know your audience, and the software allows us to see how many people are viewing our stories at any given time and how they are accessing them.

Once these programs are loaded and these tasks are completed, the rest of my day is up in the air unless I have a meeting or event I already plan to go to. You have to be prepared for anything that might come over the scanner. That means having multiple changes of clothes and shoes, a safety vest for roadside stories, a full charge on your phone, an SD card for your camera and a plan to send content back to the office from the field.

You never know what you might have to cover, and you never know how long you’ll be out of the office.

Q. How do editing and headline writing work at the Morganton paper?

A. All editors are different, and I am lucky enough to have an editor who believes in giving the writer a say when it comes to editing. Each story is submitted to our editor through the program we use to place content in the physical paper.

At the top of our document, we write a suggested overline and headline. We also include our own subheads and cutlines, too. The story is then edited and placed in the “ready” folder. As long as the headlines and overlines are not terrible, they are usually returned with minimal changes. A lot of times, the headline will be bumped down to a subhead in the physical paper for space purposes.

After the story is returned with edits, we place it online ourselves. We are also in charge of linking and placing photos and other content on the website.

Students are always taught that being a journalist is a collaborative process. My editor understands that collaboration not only happens between reporters but between editors and reporters, too. When it comes time to decide on story placement in the paper and what should be a primary photo for a story, my editor always asks what we think. And no matter what, she has our backs for whatever feedback we may receive from the public.

Q. While at UNC, you wrote for the College Town website. How did that experience help you start your journalism career?

A. I don’t believe that any one form of experience is good enough to help you start a career. Luckily for students at UNC-Chapel Hill, there are plenty of opportunities to gain real-world experience before the job search begins. I say it is best to dip your toes in as many areas as possible.

College Town helped redefine my idea of what can be considered “news.” As I stated before, it is very important to know your audience. Readers were not going to College Town for breaking news. They were visiting for news that was fun and different but also informative. So I was encouraged to craft themed playlists, stories about campus jogging routes and a Q&A with my own mother about me moving away. But this background wouldn’t land me a job at a newspaper alone.

The Durham VOICE helped me step outside my comfort zone and write stories about people very different than me and about issues I never experienced. My internship at the Statesville Record & Landmark helped show me what an actual career in journalism was like and helped me gain multiple bylines in a professional setting.

My editing classes at UNC-CH taught me how to write headlines and how to be a more precise and concise writer. My audio/video/photography classes at UNC-CH helped me find new ways to be a creative storyteller outside of just words on paper.

The journalism industry is changing, newsrooms are shrinking and employers are looking for candidates who can do it all. And if you want to land a great job, you have to have experience across the board.

Q. What skills that you learned in the journalism school are you using in your job in Morganton? What new ones are you picking up in your newsroom?

A. Literally every skill the journalism school taught me is being put to use at The News Herald.

I’ve often heard students talk about how useless a class may be because in their minds, the skills being acquired have nothing to do with they want to do as a career. But I have found that some of the skills I have learned are coming to use in unexpected places.

I had no plans to be an editor coming out of school. But I ended up landing a job at a place that encourages writers to take on some of those editing skills such as headline writing. I may be a breaking news reporter, but my creative sportswriting class taught me how to think outside the box (or the pyramid) to tell an intriguing, detailed and creative news story. I may not have had plans to be a photojournalist, but I am at a newspaper without a full-time photographer. My photography skills have helped us have compelling centerpieces on what may seem like dull news days.

I will say there are some skills that I wasn’t able to acquire at UNC-CH that I have been forced to pick up along the way. I would love to see a breaking news or crime reporting class in the journalism school. A lot goes into working a breaking news event or a crime scene. Safety of the reporter is always an issue. You also have to know how to work well with law enforcement officers.

There’s a certain amount of give and take between reporters and police officers, and you want to make sure you get your photo and information while avoiding confrontation with officers and bystanders. Breaking news can be hectic, and you don’t want to add to it.

With that being said, however, don’t let anyone influence you or your job. Know your rights! And that kind of goes into the other big skill I have picked up while on the job.

When you are in school, all that’s really on the line is your grade. But when you are reporting sensitive stories about death and about crime, you are the target of a lot of frustration. People will be upset when you report on them or their family members (especially if they are a minor) and will often feel you are the cause of their ruined reputation.

You have to know how to take those phone calls from upset readers and subjects. And trust me, there are a lot of phone calls!

You have to know how to firmly justify and stand by your decisions, but you also have to show some level of compassion because those people who are calling are the same ones who subscribe. Just always remind people that you don’t make the news, you report on it.

UPDATE: In April 2018, Ryan Wilusz accepted a reporting job at the Knoxville News Sentinel in Tennessee.