Q&A with POLITICO reporter Megan Cassella

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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.

Student guest post: Short attention spans may not equal short stories

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the 20th of those posts. Victoria Young is a UNC-Chapel Hill senior from Concord, North Carolina. She studying media and journalism, with a concentration in editing and graphic design. Her honors minor is in creative writing with an emphasis in poetry. She has worked on the copy desk at The Daily Tar Heel, at TIPS Technical Publishing last year and at the North Carolina Department of Transportation in the communications office last summer.

“The reader’s attention span is getting shorter.” This is a statement I have heard consistently in classes and in internships.

Everyone talks about the magic number: 15 seconds. Data shows that a reader or viewer will spend 15 seconds of his or her time before moving on from videos, ads or news articles. When this data first came out, it was a shock to the journalism system.

News articles were meant to be read and hopefully enjoyed. During the days of the muckrakers, articles were written in at least a thousand words. Ida Tarbell’s run in McClure’s Magazine on the Standard Oil Company ran as a series of several articles.

This tradition of having longer articles is continued through newspapers like The New York Times whose word count per story ranges from 400 to 1,200 words. But some companies are straying from long-form journalism due to the small amount of time a reader is willing to spend on an online article. Axios, an online and email Listserv news company, was founded on this issue.

“Stories are too long. Or too boring.” These sentences open the second paragraph on Axios’ About page.

Jim VandeHei, the founder and CEO of Axios, visited a business journalism class I was in this semester. A student asked him what his top pet peeve was. He answered immediately: long stories.

Axios tries to keep its articles at maximum of 300 to 400 words. VandeHei stated that, in some cases, that was still too many. He had a point. If readers spend 15 seconds on a story, they will, hopefully, get enough information from a tighter word count. Squeezing out filler or clunky sensory words can get the reader to the meat of a story faster.

But this argument assumes two things. First, it assumes that the 300 to 400 words in an article containing all and enough information on the story. Second, it assumes that most, if not every, story can exist with little to no sensory or tangential detail.

To address the first assumption, not every story is pristine. But this can be solved by good reporting and copy editing. Readers who want to consume compact stories are counting on every pertinent detail making it into the word count and for those words to make sense. If a reporter has researched related incidents, gathered all current information and contacted sources, then he or she should have enough material to form a concise brief on the issue. Also, since a short story needs to simply present the main takeaways, a journalist would then know which details do or do not need to make it in.

As for copy editors, their job is crucial in this instance. A shorter length does not mean fewer errors, and if readers cannot understand it, cutting the length is useless. The goal of short stories is faster communication with the reader. Clunky, confusing or improperly worded sentences will inhibit that communication.

As for the second assumption, not every story should be short. There are some nuances to a story, outside of cold facts, that add detail. It is nearly impossible to have multiple sources in a story with a 300-word story. For some stories, the credibility of the article relies on having multiple sources.

There are also some details that journalists are able to put into stories that present more information. For instance, if a journalist is covering a murder trial in which the defendant is found not guilty, it may behoove a reader to know that during witness testimony from the victims’ family, the defendant was laughing. These are small details, but they set a scene that gives more insight.

This is not to say that short-length stories are bad. They aren’t, and in many instances, they are needed, but I would put a few words of caution in. This type of writing requires good editing and careful decisions about when to use it.

Every story is different and needs to be communicated in its own way. Simply allowing data on website traffic to shape story writing may hinder the news process, if it is not monitored.

Covering the uprooted

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A capacity crowd gathers for the launch of Uprooted, a multimedia website. (Photo by Alex Kormann)

Each spring, journalism students from UNC-Chapel Hill create a multimedia project that focuses on a place and topic. Previous subjects have included the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the youth movement in Cuba.

This year, the students focused on refugees in Colombia who have left Venezuela to escape political turmoil and to find jobs and medical care. The result is Uprooted, a website that uses text, graphics, photographs and video to tell their stories. Here’s the theme of the project:

It’s easy to get lost in the numbers and policy when covering Venezuela and its intrinsic, historic connection with Colombia. We hope these stories of struggle, resilience, acceptance and tension can provide clarity and encourage people to join the conversation and take action.

Students in my Advanced Editing class contributed to the project by editing the text stories and captions, and test-driving the site. Thanks to colleagues Pat Davison, Tamara Rice and Kate Sheppard for inviting us to participate.

The challenge and reward of teaching online

I have taught online courses at UNC-Chapel Hill since 2012, and I oversee a certificate program in digital communication that’s taught entirely online.

I have found this method of teaching to be rewarding, but some of my colleagues are wary of it. Indeed, a recent post in the Chronicle of Higher Education found that just 9% of faculty members preferred teaching online.

I was fortunate. In my first foray in online teaching, staff members at the journalism school gave me advice on how to prepare and pace MEJO 711 (Writing and Editing for Digital Media). A veteran of online teaching, Brian Carroll of Berry College, taught the other section of the course that semester, and his guidance was invaluable. It helped that he was also author of the textbook used in the class.

The Chronicle post offers excellent tips on teaching online. Among them: Be engaged with the students and be intuitive in the course design. Be yourself.

If you are considering teaching an online course or taking one, I encourage you to read the full article, which is rich in recommendations. It’s possible to make online teaching rewarding and fun, but we have to work at it.

 

When classes collaborate

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Students in MEJO 557 (Advanced Editing) talk with high school students visiting from Durham, North Carolina.

I enjoy all of the journalism courses that I teach at UNC-Chapel Hill, but for different reasons.

In MEJO 157 (News Editing), I introduce students to the fundamentals of style, punctuation and word choice. Students learn to check facts and verify information, and they write headlines, captions and tweets.

In MEJO 711 (Writing and Editing for Digital Media), I work with midcareer communicators who want to refresh their skills and learn new ones. The course is part of a master’s program that’s taught online.

In MEJO 557 (Advanced Editing). I have a class of experienced student editors. A theme of the course is the editor-writer relationship, which students explore via guest speakers, “The Subversive Copy Editor” by Carol Fisher Saller and the movie “Spotlight.”

A key difference with Advanced Editing is that the course collaborates with others in the journalism school. My students team up with those in MEJO 356 (Feature Writing), MEJO 459 (Community Journalism) and MEJO 584 (Documentary Multimedia Storytelling). We have collaborated on the following projects this semester:

  • Omnibus, a website showcasing feature stories about the university, Chapel Hill and beyond.
  • The Durham VOICE, a website and monthly publication covering Northeast Central Durham.
  • Uprooted, a multimedia website covering the refugee crisis in Venezuela and Colombia.

My students and I learn a great deal through these collaborations. Each one allows us to get the feel of working in a newsroom. Thanks to instructors John Robinson, Jock Lauterer and Pat Davison for making those experiences possible.

Q&A with Jennifer Bringle of Casual Living magazine

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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.

How you can help students who have an interest in editing

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This piece by stitch artist Olisa Corcoran of Durham, North Carolina, will be among the items at the ACES silent auction this week.

The national conference of ACES: The Society for Editing takes place this week in Providence, Rhode Island. If you are among the several hundred editors attending this gathering, here’s how you can help students who are interested in careers in editing while you are there.

  • Attend or compete at the spelling bee on Wednesday. The format is similar to the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. It costs $25 to participate and $10 to watch.
  • Browse and bid at the silent auction on Friday. Items typically include books, clothing, original artwork and collectibles with a word-related themes.

Proceeds from both events go to the ACES Education Fund, which oversees a scholarship program for college students interested in editing. The fund offers six scholarships each year. (Disclosure: I am a member of the Education Fund board.)

If you won’t be in Providence for the conference, you can support the scholarship fund by contributing online anytime. Thank you for helping student editors!