Why I still teach editing

“If newspapers are laying off so many copy editors, why do you still teach editing?”

It’s a fair question that I hear on occasion. It is true that many newspapers have downsized or even dismantled their copy desks. In North Carolina, half of the state’s biggest newspapers do not have copy editors and page designers in their newsrooms. Those jobs have gone to “editing hubs” in other cities and states.

Yet I still teach editing because those skills are still a part of journalism — even if the job title “copy editor” is endangered. Story text still needs to be edited and links added. Headlines and captions still need to be written. Facts need checking.

The journalism jobs that are out there require people to have those skills and more. The era of specialization is over.

Here’s an example: Michael Lananna is an editor and writer at Baseball America. His primary task is reporting on college baseball. But Lananna is also using editing skills that he learned and practiced as a student journalist:

Our in-office editorial staff is a relatively small group, so everyone gets their hands dirty when it comes to editing. For the pages you’re assigned, you’re responsible for copy-fitting and writing headlines, subheads, captions and any other required maintenance. And when you’re done with the page, you print it out and hand it off to someone else in the office to proof.

We have our own style guide, so we edit for style as well as content and grammar. Headlines, for the most part, are written in a newspaper style — present tense with a subject and a verb. Our online headlines often differ at least somewhat from those in print for SEO purposes.

As an instructor, I want to serve students on similar career paths. I am aware that few of my students will become full-time copy editors at news organizations. But as long as editing skills are part of their jobs, I’ll keep teaching them.

Q&A with Nick Niedzwiadek, Dow Jones News Fund editing intern

Nick Niedzwiadek is a student at UNC-Chapel Hill who is a double major in journalism and political science. He has been a reporter and editor at The Daily Tar Heel. In the summer of 2015, Niedzwiadek was a Dow Jones News Fund editing intern, working at The Houston Chronicle. In this interview, conducted by email, he discusses his internship.

Q. Describe your internship experience. What was your typical workday like?

A. Typically I worked Tuesday-Saturday from 3-11 in the afternoon. The first hour was usually the slowest and was mostly spent waiting for the news director to decide what should get pulled off the wire and start planning out the pages for tomorrow’s newspaper. The first things that I would work on was usually the opinion page, and then wire stories about the Middle East and Asia because those were usually in well before the local stories would trickle in.

My internship covered most of the typical copy-editing basics: trim for length, write headlines, ensure AP style. I did some page design work, but the Houston Chronicle was in the process of revamping a lot of its workflow so the design team ended up taking over much of the design work that had typically been done by the copy desk.

The biggest change I saw was the push for the copy desk to add more online components to its responsibilities. There were training sessions to get the copy desk and editors how to work with HTML code and the WCM, which most people who have used WordPress would pick up very easily but was challenging for some of the longtime copy editors.

I also often moderated the comments section on stories on the free site, Chron.com (Houstonchronicle.com was reserved for subscribers), which I enjoyed but most of the regular people found very depressing, especially since it was a busy summer in Houston because of Sandra Bland’s death, the Supreme Court decisions, Jade Helm and the 2016 presidential race.

I would bounce between basically every section except features, which are done earlier in the day, but I would mostly only work on the sports section during weekends when the regular sports copy ranks were thin.

Q. What was the biggest challenge of the internship, and what was the greatest reward?

A. This was my first real experience being a copy editor and maintaining that attention to detail. I’ve been a reporter or an assistant desk editor in the past, and you touch on many of the same responsibilities, but there is always a backstop.

Being that last line line, especially at a major newspaper like the Chronicle where no one is there to hold your hand, was a constant challenge. You can get so caught up in writing a good headline in a tight space that you forget to properly format the photo caption and you have to go back into the story to fix it when you need to be moving on to another story in the rim.

A second challenge was that unlike The Daily Tar Heel where we CQ names and facts as much as possible, the Chronicle largely entrusted its reporters to be accurate and the copy editor mostly relied on past stories and Google to catch any inconsistencies. For the most part it works fine, but when a question does pop up, it can take a while to work its way back to a reporter to clarify, particularly later in the workday when reporters may have already gone home for the night.

Having said that, catching a significant error and saving both the reporter and the newspaper from an embarrassing correction is one of the moments that I always felt pride in. That and writing a strong headline package that made its way past the page-proofing stage and makes it out to print.

Q. What advice would you give to students considering applying for a Dow Jones News Fund internship?

A. Anyone considering considering the DJNF should make sure they have the previous internship experience that it requires because they are very strict about their application criteria.

Second, they should not take the application test lightly. Studying usage situations is very important, not just simple ones like its/it’s or there/they’re/their but the more obscure ones like canvas/canvass or Canada goose/Canadian goose. The test I took was the first one to start integrating online questions, so be sure to be comfortable with basic terms like SEO, WCM, entry-level HTML tags and some of the differences between editing for print and online.

Besides the great newspapers like the Chronicle, L.A. Times, Sacramento Bee and any number of great newspapers people from my workshop session at the University of Texas at Austin went to, the workshops offer a great opportunity to meet people from across the country who are interested in many of the same things you are and are facing the same challenges. In my workshop, we formed a pretty close sub-group on the first day and had a lot of fun around Austin. Once we went off to our various internships, we had a group chat and kept in touch throughout the summer and now the fall. Hearing about other people’s internship mishaps or successful job interviews can make the internship a lot less isolating, especially if you are like me and go to a city so far away from where you grew up or know people.

Q. Congratulations on completing the internship. What’s next for you?

A. I’m graduating in December, so I’m mostly focused on putting together my writing portfolio and resumé, and lining up applications for jobs (I’m from upstate New York, and I plan on moving to New York City after graduation so I’m focusing on the tri-state region).

In the meantime, I am finishing up the final few classes I need to graduate and then continuing to work at the DTH as a senior writer on the Investigations team as well as writing for the State & National desk. I’m mostly working on long-term projects for the I-team as well as blog posts and my personal reporting whims for the State & National desk.

I’m open to any number of jobs in journalism — except being a PR flak. Just the thought of writing a press release or saying the words “no comment” chips away at my soul, one piece at a time.

Skimming the news

Two years ago, I wrote about how journalism students at UNC-Chapel Hill got their news. It’s a question that I always ask on the first day of class. In 2013, most mentioned newspapers — in digital form, not in print.

This week, I asked the same question to my three classes. There were still many responses that mentioned newspapers: The New York Times, The News & Observer and The Daily Tar Heel. Again, the focus is on digital, but the DTH remains popular in print, perhaps because it is free and readily available across campus, and has a crossword puzzle.

A few students say they turn to magazines, including Garden & Gun. Others like ESPN.com and National Public Radio. Local TV news and Reddit each got one mention.

But one new name stuck out from two years ago: The Skimm. Out of about 45 students total, two dozen receive this daily newsletter, delivered each morning by email. These Skimm readers said they like its breezy tone and straightforward approach to current events as well as its smart use of links. It’s easy to skim.

The Skimm started three years ago, and its editors say it now has 1.5 million subscribers, a number most newspapers and magazines would envy. Seeing that success, news organizations from BuzzFeed to The Daily Tar Heel have launched email newsletters. So I’ve added newsletter curation as an assignment (PDF) in my Advanced Editing course.

It will be interesting to see how college students get their news two years from now. Will conversational newsletters that make jokes about Vladimir Putin and embed GIFs still be popular, or will something else take their place? I’ll let you know.

Q&A with Paige Ladisic, editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel

The Daily Tar Heel staff works in this building in Chapel Hill. The DTH is an independent, student-run publication.
The Daily Tar Heel staff works in this building on Rosemary Street in Chapel Hill. The DTH is an independent, student-run publication. (Photo by Sarah Brown)

Paige Ladisic is editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper at UNC-Chapel Hill. She previously served as online managing editor, summer editor and staff writer at the DTH. In this interview, conducted by email, Ladisic outlines her plans for the paper for the 2015-16 academic year.

Q. Describe your job. What does the editor-in-chief do on a typical day?

A. The great thing about being the editor-in-chief, from what I’ve witnessed, is that the job changes a little bit every day. You’re following the same process maybe, but every day, it’s a new problem to solve or a new success to celebrate. I haven’t had a full day as editor-in-chief yet during daily production, so I don’t know exactly what my days will look like, but I envision something like this:

I have 9:30 a.m. classes every day, Monday-Thursday, so I’m up early, checking my phone and figuring out what the day is going to look like. You don’t know when or how news is going to break, so all DTH editors have to stay plugged in throughout the day just in case. I have class in the early afternoon, and I leave some short break periods between class for working on homework, answering emails or messages and looking at what we’ve got planned for the paper the next day.

At 3:30 p.m., all of my editors and most of my management team collect in our conference room for budget. We’ll plan both the print product and the digital product for the day after looking at the day’s analytics on Chartbeat, and we’ll get a sense of what visuals and digital extras we have to work on that night as well. We’ll also highlight what stories we think should be included in DTH At A Glance, our new daily newsletter.

Then from there, we hit the ground running, producing the paper and putting the website together. I read almost every story that comes through each night, and whatever I don’t read is read by Managing Editor Mary Tyler March. Our deadline is 12:30 a.m. each night, so that’s what we do — read, write headlines, check photos and graphics and watch the clock until the print product is sent off.

Q. You have suggested that the DTH take a “digital first” approach to news. How do you see that unfolding?

A. The DTH has to be digital first to survive. The first step to that was hire a staff that is passionate about thinking digitally. I have a great online managing editor, Kelsey Weekman, to head the team, and I found a creative social media manager, Danny Nett, and a bright digital production assistant, Brielle Kronstedt, to work with her. Without people who care about digital first, there is no digital first.

The second step is to start early. Returning staffers got an email from me early in the summer about changes to their workflow. At least one online-only component, be it a graphic, timeline or a few embedded elements, will be required when a story is pitched by a writer. We’ll add more components as we brainstorm. Stories that aren’t always successful digitally will be enhanced with links, explainer videos and graphics to improve reader engagement.

Our new staffers will learn about digital thinking in our orientation session in September, before they even have their first assignment. We want to start as fresh as we can this year, so there’s no time to think about anything but digital first.

Q.You’re a student at UNC-Chapel Hill but also a watchdog on its actions. How do you balance those roles?

A. I see myself as The Daily Tar Heel editor-in-chief first and a UNC student second. That means a lot of things — my grades and my deep love for UNC basketball, for example — come after my responsibility to The Daily Tar Heel and the community we serve.

In our editors retreat this past weekend, an editor eloquently said our goal should be to always “to hold power accountable and account for those without power.” We will always ask the bigger questions and hold our university and our student leaders accountable. We will always push for the access we should have at a public university, and we will identify when our university is not living up to the expectations students have for it. We will identify those in our community who go unheard, and we will give them a voice.

There are times when being a student at UNC is far less important to me than being the editor of The Daily Tar Heel. I think many of my editors feel the same way.

Q. Some college newspapers have reduced how often they publish in print. Do you see a day when the DTH isn’t “daily” with ink on paper?

A. No, I don’t. We’re fighting hard every day to fill the print paper with the best content we can, and I know we won’t give it up easily. In 2016, we’ll be ensuring the DTH is picked up by students and that we are read every day. Our numbers are going down, just like any print publication, but we are fighting for what we love.

I met a lot of news editors from papers from all over the country in Athens, Georgia, this year for an editor conference, and I was sad to see how many papers have had to go from daily to weekly or less than that — The Diamondback at the University of Maryland, for example, just switched to weekly after 105 years.

We see it happen. We know it could happen to us. But I think all of us, from the print staff to the advertorial staff, are working hard to ensure that our tradition of 123 of daily print production continues.

We know that our readers are online. So we’ll be there. We’ll be there in more ways than ever this year — in newsletters, podcasts, videos and regular blog posts, just to name a few. But as long as hundreds line up for a copy of the Dean Smith commemorative issue and as long as we see people grabbing a paper on their walk to class, we’ll be in print too.

If you’re going to San Francisco

Journalism educators from around the world will meet in San Francisco from Aug. 6-9, 2015. (Creative Commons photo)
Journalism educators from around the world will meet in San Francisco from Aug. 6-9, 2015. (Creative Commons photo)

I’ll be on the road next week for the annual AEJMC conference, which takes place in San Francisco this year. Here are the main items on my agenda:

  • On Wednesday, I’ll be one of four presenters at an “editing bootcamp” sponsored by the American Copy Editors. It’s the fourth time I’ve participated in this workshop, and it’s always fun.
  • On Friday, I’ll play host to the Breakfast of Editing Champions, a gathering of instructors who teach editing and writing. We’ll talk about trends in journalism education and exchange teaching ideas.

I’ll also attend various panels and presentations, and perhaps do some sightseeing. But I probably won’t wear any flowers in my hair.

UPDATE: Both events went well. About 35 editors, mostly from public relations, attended the ACES bootcamp. And my final Breakfast of Editing Champions was fun and informative. Kirstie Hettinga, who teaches at Cal Lutheran, will take over as the event’s organizer and host in 2016.

Let’s meet for breakfast in San Francisco

The Breakfast of Editing Champions returns to the AEJMC national conference in San Francisco, on Friday, Aug. 7. I am the organizer and moderator of the event, which was started by the wonderful Deborah Gump.

The breakfast, which will begin at 8:15 a.m., is open to anyone who teaches editing, appreciates editing or just likes to hang out with editing professors.

This year’s featured speaker is Allan Richards, associate dean of Florida International University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication in Miami. Richards is a leading advocate of dedicated writing and language skills programs in j-schools. He is the director of FIU’s pioneering writing and language skills program and the architect of its digital language skills exam, or the “Dreaded Grammar Test” as students call it. He will share ideas and insights for developing writing programs to meet the challenges of an increasingly multicultural, bilingual student body.

We’ll also exchange teaching ideas. What innovative assignments are you using in class? Come ready to share a brief description.

Coffee and tea will be provided. This event is free, but please RSVP by using this simple online form. The deadline is Aug. 1. Special thanks to the sponsors of this year’s breakfast:

  • American Copy Editors Society
  • The Dow Jones News Fund
  • Newspaper and Online News Division of AEJMC
  • Poynter’s News University
  • Scholastic Journalism Division of AEJMC

This will be my last time organizing and moderating the breakfast. It’s been five years, and I feel that’s the right time to hand it off to the next person with a love for editing and journalism education. If you’re that person, let’s talk.

UPDATE: Catering at the hotel in San Francisco is a bit pricey, so the breakfast is BYOB — Bring Your Own Bagel. Coffee and tea will be available. And here’s our agenda.

Community journalism from Durham to Ocracoke

Seven years ago, my colleague Jock Lauterer helped create the Durham VOICE, a print and digital publication serving the northeast-central section of the city. It was his way of responding to the awful death of a student body president at UNC-Chapel Hill at the hands of two young men from Durham.

The idea, as described in The News & Observer, went like this:

Lauterer had been a small-town newspaper editor. He knew how to do community journalism. He could do community journalism in Durham or anyplace else.

And if he could put cameras, pens and notebooks in the hands of urban teenagers, maybe those kids would feel they were a part of something good, that they had a stake in their community.

And the VOICE was born. Since then, Lauterer has collaborated with colleagues and students at N.C. Central University to help at-risk teenagers in Durham learn the tools of journalism.

This summer, Lauterer plans to take the VOICE concept to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Working with Partners for Youth Opportunity, he is organizing a trip that will take five Durham teenagers to the village of Ocracoke in early August.

For three days, the teens will write news stories and take photographs for the Ocracoke Observer, and they will visit radio station WOVV. In addition to learning skills in journalism, they’ll experience a part of North Carolina that is a world away from Durham.

Lauterer estimates that total cost of the trip will be about $3,000. So far, he’s raised about $1,900. I’ve contributed to the cause, and I hope you will too.

To do so, write a check to JOMC Foundation with “Durham VOICE” in the “for” line. Send it to:

Jock Lauterer, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, CB #3365, Chapel Hill, NC 27599

Whatever you can give will make a difference. Thank you for your support.

For more about the VOICE’s origins and mission, watch this short video from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.