Q&A with POLITICO reporter Megan Cassella

megancassella

Megan Cassella is a reporter at POLITICO in Washington, D.C., covering the trade beat. She previously worked at Reuters news service. This interview was conducted by email.

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

A. Every day is a little bit different, which is what I like most about the job. My workday starts at home, occasionally with a few early-morning emails and phone calls and always with a first reading of the day’s news and a scan through Twitter. Because I cover international trade, my beat spans time zones, and we’re often reacting early to news that broke overnight in Beijing or Brussels.

By 9 or 10 a.m. I’m out the door, either to the newsroom, an event somewhere downtown, a coffee or breakfast meeting with a source, or to the Capitol. I work as part of a four-person team covering trade policy, so we’ll divide up the events of the day and then spend our remaining free time — when there’s no breaking news and no events to cover — meeting with sources and reporting out longer-term stories.

By late afternoon, we’ve shifted into planning for the next day, including by starting work on Morning Trade. It’s a policy newsletter we put out every weekday morning, and it serves as a preview of sorts for the next day in trade. On the couple nights a week that I spearhead the newsletter, I’ll aim to file it to my editor around 6 p.m., then dive back in around 10 p.m. to do a final headline sweep and “put it to bed,” as we say.

Q. The tweet pinned to your Twitter account says: “Who knew the trade beat would make you a war correspondent?” How so?

The line is meant to be a sort of play on words because I spend every day covering what many people would consider a trade war. It’s not an armed conflict in the normal sense of the word, but it’s still a prolonged and politically fraught standoff between the United States and many of its trading partners that has tremendously high economic stakes for most countries involved.

The “who knew” bit is a reference to the fact that when I switched to covering trade three years ago, it was a relatively sleepy beat. There was always something to write about, but in the pre-Trump era it was rarely front-page news and only occasionally caught the attention of major news outlets and the White House press corps.

These days, with an ongoing conflict with China and with Trump having declared that passage of his new North American trade deal is his top legislative priority for the year, we’re seeing trade news break almost every day. And we’re competing with everyone in covering it.

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

A. I have a deputy editor and head editor who both oversee trade, and I’ll file to either one of them when I’m writing a daily story. I’ll include a headline when I file, but editors have authority to change it, and sometimes we’ll go back and forth for awhile before we settle on one that suits us both.

For a larger or longer-term story, the piece often goes through a second edit by a deputy editor. Much of what I write is only for subscribers and remains behind a paywall, but if it’s moving to what we call the main site, an editor from that department will look it over. Big stories will often go through what we call A/B headline testing, meaning we’ll try two different headlines on it and someone from the web team will monitor to see which one is more successful online.

Q. You are a 2015 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What skills and ideas that you learned there do you use today? What new ones have you picked up?

A. It’s hard to put together a succinct list of everything I learned at UNC’s j-school that I use at work every day.

Chris Roush’s business journalism program gave me a solid grounding in economics reporting techniques and the ability to find stories in federal documents and data filings, skills that are fundamental to my beat. Ryan Thornburg’s data journalism class also gave me a familiarity with numbers and spreadsheets that I rely on frequently. And Paul O’Connor’s reporting class, which required us to travel to Raleigh once a week to talk to lawmakers, was a perfect preview for reporting on Capitol Hill and interacting with members of the House and Senate regularly.

More broadly, I felt the j-school instilled a sense of how dynamic the journalism industry is and how every reporter these days must be willing to work quickly, to learn on the job and to adapt to new demands and new trends in media. That willingness to be flexible has helped me in every position and every newsroom I’ve entered.

Q&A with Jennifer Bringle of Casual Living magazine

bringle

Jennifer Bringle is editor-in-chief of Casual Living, a trade publication in Greensboro, North Carolina. She previously worked at Pace Communications there and at The News & Observer in Raleigh. In this interview, conducted by email, Bringle discusses her job at Casual Living and her move from newspapers to magazines. She also offers advice for students interested in journalism careers.

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

A. As editor-in-chief, I oversee all editorial operations for both print and digital for Casual Living. That includes building editorial calendars for print and web, managing production schedules to make sure we meet our monthly deadlines, assigning, writing and editing stories and proofing pages.

We’re a small staff of three, so I still do a good bit of writing and reporting myself, in addition to my managerial duties. We also produce a good bit of digital content in addition to our web stories, such as a weekly video series, trade show video coverage and a podcast. I appear on camera/on air for much of that digital content. And of course, I maintain an active social media presence.

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

A. We’re a very collaborative staff, so we all work together on the editing process. My senior editor or I will generally edit raw copy in Word. Then we have three-step proofing process once the stories are laid out.

Everyone reads the first round of proofs, then I make changes in InDesign, and everyone looks at the proofs for a second time. Then I input any changes from that round, give it one last look and OK it to go to print. Usually we or the freelance writers we work with write our/their own headlines, but I sometimes change them during the editing process if I think of something catchier or that better represents the piece.

For the web, my senior editor reads over and posts those pieces, and he writes the headlines to help generate clicks. We try to be enticing without going full-on click bait — we’re a business publication, so there’s a more serious tone to what we do.

Q. Earlier in your career, you worked at The News & Observer. What skills that you used at a daily newspaper do you still use today? What new ones have you picked up as you worked for magazines?

A. I always felt like my time at The News & Observer was almost like going to journalism grad school — what an incredible learning experience it was for me at that point in my career!

Working there definitely helped me hone my reporting skills and taught me how to write engaging, accurate stories on a tight deadline. With the way journalism has moved toward web content, it’s so critical to be able to write for a quick turnaround without letting the quality of the work suffer.

As I moved into magazines (first during my tenure at Pace Communications and now in my current job), I got the opportunity to work closer with the art team to tell stories visually and not just through words. I got to do this a bit at The N&O, but because magazines tend to be more image/illustration heavy, I’ve been significantly more involved in this process over the past few years. It’s really fun to me to work with our art director to conceptualize how the magazine will look and bring that to life.

Q. What advice do you have for college students interested in careers in magazines or as freelance writers?

A. To be really successful in this field, you really need to be the total package and open to doing a lot of different things.

I see so many job and intern applicants who obviously really love doing one thing (writing, social media, etc.), and they throw all their focus on that and let other things slide. When I’m hiring, I want someone who’s got it all: good writer, strong reporting skills, digitally savvy, willing to try new things/step outside their comfort zone.

As my career has advanced over the last 18 years, I’ve been challenged to do those things and push myself to learn new technologies or try things that may not be my favorite, like public speaking and appearing on camera. This industry is changing so rapidly, and being able to adapt to all those changes will make you highly marketable to potential employers.

Follow Jennifer Bringle and Casual Living on Twitter: @jcbringle and @CasualLiving.

Student guest post: With more news arriving by email, the impact of headlines grows

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the ninth of those posts. Joseph Held, a senior from Greensboro, North Carolina, is a reporting concentration in the School of Media and Journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill. He has worked as a graphic designer and staff writer for The Daily Tar Heel and as a features writer and editor for Coulture, UNC’s fashion and lifestyle magazine. After graduation, Joseph hopes to write for a human rights organization, creating content that advocates and enlightens.

By 7 a.m., the newspaper has arrived to my doorstep — that is, my digital doorstep, my email inbox. I, like so many others, including 94 percent of top executives, get my news primarily from daily newsletters. But with their continued rise in popularity, these subscriptions increase the need for effective and well-written headlines.

The demand for top story aggregates is high, and both local and national media outlets have noticed. The New York Times, for example, offers more than 60 email newsletters, curating news from general daily updates to weekly discussions about women, gender and society. (An email newsletter about parenting will soon join the ranks.)

Using easy-to-skim graphic hierarchies, news organizations seek to capture the subscriber’s attention and dispense important information in a digestible form. However, a headline is not a story. A deck headline cannot capture the complexities of an article, and in the common format of an email newsletter, this is usually all the subscribers get unless they click to read more.

Therefore, headlines (i.e., the bold text) must be compelling. However, unlike Twitter feeds and news alerts, newsletters have more substance. They have a simplified description of the story, similar to a deck, or secondary, headline in print. This “deck” is a powerful tool to help expand the reader’s knowledge.

Luckily for news outlets, email newsletters have a solid foundation from which to start because at some point, the email recipient subscribed. They have an audience who are at least partially interested in staying informed. Of course, there are those who never open the email and send it straight to the Trash folder.

But for those who open the email, who sip their coffees or ride the train and swipe, the headlines carry a weighty responsibility. The copy editor must know this and is tasked to appeal to two types of subscribers in an email newsletter.

For a portion of the subscribers, the morning email may be the only intake of news they have all day. “Sen. John McCain’s death creates a foreign-policy void,” and the few sentences that follow may be all they get. It’s not an ideal situation, but understanding it as a reality, copy editors must concisely articulate the most important points. This is not the time for the more ambiguous feature headline.

For the remaining portion of subscribers, the newsletters may be the starting point from which they choose stories to read further. A good headline is always engaging. Newsletter headlines are no different, but as they might be the first headlines a reader engages in a day, they can impact a newspapers’ daily online readership. A poorly written headline or summary may diminish the viewership of an important story.

As news companies continue to battle against shrinking attention spans, the daily or weekly newsletter brief provides an effective alternative to thumbing through a newspaper. In a well-designed scenario, these newsletters would heighten reader engagement, informing both readers who use it as their only source of daily news and those who use it as a guide for further reading.

To achieve this, the burden rests on headlines — precise and propelling headlines.

Student guest post: How the media’s fascination with negative news is hurting the industry

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the eighth of those posts. Sara Hall is a UNC-Chapel Hill senior from Apex, North Carolina. After graduation, she plans to attend law school in either Boston or Washington, D.C., but she is unsure of the exact area of law she wants to pursue.

As you spend time clicking through news sites, skimming headlines that roll along the bottom of the CNN television screen and scrolling down your Twitter feed, it seems as though sensationalized, negative stories dominate. Rarely are media outlets filled with feel-good, tug-at-the-heartstrings headlines.

Instead, we see headlines laced with buzzwords, such as “Otto Warmbier’s parents issue blistering response to Trump,” that elicit curiosity and, inevitably, clicks. While the Warmbiers’ response is undoubtedly newsworthy, is the word “blistering” essential to the headline? Or did the editor put it there in hopes of drawing readers’ attention? My suspicion is the latter.

And this type of reporting — using loaded words and fixating on the negative — is not a new phenomenon. Some could argue that this sensationalism stretches as far back as Watergate, where headlines read “Watergate charge evokes image of manipulation.”

However, you don’t see this same infatuation with good news. In fact, you hardly, if at all, see a news outlet that has good news on their home screen or on their front page. Where is the news story praising the man who bought $540 worth of cookies so that the Girl Scouts didn’t have to stand out in the cold weather? Or about the mom who passed around goodie bags to passengers on her flight in anticipation for the 10-hour flight with her 4-month-old? Both of these stories are of extraordinary people who deserve to be recognized, yet you don’t see a major news outlet writing a click-worthy headline for these individuals. Why is it that only bad news is broadcast?

Take NBC’s “Nightly News” show as a counterexample to the norm. The nightly broadcast touches on the breaking stories that nearly every other station covers – shootings, weather devastations, an official’s sexual misconduct. However, something that NBC does differently is that the broadcast ends, every single night, with a heartwarming story about an individual or nonprofit working to better the world. Sure, the broadcast may be a 5-to-1 ratio of bad to good stories, but ending with a story like the mom handing out goodie bags to passengers leaves consumers with a more optimistic perception of the world.

Going back to why journalists only report bad news, I think the answer to that question comes down to what you think came first: the chicken or the egg – the chicken being consumer demand and the egg being news outlets focusing on the negative. Did news outlets start writing solely on the bad just because journalists were responding to the interests of the consumers and these consumers were most interested in the bad news? Or have news outlets always focused on the bad, and consumers have just been conditioned to always expect the worst when they read the news?

Regardless of what you think came first, the pessimism plaguing news outlets is becoming undeniably problematic. As I sat with a group of friends the other day, one said that he no longer wants to read or watch the news because he is “so tired of only hearing about tragedies or catastrophes or whatever the political scandal of the day is.” The rest of the room quickly came to the same consensus: The news is becoming increasingly unbearable to consume.

Maybe these individuals were anomalies, and the rest of the world’s perception of the media industry has not changed. But it’s hard for me to believe that this group of people are the only ones who think negatively of the media’s sensationalism of the bad. And I don’t think it will be long until their sentiment begins to be shared among more and more consumers.

Q&A with Luke Bollinger, reporter at Triad Business Journal

Luke Bollinger is a reporter at the Triad Business Journal in Greensboro, North Carolina. In this interview, Bollinger discusses his job at TBJ and offers advice to students interested in business journalism.

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

A. My beat has many facets. Though my official title is “economic development reporter,” my beat includes manufacturing, aviation, tobacco, textiles and furniture.

The Triad area is a 12-county region, with the larger cities being Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point. So economic development news can mean a lot of different things depending on the place.

In High Point, for example, you’ve got the furniture market and furniture manufacturing (yes, there are still furniture manufacturers in the state). Then you go to Winston-Salem where’s Hanesbrands is headquartered. Greensboro has Qorvo, a semiconductor manufacturer that is a huge supplier for Apple. My point is, the beat delivers a wide range of stories.

My typical day usually starts around 9 a.m., unless it’s Thursday, when I’ll wake up at 5:15 a.m. for a business news segment on WFMY News 2. I’ll start by checking my email and Google alerts to see if there are any stories that need immediate attention.

Because of the broadness of my beat, I’ll sometimes need to prioritize two or three of the total possible stories that day. I then pitch those stories at our daily stand-up meeting. We’ve got a close-knit newsroom of four reporters, an editor-in-chief, a managing editor and a design and visual contact editor. It usually takes about 15 minutes to get through all the pitches, wrapping up around 10:30.

I’ll then start crafting my story for the 3 p.m. newsletter. If I haven’t done all the reporting the day before or earlier that morning, I’ll make some calls. I try to have every interview I need by about 12:30 p.m. or 1:30 p.m. at the latest. Next, I’ll start making calls for stories I have working for the next day’s morning newsletter. If everything goes according to plan, I’ll have my reporting done by 4 p.m., and then I’ll start writing.

Any typical day can also be punctuated with meetings or events outside of the office. Sometimes I could be in Winston-Salem or on the opposite end of the region in Burlington. Who knows?

Q. How do story editing and headline writing work at Triad Business Journal?

A. The story editing and headline writing process for daily news stories is pretty simple. I’ll put a headline on a story, write the story, then alert my managing editor/desk neighbor that I’ve got a story saved in the system. She’ll then consult me on any changes with the story or headline that she’s considering. I’ll give it another read, and once everything checks out, she hits publish.

I usually work more with my EIC for enterprise stories. We try to brain storm headline ideas early on, often before I’ve even done the reporting.

A lot of emphasis is placed on long-form, enterprise stories because that’s typically what we’re putting on the front page of our weekly print edition. The editing process can be lengthy at times.

Q. You are a 2017 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What concepts and skills that you learned there do you use in your job? What new skills have you picked up?

A. There are the obvious skills I learned at the j-school, such as using AP style, writing compelling leads and crafting succinct headlines. The journalism school also gave me the opportunity to take reporting classes on a variety of topics. I was able to work at and develop skills in feature writing, business reporting and local community reporting, to name a few. Thanks to UNC and the breadth of available classes, I was able to try my hand reporting on many different beats. It helped become a more well-rounded reporter.

I think the biggest skill I’ve picked up, a skill that was necessary to learn almost immediately, is how to write a story with a “business journal lens.” Triad Business Journal is owned by American City Business Journals, which owns 42 other business journal publications across the country. The “business journal lens” is preached at every single publication.

The idea is that as an ACBJ reporter, you need to deliver stories that give our readers actionable information. The people who read TBJ are small-business owners, real estate brokers and developers, decision makers, etc. If we can give them information that is going to help inform their decisions and grow their business, we’re doing our job right. It can be quite a different mindset than if I was working on a business desk at a daily newspaper.

Q. What advice do you have for someone considering a career in business journalism?

A. Try to find a job where you will be reporting on something you enjoy talking and reading about. You need to be as much of an expert as possible on the subject of your coverage, and if you enjoy the material, it can make your job a lot more fun.

Would I ever want to work at a publication where I only cover the mortgage insurance and reinsurance industry? Probably not. But there are reporters who eat that stuff up and dominate that coverage.

Find a niche you enjoy, and it will be that much easier to excel.

A perfect score for this story package

lat-gymheadline-caption

This story package that ran on the front page of the Los Angeles Times last week is an all-around winner. Here’s why it succeeds:

  • The main headline matches the tone and content of the story. It uses a subtle and original play on words.
  • The deck headline builds on the main headline, providing the who, where and why of the story.
  • The caption identifies the photo’s subject and tells us something what we can’t see in the image.
  • The story is thoroughly reported and wonderfully written by Blake Richardson. It’s an uplifting profile that adds variety to the front page.

Overall, I give this story package a 10 out of 10. Well done!

Q&A with Mechelle Hankerson of the Virginia Mercury

MECHELLE_HANKERSON

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.