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.

Student guest post: How tone can make or break an email newsletter

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the 14th (and last) of those posts. Martha Upton is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in journalism and history. She is from Wake Forest and has called North Carolina home her whole life. Martha hopes to land a job editing and designing in the magazine industry next year and vows to return to Florence, Italy, in the near future where she spent a summer abroad.

After spending years feeling obligated yet reluctant to try to make it through more than one whole story in a print newspaper, I have been delighted recently by the email I find in my inbox promptly every weekday morning from a daily newsletter called theSkimm.

Without warning, news roundups and daily or weekly newsletters have become instilled in the rhetoric of the journalism world. You can even get your New York Times delivered as an email right to your inbox every morning. Lately it has become all about readability. How fast can I read this information and get the gist without having to take too much time out of my busy life? They don’t call it theSkimm for nothing.

With all the debriefing, I have to wonder if some of the value gets lost in translation. TheSkimm prides itself on its witty, and some might say sassy, approach to current events. There are pop culture references thrown in, which I especially enjoy, but is it OK to use the same style of writing when it comes to stabilizing Yemen’s government?

As an editor, I have become well versed in the concept of alternative story forms. I see the merit of using numbers to tell a story or making lists, either ordered or not. I was particularly enthused after finding a link to a guide theSkimm had put together differentiating the various terror groups that have been in headlines recently, something most people would be eager to learn. I quickly forwarded the guide to my mother before reading it myself because I knew she would be interested.

What I wasn’t sure of was whether my mom would understand what it meant for ISIS to be the P. Diddy of terror groups. Was my mom expected to search P. Diddy on the Internet to find out what meaning she should gather from that? (I Googled P. Diddy for you if you’re curious.)

As an editor, I understand that many publications, and now newsletters, have prided themselves on keeping a certain tone consistent throughout. However, I think editors should consider whether they want to limit their audience by making references only 20-somethings would understand.

Alternative story forms should be clear and concise, presenting the information in a way the reader can understand quickly. Not only is the topic of terror groups not exactly something that should be made light of, but also some readers may be turned away by the flippant tone used in addressing the topic.

My suggestion to fellow editors is if they want their newsletter to be the P. Diddy of newsletters (see link above), then consideration should be given to how tone can apply to different topics. In theSkimm’s case, it might have been more appropriate to take on their usual snarky attitude in the quick hit about ISIS’ latest terror, but be more straightforward in the guide. When effective communication is the goal, all the reader should have to do is skim.

Student guest post: Graphic video of S.C. shooting needed a warning

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the 12th of those posts. Amanda Raymond is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in journalism and psychology, with a minor in English literature. She is originally from Philadelphia but has lived in Concord, North Carolina, for the past 11 years. She enjoys spending time with her family and close friends and watching movies and television. She loves reading fiction novels and often buys four new books before finishing her current one.

As the credits rolled signaling the end of one of the primetime TV shows I watch during the week, a teaser for the 11 p.m. news started to play. It was what looked like a citizen video of a police officer shooting a man that was running away from him until he fell to the ground. There was no lead-in, no warning. The new station showed almost all of the video during a promo. I was shocked.

The anchors went on to say that the video was of a white officer (Michael Thomas Slager) shooting an African-American man (Walter Scott) in South Carolina. Stay tuned for all of the information brought to you by your local news at 11.

If the station wanted to get my attention, they accomplished their goal. I was stunned into watching the first 10 minutes of the broadcast. I can understand that this story is especially relevant because of the other white-officer-shooting-black-civilian stories that have been cropping up recently. The story also has a proximity value because South Carolina is practically in our own backyards. But was it a good idea to show the most graphic part of the video without any warning during a promo?

There is always going to be hesitation when a newsroom wants show a graphic video on the air. On the one hand, using videos by witnesses does add to the credibility of the story. Videos can be used to verify what the journalist is reporting. And allowing the audience to actually see the video adds a higher level of believability to the story. As they say, seeing is believing. Showing a video can also add clarity. A journalist can use all of the words in the dictionary to describe an event, but it still won’t compare to actually seeing it for yourself.

On the other hand, news organizations run the risk of the video’s content disturbing their viewers. No parent would want their young child to see someone being burned alive by terrorists if they happen to be passing by the television. And some people would simply prefer not to see those kinds of things. It’s all right if you tell them about it, but they cannot handle seeing the graphic details.

Using bystanders as sources can be a risky move. There is always a chance that the video has been digitally altered. Also, some videos are just one moment in the timeline. We do not see anything that happened before or after that moment. One moment could mean 10 different things when put in different contexts.

Some news organizations will choose to show the least graphic parts of a video on their broadcast while verbally explaining the more violent parts. Others will mention the contents of the video and tell the viewers to go to their website if they want to see it. Others still will choose to show the most graphic parts of the video with a verbal warning beforehand.

I think it’s safe to say that all of the news organizations will show the video in some capacity (either on air or online) because if your station is the only one not showing the video, the station will look like it is not as knowledgeable. If the station does go that route, I think audiences respect them if they give a statement about why they made that decision. That way, the viewers know the station is aware of the video and are deliberately choosing not to show it.

There are obviously many pros and cons to using graphic videos during a broadcast. As more residents record the actions of law enforcement and other officials in order to keep authority in check, editors and news organizations will have to weigh those considerations to determine if using the video adds value to the piece and is necessary for the audience to see, or too graphic for most people to handle and better explained with words.

Regarding the broadcast that used the South Carolina video as a teaser, as a viewer, I would at least appreciate a warning before that kind of graphic content is shown.