Student guest post: The Night of the … Journalist?

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the third of those posts. Whitney Harris is a senior editing and graphic design and German literature double major at UNC-Chapel Hill. She enjoys listening to Fleetwood Mac and reading the same Goethe novel repeatedly.

“Perpetrate journalism often, on as many platforms, for as many people has you can. Don’t wait for permission — find your story and prosecute to the fullest.” — David Carr

I’ve always wanted to be a writer. By the time I hit 12 years old, every member of my family knew I wanted to be a journalist one day. I started writing my first book in eighth grade and, despite my best efforts, have yet to find a way to conclude any one of the number of stories I’ve started. But that doesn’t change anything. I still want to be a writer.

Welcome, North Carolina, is a small town near the center of the state. It’s 15 minutes outside of Winston-Salem, an hour and a half from Charlotte, and requires its inhabitants like sweet tea, love Jesus and attend Friday night football games on Palmer Field.

Most kids grew up going to Future Farmers of America meetings, attending church on Sundays and going mudding on the weekends. I was never one of those kids. I liked Charles Bukowski, writing for my school newspaper and sneaking bottles of Arbor Mist onto the baseball field to drink at night with my friends.

Welcome had not yet — and still has not — caught up with the rest of the world, but there was one privilege we were never denied: regular delivery of The New York Times. David Carr wrote for The Times, and he was my idol. I wanted to be a writer, after all.

My admiration for Carr has never faltered, despite his death in February 2015. He embodied everything I want out of a professional career. He was eloquent (albeit vulgar), sometimes abrasive, and witty — all qualities I appreciate.

“Page One: Inside The New York Times,” the documentary released in 2011, stars Carr. Viewers get to see him argue with major players at Vice, set his own deadlines with Media Editor Bruce Headlam and debate over writing a piece about Tribune Company’s bankruptcy (which was published, igniting a fire that contributed to the resignation of Chief Executive Randy Michaels, a win by most accounts).

Carr’s writings, including his memoir “The Night of the Gun,” were inspirational. He was revered, not only for her personality but also for his incredible talent. I often find myself wondering what it would take to become as successful as him, but I also have to ask: Has the media world changed so much in the past decade that this kind of journalism has gone extinct?

It’s an issue that “Page One” and its cast delves deeply into, questioning whether the shift from print to digital will completely rearrange the media landscape as we know, and have known, it for the past hundred years. Is Carr’s nitty-gritty, dirt-under-your-fingernails type of journalism a thing of the past? They certainly didn’t have the answer in 2011. And I still don’t know if we have it now. But there’s something I do know.

I want to be a writer. I want to develop stories that no one else wants to go near, and I want to do it with tact and dexterity. I want to craft pieces that put something good into the world, even if the topics I write about aren’t always great. I want to investigate. I want to write words that make a difference.

We spend a lot of time debating just how the digital shift has changed our landscape and, as someone who is about to graduate from one of the best journalism programs in the nation, I can’t express how scary that can be.

Most of my peers would rather get the news in 140 characters on their smartphones versus picking up the paper. There are strong arguments that traditional journalism has died, and we can either move with the digital shift or get swept away with our print predecessor. I don’t like those arguments.

I don’t believe traditional journalism has died. I don’t believe in Twitter and Facebook as new tests of journalistic merit, but I do believe they’re exciting tools that can be used to reinvigorate my profession. I refuse to compact my story into 140 characters (not to say that I won’t craft a tweet, but you better believe the link in it will lead you to something far greater), and I refuse to think, just because you read it on a computer screen versus in a newspaper, that a story is somehow lesser. The media world has changed. Media itself has not.

Print circulation may be down, you may have to pay for an online subscription of The New York Times and BuzzFeed may be more convenient, but I refuse to give up on something I believe in. If there is one thing I have learned from my admiration of David Carr, it’s that when you want something, you make it happen.

The media world has changed. We, as journalists, have not.

Let’s get digital at #ACES2016

portland

The national conference of the American Copy Editors Society will take place March 31-April 2 in Portland, Oregon. This is the 20th ACES conference. Congratulations and happy anniversary!

This year’s conference will have something new: a day devoted to digital editing. This “bootcamp” on March 30 will cover these topics:

  • writing and editing for digital media
  • using alternative story forms
  • writing headlines for search engine optimization and social media
  • understanding data analytics
  • curating and creating an email newsletter

I’m one of the instructors along with ACES President Teresa Schmedding and Sue Burzynski Bullard of the University of Nebraska. This is a hands-on session, so you need to bring a laptop.

You can learn more about the bootcamp and sign up for it at the ACES site. Separate registration is required. We’d love to see you in Portland.

Student guest post: Hollywood portrays journalists in the extreme

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the second of those posts. Lizzie Goodell is a senior reporting major with a minor in creative writing. She’s originally from Houston, Texas, and balances her love of journalism and film by writing about movies. A lot.

Season one of the popular Netflix series “House of Cards” features a young journalist named Zoe Barnes. Zoe is ruthless and unafraid to break some rules, often blackmailing and sleeping with government officials to get inside information.

The show starts with Zoe working at The Washington Herald, a traditional print newspaper where staff writers have to go through great lengths to get editors to read their stories, let alone publish them. The offices are dingy and dated, and Zoe wears hoodies and jeans to work.

But once her conniving tactics lead to some top-notch stories, Zoe quits and begins working for Slugline, a political news website where fashionable recent grads sit on bean bags instead of chairs. Zoe’s boss berates her for asking someone to read over her story. The time of jumping through hoops at the Herald is over – at Slugline you post your stories to the Web from your phone the second you’re done writing. Editors are a thing of the past.

If you’re a journalist or plan to be one, you can’t help but notice when a journalist is a prominent character in TV or film. You might watch and think: “Is this an accurate portrayal? Is this the kind of journalist I want to be?”

“The movies have portrayed journalists both as upstanding citizens and heroes and as scruffy outsiders and villains,” said Matthew Ehrlich in his 2006 book “Journalism in the Movies.” Zoe Barnes is most likely of the villain variety, but then so is the main character of the show.

The “House of Cards” version of journalism suggests that newspapers can’t keep up with the 21st century and that online news outlets just publish anything because they can. In the real world, we can say that this is unlikely. Papers like The New York Times are online and on social media, and they have email newsletters. Sites like BuzzFeed and Huffington Post have editors and research teams.

Let’s consider the “upstanding citizens and hero” variety of film-portrayed journalists. We’ve got the HBO show “The Newsroom” where broadcast journalists and producers work to be the ultimate watchdogs on all things political and current. When Will McAvoy breaks the story about the 2010 oil spill without a script or prep, it’s rather inspiring.

But then you’ve got movies like “Network” that feature nightly news shows that care about ratings above all else. Then there’s the popular comedy “Anchorman” that suggests that broadcasters are vain and barely capable enough to read off a screen, let alone do real journalism.

But who cares what movies and TV have to say, right? It’s fiction, right? Wrong. “Hollywood’s harsh view of journalists helps form public perceptions,” said Tom Goldstein, a former dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

This opinion has some truth in it – before I entered journalism school and really learned about the profession, Zoe Barnes’ world had me half convinced that newspapers were outdated and sexist. The opposite is true as well – several of my friends have admitted that watching Yale journalism student Rory on “Gilmore Girls” made them choose reporting as their major.

It’s also important to consider journalism films based on real events, and what effect these movies have on audiences. The 2015 Oscar-nominated film “Spotlight” depicts journalists in a positive light. They are the heroes that expose the Catholic priest abuse scandal. The journalists are shown as people who are passionate and desperate to get the story right, tracking down lead after lead despite time constraints.

On the other hand, the 2003 film “Shattered Glass” tells the true story of Stephen Glass, a journalist who was discovered to have fabricated the majority of his stories. But this film is not full of careless editors who let this happen. It depicts a rare time when good journalists were fooled by an expert fabricator.

In the very least, these movies let audiences get an inside look into real journalistic events, allowing them to form their own opinions about the profession. “Spotlight” and “Shattered Glass” are not quite documentaries, but they speak of slightly fictionalized true events in a way that draws crowds to the theater.

Hollywood has a strong impact on the world. A great film or TV show can make us feel like experts in a field like journalism, if only for a moment. But we have to remember that most films and shows are for entertainment purposes.

Journalists are not either the good guy or the bad guy. Real female journalists don’t have to become sexual deviants to get stories, and broadcast news stories need tons of editing and research before they’re ready to air. I’m not saying you should stop watching great movies, but I am saying that the world of journalism is not black and white, even if most newspapers are.

Q&A with Morag MacLachlan, communications director at Division of Infectious Diseases at UNC-Chapel Hill

Morag MacLachlan is communications director at the Institute for Global Health & Infectious Diseases at UNC-Chapel Hill. She previously worked at two Boston hospitals and as a reporter at a newspaper and TV station in New England. In this interview, conducted by email, MacLachlan discusses her job at UNC, the news media’s coverage of infectious diseases and her transition from news to public relations.

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

A. I am the communications director for UNC’s Division of Infectious Diseases and its Institute for Global Health & Infectious Diseases. We have clinicians and researchers in Chapel Hill as well as our sites in Malawi, China, Zambia, Nicaragua and the Galapagos tackling global health questions. For example, at our UNC Project-China site, staff are leveraging crowdsourcing to promote condom use, HIV testing and other important sexual health messages.

It’s fascinating for me to learn how people in Chapel Hill are making a worldwide difference, and it is always humbling to learn that a disease we do not normally worry about in the U.S. can pose a deadly threat abroad. Malaria is not a disease that most Americans think about, but it is a major problem in many parts of Africa and Southeast Asia.

There really is no typical day. I try to begin with my list of things I want to accomplish – posting to our Facebook and Twitter accounts, writing an article for our website, editing a video for our YouTube channel, etc… – but something always pops up.

For example, the day Charlie Sheen went on NBC’s “Today” show and disclosed that he was living with HIV, I had to drop the plans for the day and begin fielding media requests to speak with our infectious diseases clinicians who primarily treat people living with HIV.

It’s never a dull moment and no two days are alike, and that is far more exciting to me than doing the same tasks day in and day out. It does mean long hours sometimes, but I think getting the word out about the important public and global health advances UNC is making is rewarding.

Q. On occasion, infectious diseases such as Ebola or SARS are big news. How can the news media better cover that topic?

A. We have a different speaker each Friday morning during the academic year come present about an infectious diseases topic. And this fall, we had a lawyer from the University of Louisville talk about how public health professionals really failed, in his opinion, when it came to keeping the public informed during the Ebola outbreak last year.

During the comments period, many of our ID clinicians and researchers who had responded immediately to West Africa and had even helped create Ebola response guides for the CDC voiced their frustration with how hard they are treated during an emerging infection. The public and the media want answers immediately, and these doctors and nurses are working around the clock to try and prevent mass casualties while simultaneously trying to figure out the rules of the infection in order to discover prevention, treatment, and ultimately, cure techniques.

In this age of 24-hour news cycles and endless Twitter updates, the pressure on these front line workers to have answers right away is tremendous, but also unrealistic. No response is interpreted as a failure. Yet sometimes there is no response because the infection is in its infancy and they do not want to speculate on the source of a disease.

I know the news media are also under pressure to rush to be first and hold the largest share of their respective market. But at some point, especially when the news story deals with public health, accuracy should be the goal, not just reporting speculation for the sake of reporting something.

Q. You previously worked at a TV station and for a newspaper in New England. What was it like to make the transition from news to public relations?

A. Honestly, if you had told me when I started out as a reporter that I would eventually be working in PR, I would not have believed you!

I hated getting cold calls from PR professionals as a reporter. I was of the school of thought that as a journalist, I would immerse myself in the community I was reporting on and find news stories that way. I didn’t need a PR professional trying to pitch to me.

But journalism is a very tough field to make a living in, and I can’t imagine how difficult it would be now. I was working as a full time television reporter in 2003, but also needing to work three nights a week teaching aerobics classes and two nights a week teaching business communications at the local community college just to make $19,000 a year.

This was just as having an online component to complement your news broadcast or newspaper was beginning to take off. There was no social media. There was no citizen with an iPhone on the scene who submitted footage to you and received the title of iReporter in return.

Newsroom budgets are shrinking, and fewer reporters are charged with more and more beats. Gone are the days where you could specialize in health reporting or feature writing. You really have to be able to cover multiple beats at a moments notice for poor pay. You have to be in journalism because you love it, not because you are going to have normal work hours and a big paycheck.

I was able to do it for about four years full time, and then I won an award for health reporting from the New England Press Association. The awards ceremony was on the last day of NEPA’s journalism conference. I sat in on one workshop where a features editor from the Portsmouth Press Herald in New Hampshire was talking about how he made the switch from that job to the communications department of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

In that moment, I realized I could continue to use my storytelling skills by working in the communications departments of hospitals. What appealed to me about this form of PR is that even though I am talking about the same client every day – the hospital – you can do that in a variety of ways. You can feature a grateful patient or a new piece of technology or a staff member who became a healthcare professional because they lost a loved one to a specific disease. You can find these tremendously touching stories to tell.

To me, healthcare communications seems less like I’m selling you a story and more like I am telling you a story that I hope convinces you to get your care here, or enroll in a research study here, or train here, or make a donation. I eventually got hired at BIDMC.

Then four years later I left to work at their competition – Brigham & Women’s Hospital. And two and a half years after that, I was recruited by the Division of Infectious Diseases at UNC. It’s been an unexpected professional path, but I wouldn’t change it. I love my job.

Q. What advice do you have for journalism students interested in jobs like yours?

Write, write and write some more! Being a good storyteller is the foundation for a successful career.

I wrote my broadcast packages when I was a TV reporter, editing the soundbites and voiceover tracks together. Then as a newspaper reporter, I wrote for a print audience. Making the switch to healthcare communications also boils down to being able to tell a compelling story.

But unlike journalism where the reporter tells both sides of a story and is doing the public an informational service, PR is trying to influence the public’s behavior. So my storytelling now really has to have a call to action – getting people with a certain disease to want to be in our clinical trials, getting future infectious diseases professionals to want to train at UNC and getting the public to come to our ID Clinic for their care.

I would say students interested in a career in PR need to do an internship or two to figure out if what they are learning in the classroom is really a life they can lead once they graduate. I interned with the director of public relations at my alma mater when I was a student, and I found I didn’t like academic PR. I really enjoyed health reporting as a journalist and found that I also like healthcare PR/communications.

So it is important for students to find that niche that excites them and would make them want to come to work each day. I think Dr. Charlie Tuggle’s Media Hub class at UNC is also a great way to expose students to careers in journalism because they are creating content as you would in a newsroom, but the students also have access to professionals in the field for guidance. An internship in addition to this class would be ideal.

Finally, you need to have a thick skin and be able to roll with the punches. You will pitch stories to reporters and never receive a call back. Or a reporter will reach out to you with a last-minute request, and then some other major news event will happen and your hours of coordinating the reporter and doctor’s schedules will go out the window.

Al Jazeera America approached us in November to comment on the outrageous price hike of a drug called Daraprim. I scrambled to get the UNC TV studio booked and the doctor ready to run over to make the interview with the team in L.A. that would be cutting the package and then the San Bernardino office shooting took place. Al Jazeera bumped the story with us and we had to start over again a few days later with the logistics.

But that’s the world of news, and you can’t get frustrated. You will also be the spokesperson during bad news sometimes, and you have to be strategic about when to advise people to comment and when to tell them to refuse to respond. That’s a tough call, but it gets easier with practice.

Again, I think doing an internship can expose students to this. It’s an exciting field and one I think will remain in demand.

Q&A with Kristie Gonzales, promotion and digital brand manager at WABC-TV

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Kristie Gonzales, left, and other members of the WABC-TV staff.

Kristie Gonzales is promotion and digital brand manager at WABC-TV in New York City. She previously worked at stations in California and North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, Gonzales talks about her job, the relationship between news and promotions, and her advice for journalism students.

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

A. The first thing I do when I wake up is turn on “Eyewitness News This Morning” and “Good Morning America.” Before I arrive to work, I’ve posted on social media for abc7ny, and I have a good idea of what stories are trending that day.

Once I get to work, I attend our 9 a.m. news meeting to learn how we’re going to cover those stories. From there, I pow-wow with our promotion and digital producers to see how we can attract the most viewers to our various platforms. We are putting a lot of emphasis on expanding our social media video right now, on top of our regular on-air duties.

The rest of my time is spent working on image campaigns, various shoots and outside media spends. I take frequent social media breaks to listen to what our viewers are saying because they are the heartbeat of our operation.

It’s wonderful; I never get the chance to watch the clock in this job and no day is ever alike because you always have the possibility of breaking news.

Q. What is the relationship between news and promotions at TV stations like yours?

A. News and promotion are incredibly close and work hand-in-hand at WABC-TV. Our department attends news meetings and is expected to contribute story ideas and evaluate stories based on promotional appeal. I always tell our new interns that news tells the story, and we sell the story.

We try to be as educated as possible on what our viewers want from us, so there’s always a healthy discourse with our newsroom colleagues about how we craft our special reports. Plus, one of the more interesting aspects of promoting in social media is that it has virtually killed the tease. It’s forced us to be more like news because we are focusing on delivering solid content versus slick-sounding promises in our on-air pushes.

Q. Before going to New York in 2014, you worked at TV stations in Fresno, California, and Durham, North Carolina. How did those experiences in smaller markets help you in your current job?

A. I cannot overstate the importance of gaining experience if differently sized markets. Not only is it better to make your mistakes in front of half a million people instead of 20 million, but you will also learn different lessons in each market.

In Fresno, I learned you can do so much with so little. That prepared me to be a better steward of the larger budgets I encountered in top markets. If you can do your best with a crew of one or a crew of 30, you’re more prepared to handle whatever comes your way.

I’ve done almost every kind of production job in TV, and that’s made me a much better director and manager. You also don’t buy excuses because you know there are different ways of getting TV done.

Q. What advice do you have for student journalists?

A. I hope you don’t mind a list! These are the little nuggets I’ve been collecting and sharing over the years:

  • Just scrub your social media clean. Plain and simple. You would think everyone knows this by now.
  • Learn every possible media creation tool you can. I get hundreds of intern applications so I only look at candidates who can edit, write, shoot and have experience in social media.
  • Take any foot in the door that you can get. You never know where it will lead! Walk through that open door.
  • Don’t be afraid to move or take that first low-paying job. You’re smart – you‘ll figure out how to make it work!
  • Come prepared. Do your homework before you ever walk in the door. That includes knowing the day’s news, the competition and who the talent and executives are.
  • If you are looking for advice or a mentor, come with specific asks.
  • Aspire to leadership. Our business needs more diversity behind the cameras in management.
  • Follow me on social media and feel free to ask me anything, or shoot me an email!

Your ideas are intriguing to me, and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter

In addition to my usual courses this semester, I am overseeing an independent study. Kelsey Weekman, a UNC-Chapel Hill senior majoring in journalism with a minor in screenwriting, will examine the rise of email newsletters.

Kelsey came to me with the idea near the end of the fall semester. She said that she was interested in studying the voice, design, length and illustrations in newsletters such as The Skimm and The Charlotte Agenda. Here’s what she said in her plan for the independent study:

I’m passionate about newsletter writing, and a class that delves into it just doesn’t exist yet at UNC. In this independent study, I want to learn how industry professionals write newsletters, both personally and through researching the writing itself.

So this semester, Kelsey will create a blog dedicated to this topic. Each week, she will post an analysis of an email newsletter. She also plans to interview editors who put together such newsletters.

By the end of the semester, Kelsey will write a paper to provide an overview of her findings and create the prototype for a newsletter. I’ve invited her to talk with my Advanced Editing class about her findings.

I’m excited to get to work with Kelsey on this project, and I invite you to follow along on her blog. Let us know if you have any suggestions about newsletters that have intrigued you.

What I am teaching this semester

The spring semester at UNC-Chapel Hill starts on Monday, Jan. 11. Here are the syllabuses* for what I am teaching:

You can see syllabuses for all courses at the journalism school on this page at the Park Library website. Best wishes to faculty and students on a successful semester.

* I follow AP style and Language Log on the plural of this word. But if you say “syllabi,” I’ll know what you mean.