All that journalism

This week, I am stepping out of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill and spending my afternoons at the music department. I am one of several instructors in a one-week jazz workshop. It’s the second year that I’m participating in the program.

So what is an editor doing at a jazz workshop? I’ll work with about 15 students who want to learn about digital journalism as part of their workshop experience. Here are our topics and tasks for the week:

  • MONDAY: What makes a good post? Create a blog at web.unc.edu. Post your impressions and a photo of the evening performance at Wilson Library.
  • TUESDAY: Exploring alternative story forms and learning how to interview sources. Interview a workshop participant and post a vignette about them.
  • WEDNESDAY: Using social media to cover an event. Use Twitter (and more) to document the evening performance. The hashtag is #UNCjazz.
  • THURSDAY: Writing headlines and captions. Revise the headlines and captions on your earlier posts.
  • FRIDAY: Curating social media. Use Storify to document the week.

Thanks to Stephen Anderson, the workshop’s director, for the opportunity to work with these students. Now let’s turn music into words and images.

UPDATE: We had a great week. Examples of student work included a review of one of the performances, a profile of a bass player who plays in a Beatles cover band, and a Storify overview of the workshop.

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Q&A with Kelsey Weekman, writer at AOL

weekman

Kelsey Weekman is a trending content writer at AOL. She has also written for Mashable, Reductress and Mediashift. In this interview, Weekman discusses how AOL approaches reporting, editing and headline writing.

Q. Describe your job. What does a “trending content writer” do on a typical day?

A. I spend the day looking for stories that I think will go viral, from animal videos to the latest odd political moment. I write anywhere from 5 to 10 in a day, but since January, it’s always been closer to 10. (Inauguration was in January, so, you can put the pieces together there.)

Q. How does story editing and headline writing work at AOL?

A. Writers write their own headlines, and there are three kinds:

  1. A main title, which shows up on the article page when you open it. We try to give lots of information and use SEO keywords.
  2. A social headline, which automatically shows up when shared on Facebook and Twitter. We try to craft a clever-yet-not-misleading tease here. It’s Clickbait Lite.
  3. A short title, which shows up on the app. We go for a similar tease but can only use 52 characters.

As for story editing, it’s not particularly thorough. I pass my stories on to a coworker on my level or above, and they proofread the article, then send it back. I make my own changes and publish my own work.

Q. You also edit an email newsletter called Keeping Up With The Content, and you’ve researched newsletters as part of an independent study. What do you like about the newsletter format?

A. I experimented with quite a few newsletter formats myself, but I found the one that works best for me, a content curator who pulls from a ton of different websites, is really just making a list of headlines divided by topic. I format it with fun colors and a trendy font to make it feel more like a zine than an email marketing tactic.

Q. You are a 2016 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What skills that you learned there to do you use in your job at AOL, and what new ones have picked up?

A. What I learned in the most basic news writing class has never left me. It drilled how to write a proper news article into my brain. My specialization was in public relations, which I realized about halfway through is not what I want to do, but having to be creative with words in any format was an invaluable exercise.

Most importantly, I learned to be scrappy. I learned that you have to be your own best advocate because the journalism world is wildly competitive. If you want to do something, do it, don’t wait for someone to create a way for you to accomplish it.

UPDATE: In August 2017, Weekman accepted a position writing for Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter.

Follow Kelsey Weekman on Twitter, read her stories and subscribe to her newsletter.

How I am spending my summer

Summer is already here, according to the academic calendar at UNC-Chapel Hill. As I’ve noted in the past, this time of year for faculty members is not synonymous with a vacation. Here’s what I have planned for summer 2017:

  • Teach MEJO 157, News Editing, during a condensed term called Maymester. We’ll cover an entire semester’s worth of material in less than three weeks.
  • Review applications for a certificate program in media and technology, and help those who are admitted get settled in for fall semester.
  • Grade comprehensive exams for students in an online master’s program.
  • Teach the journalism component of a week-long jazz workshop.
  • Host a book reading by my friend and former colleague Kathleen Flynn, whose debut novel was released earlier this month.
  • Teach a workshop on alternative story forms at the Chuck Stone Program for Diversity in Education and Media.
  • Update the stylebook of the School of Media and Journalism.
  • Review a manuscript for an academic journal.
  • Serve as a member of the ACES Education Fund on various tasks, including establishing a scholarship in honor of Bill Walsh, the noted Washington Post copy editor who died this year.
  • Attend two faculty retreats, including one looking at significant changes to the journalism curriculum.
  • Review and update course materials for the three courses that I will teach during the fall semester, which will begin in mid-August.

That’s plenty to keep me busy. Happy summer!

Student guest post: Editors, let your reporters prove you wrong

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 15th of those posts. Ryan Wilusz is a senior majoring in journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill. He has written for the College Town website, and after graduation, he will work as a reporter at The News Herald in Morganton, North Carolina.

As a journalist, I hate to bring up old news; what’s done is done.

But with Bill O’Reilly no longer a member of Fox News, I have naturally reflected on some of his most outrageous moments from, what Indira A.R. Lakshmanan of The Boston Globe calls his “bulletproof bully’s pulpit.” But perhaps the most noteworthy (and meme-worthy) moment of his long career happened off the air during his time on “Inside Edition.” In outtake footage that surfaced in 2008, O’Reilly can be seen screaming about the teleprompter as he struggles to decipher what exactly his lines are supposed to mean. In the end, he yells profanities at his coworkers and decides to override the script using his own words to end the show.

With O’Reilly’s talent and political knowledge, perhaps you would make an exception for such behavior. But as an editor, imagine for a moment that one of your reporters disagrees with your editorial decision and stands up for his or her choices. Perhaps they don’t stand up quite as strong as O’Reilly, but they stand up nonetheless. What do you say? What do you do?

Being an editor is all about managing reporters and making things right. But don’t think for a moment that the editor should always be the one who is correct. I would argue that good editors should encourage reporters to prove them wrong. In fact, I would say good editors should embrace healthy forms of insubordination. There is such a thing.

But don’t listen to me; listen to legendary investigative reporter Bob Woodward when he said, “All good work is done in defiance of management.” Now I’m not saying you editors out there should let your reporters stomp on your work and disregard your title. You still are the ones in charge, after all. But what happens when reporters begin to accept everything you say? What happens when they begin trying to satisfy you and not the readers?

It may sound silly, but it can happen so easily. Even as a student, this has happened to me. I have found myself, after receiving feedback on early-semester assignments, attempting to write in a way that avoids being counted off for things my professor didn’t like. But the professor is just one reader. The professor is, in a way, the editor. I could sit there and argue about my grade all day, but it wouldn’t change a thing.

But when you encourage arguments and healthy insubordination inside the newsroom, you encourage reaching a conclusion together, you encourage dialogue and you encourage reporters to be inquisitive. If reporter can’t feel comfortable standing up and questioning their editors, how can those reporters feel comfortable asking the hard questions of sly politicians?

And just as politicians will fight back, you should too. After all, good journalists are often the ones who are rough around the edges — ones who refuse to accept what is handed to them until they know it is correct.

I read in Carol Fisher Saller’s “The Subversive Copy Editor” that the editor who makes and stands by his or her countless changes is often not the best editor. Believing there is a standard way to do something and blocking out other voices means you only have a few tricks in your bag.

So I encourage editors: add some tricks. And let your reporters throw in a few tricks of their own. Reporters who feel comfortable standing up for themselves and asking questions will do the same in the field. Practice how you want them to play.

What’s on the final exam in an editing course

It’s the last week of classes for the spring semester at UNC-Chapel Hill. Final exams are ahead.

Here is what’s on the exam in my section of MEJO 157, News Editing:

  • Using WordPress, edit a news story for everything we have covered in this course: AP style, punctuation, grammar, spelling, clarity, word choice and story structure. Check for fact errors, bias and libelous material.
  • If you have a question for the reporter, ask me. I’ll play that role.
  • Add at least two links to the story.
  • Write a headline of about 65 characters.
  • Write a tweet of up to 140 characters.
  • Place a photo that goes with the story and write a caption for it.
  • Proofread a map or chart that goes with the story.

You may use any resource you wish, including the AP Stylebook. Good luck!

Student guest post: Editing narrative journalism (an essay in question form)

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 14th of those posts. Jordan Wilkie is a first-year master’s student on the reporting track at UNC-Chapel Hill. He focuses on the criminal justice system, with an expertise in juvenile and LGBTQ incarceration.

New Journalism is defined by Robert S. Boynton, the author of “New New Journalism,” as “reportorially based, narrative-driven long form nonfiction.” In other words, journalists tell long stories that are true (we’ll get back to that last word in a minute).

In the obligatory name-drop paragraphs, I’ll mention that the most famous contemporary, i.e. “new new journalists,” include Adrian LeBlanc, John Krakauer and Ted Conover. They inherit their craft from off-beat journalists of the 1960s and 1970s looking to make journalism tell stories rather than just inform. They experimented with language and style, incorporating literary techniques long relegated to fiction. These rebels, who certainly had their detractors, were such giants as Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, Gay Talese and, the man credited with codifying the genre as “New Journalism,” Tom Wolfe.

“New” journalism is, of course, a misnomer. Nothing is new under the sun, and the tradition of narrative reporting harkens back through Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell to a handful of 19th century writers (really, read the summary, it’s helpful).

Now that you’ve reserved 10 more books on your public library’s website, let’s get to the heart of the matter: How do we, as editors, manage creative writing in journalism? How do we negotiate truth — facts, observed reality — and Truth, the honesty and faithful-to-experience essence of a story?

[Spoiler: I don’t know the answer. Ask The New Yorker.]

Let’s look at an article by an up-and-coming journalist, a soon-to-graduate senior, who published an excellent article on Media Hub, a project of the UNC School of Media and Journalism. Tess Allen’s piece on the abuse of women in French refugee camps opens with a narrative scene: A woman goes to the restroom in the middle of the night; she is raped.

Allen is not present to see the unnamed woman wake, to see her tip-toe around others sleeping on the ground, to listen outside the bathroom stall with the broken latch, yet Allen writes with near omnipotence.

She steps out onto the uneven, jagged gravel and the night air hits her cheeks. She shuffles between graffiti-laden shelters and down the dirt road, about 50 yards to the nearest bathroom.

The smell of feces and urine hits her nostrils before she even steps through the raised doorway. She shuffles blindly forward on the floor that’s wet with stale water, feeling for a stall door. Her hand catches the edge of the door, and she goes inside.

The writing is based off good journalism, off interviews and being on-scene. Even if Allen’s subject did not describe the earth under her feet when she stepped outside, Allen would have been able to see this detail for herself when she visited the shelter and later add it to the story. Allen measured, or at least eyeballed, the distance to the nearest bathroom.

But how did Allen know her subject shuffled to the bathroom? Does she always shuffle?
And how did Allen know her subject smelled feces and urine even before she entered the bathroom? Was that described in the interview? Or did Allen go there herself and think, “How could you not smell this s**t a block away?

[Disclaimer: I have never met Tess Allen and know nothing about the editorial process for publication on Media Hub. I chose her work to rep UNC and because it is a solid piece of journalism – for anyone, not just for a student.]

Journalism is the reporting of facts, which makes new journalism — such as narrative journalism and creative non-fiction — especially hard to write. Where does a publication draw the line around reality, and how does an editor enforce it?

If I were editing Allen’s work, I’d be a hard-liner. Show me your notes, show me the interview. Where did she tell you about the smell? Tell you about the water? For a new reporter, I’d say no inventiveness, no assumptions, get it on tape, from multiple sources, or no dice.

The logic is to teach the young reporter to ask extremely detailed questions, to elicit sensory descriptions. It is also to protect the reporter from accusations of falsification.

The secondary role of an editor would be to improve the writing, to improve the flow, to edit for the creative presentation of the facts. In that role, I have nothing to offer Allen’s superb writing.

When you make it big, the rules can be bent. Take Gay Talese, famous for his in-depth reporting, which he often takes years to develop. His method is old school. He packs boxes with manila folders stuffed with clippings and notes, then covers them in collage relating to his stories. Talese earned his stripes decades ago – his career took off in 1965 with his story, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” which he researched in the lightning’s flash of 31 days. Right at the beginning, Talese does the impossible:

The two blondes knew, as did Sinatra’s four male friends who stood nearby, that it was a bad idea to force conversation upon him when he was in this mood of sullen silence, a mood that had hardly been uncommon during this first week of November, a month before his fiftieth birthday.

Talese gets into their heads!

He didn’t interview the women, does not know their names, nothing. The line was an educated projection, a third-party judgment from afar, just shy pure fancy.

But I’ll be dammed if it didn’t sound good.

Student guest post: Should Facebook Live be deleted?

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 13th of those posts. Avery Williams is a junior studying editing and graphic design at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is the campus editor at The Tab – UNC, an online newspaper.

Facebook Live was launched in April 2016 as a reaction to consumers of media becoming media producers themselves. More than ever, major news events are filmed by civilians on their smartphones and shared with their friends and followers. News outlets have picked up on this trend and now use Facebook Live for many of their own events or coverage, including using Facebook Live footage from their viewers for their own news coverage.

Using Facebook Live rather than posted a video shortly after recording it has some benefits. This function allows the user to see how many people are currently watching them as well as any likes or comments along the way. If a comment brings up a certain question, the person(s) in the Facebook Live video has the ability to respond in real time. It has become a popular tool to many since its launch, especially to those with a large following.

What started out as a way to better interaction and interconnectedness has now shown some of its negative side effects. On Easter Sunday 2017, Steven Stephens killed an elderly man and recorded the entire ordeal and posted it to Facebook. He later allegedly posted several videos bragging about killing more random civilians throughout the day.

Close friends of Stephens say they have no idea what the motivation could have been and have never noticed violent tendencies or clues toward this behavior.

Facebook has come out saying the video of the homicide was not live, but other videos throughout the day were. Even if this particular event was not done through Facebook Live, this opens the question of what would happen if it actually were.

Social media sites have a certain responsibility to censor posts to their viewers without too much restriction, but Facebook Live has always been in the moment with no previous review, censorship or filtration.

Even if this homicide was not committed on Facebook Live, it has proven that this could very possibly occur on the social media site.

Should users have this much power? Is no censorship and the ability to go live socially responsible for everyone, or should only trusted sources and media organizations have this power?

Many may argue that Facebook Live does more harm than good, allowing entertainers and public figures alike a chance to speak to their audience directly in real time. The issues that have now arisen deal with what happens when this power gets into the wrong hands. This is certainly not the first time illegal activity was filmed on Facebook Live, and it will not be the last.

Steven Stephens was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot on April 18, two days after the homicide.