Q&A with Kevin Uhrmacher, graphics editor at The Washington Post

Kevin Uhrmacher is a graphics editor at The Washington Post. In this interview, conducted by email, Uhrmacher discusses his work there and offers advice to journalism students looking at careers like his.

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

A. I’m involved in making everything from simple maps and charts to more meaty interactives and data visualizations. I also spend some time making sure our graphics are being copy-edited and included with related stories that others in the newsroom are writing.

My days vary quite a bit, but it’s typical that each includes some combination of responding to breaking news, working on daily and longer-term projects and getting our team’s graphics work published across platforms and promoted on social media.

Today, for example, I went in at 7 a.m. to get a jump on updating our page covering the EgyptAir Flight 804 crash. Another graphics editor, Denise Lu, and I updated the page periodically throughout the day as more information became available. As we pushed out updates to the page, we were sharing them on our @postgraphics Twitter account. We were also working on a couple of other projects intermittently.

I should also mention that the members of our team regularly solicit and offer feedback to one another about projects in progress.

Q. How does editing and headline writing work for graphics at The Washington Post?

A. Any graphic I create goes through several layers of editing, including my own editors on the graphics team, other content-specific reporters and editors, and a small army of very attentive copy editors.

Headline writing is a team effort here, for sure. While we’re writing a headline, we do a lot of sharing and testing to see what connects with people. Often that means sharing headlines in an internal chat room and asking others to offer suggestions for how to improve something.

Often, the most valuable feedback you can get on a headline is from someone who has no preconceived notions about the story. This helps you see how much interest your headline generates and make sure your story (whether it takes the form of text, graphics, video or some combination of things) delivers on whatever you promise in the headline.

We also have a new-ish tool that helps us A/B test promotional material for our stories (headlines, deks and — especially helpful for our graphics — promo images) You can read more about it here. We’re fortunate enough to have a tremendous engineering team to build tools like this one.

Q. You graduated from the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2014. What skills and concepts that you learned there do you use day to day? What have you had to learn on the job?

A. I think the most obvious thing I took with me out of the journalism school, and many nights in The Daily Tar Heel, was a keen sense of news judgment. By that I mean being able to identify the crux of a story and making sure that it is coming across in the way it is presented. It also means recognizing stories that are not being told and finding a unique way to tell them.

That reminds me of another thing UNC taught me, which is how to learn something that I don’t know. There are plenty of new skills and concepts that didn’t exist when I was in school just a couple of years ago. The key is knowing how to adapt and learn them.

Q. Being a graphics editor at The Washington Post sounds like a good gig. What advice do you have for journalism students considering similar career paths?

A. Well, first let me say it IS a good gig!

As far as advice goes, I would say students should not be devastated if they don’t get their dream internship or job on the first try. Never cut off a relationship with someone at a company you want to work for because you assume they don’t want you. For all you know, you’re at the top of their list for the next open job.

This one can be awkward but really pays off: Ask what you could do to improve your chances for the next time around. Do you need to beef up your portfolio in some way? Need to show more similar experience on your resume? Occasionally send them an email when you publish something you’re really proud of. Don’t underestimate the power that putting yourself on someone’s radar has for your future prospects.

I also recommend getting involved in professional organizations such as the Society for News Design, the Online News Association or the American Copy Editors Society. The annual conferences are great ways to meet people and learn more about what’s happening in the field you one day hope to work in.

What I’m doing this summer

It’s summer, at least according to UNC-Chapel Hill’s academic calendar. As I’ve noted in the past, summer for faculty members is not synonymous with a vacation. Here’s what I have planned:

  • Teach JOMC 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.
  • Grade comprehensive exams for an online master’s program.
  • Teach writing for social media as part of a week-long jazz workshop.
  • Research and write a proposal for a course on freelance editing, with a focus on nonfiction.
  • Contribute to a top-to-bottom review of the curriculum in the journalism school, with an eye toward major revisions.
  • Read the new edition of “The Subversive Copy Editor,” which I use as a textbook in my Advanced Editing course. (This is my beach book.)
  • Review and update course materials for the fall semester, which will begin in mid-August.

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

Student guest post: Self-editing with our auto-correcting brains

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 14th of those posts. Kristin Tajlili is a senior who is majoring in editing and graphic design with a minor in creative writing. She has contributed to many on-campus publications including Should Does, The Daily Tar Heel and Blue and White. She gets excited over the most mundane of coincidences.

Why is self-editing hard? Blame our brains – the original auto-correctors.

Whenever I hit submit on a blog post that I have worked tirelessly on, I dread that it will be mangled with dropped words, wrong uses of there/their/they’re and sentences that don’t make sense.

It’s embarrassing, especially when people ask me: “If you want to be a writer, why don’t you know the proper use of there?”

Like many people, I can easily catch errors in other people’s work, but when it comes to correcting my own errors, I am useless.

The inability to self-edit can be attributed to our brain — the original auto-corrector, according to blogger Yuka Igarashi. Because our brains are very good at altering sensory information to be “correct” very quickly and unconsciously, it is difficult to catch our own mistakes.

In her blog, Igarashi uses this sentence to illustrate how humans perceive text:

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Did you see the word “the” twice? Even though I knew there was an error, I had to look at the sentence five times before I spotted it. My brain automatically removed the second the.

This ability of our brain can be helpful in situations where we have to think quickly, but it also makes naturally poor copy editors. For example, after proofreading my resume — which I had worked on for several hours before — I read the mistake “second-more viewed article” as “second-most viewed article.” Because I knew the message beforehand, my brain corrected it. A couple weeks later, after using this resume for a few job applications, I caught the mistake.

In order to become stronger editors, we must acknowledge our brains, like spell-check and many of the new grammar checkers flooding the market, are not reliable. Once we acknowledge that our brains are no good, we can look to other techniques to meet our copy editing needs.

In a handout about editing and proofreading, the UNC Writing Center lists several solid techniques, such as reading the paper out loud, slowly. I found this to be good advice, but when reading a paper longer than a couple pages, my vocal chords — and eyes — get tired. Also this isn’t helpful when it’s 5:30 in the morning and I don’t want my roommate to wake up to a lecture about the Roman Empire.

Instead of reading my own papers out loud, I usually find a free text-to-speech translator such as Mike. Unlike me, Mike sees the text for what it is instead of what it is meant to be. But for those who find Mike creepy, the UNC Writing Center allows students to download Read&Write Gold, a text-to-speech translator which offers more flexibility than those offered for free online. Just stop by SASB and ask for a copy.

When I’m not in the mood to hang out with Mike, I like to play with formatting on my word processor. I change the font type and size so that the text looks different than my original draft. In doing so, the errors have less room to hide.

That being said, it took me years to find effective methods for self-editing. What may work for me may not work for other people. There are dozens of tools and techniques to circumvent our auto-correcting brains. Finding what works may be the difference between landing an interview or staring at an empty inbox.

Student guest post: editing Usher

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 13th of those posts. Rebecca Shoenthal is a junior majoring in editing and graphic design and minoring in creative non-fiction writing. She is a publicity intern at Algonquin Books and loves dogs, tacos and Netflix.

Last week when I was driving, flipping through the radio stations, one of my favorite throwback songs came on: “My Boo” by Usher, released in 2004. I turned up the volume, ready to jam out, when Usher’s beautiful voice came out signing, “There’s always that one person that will always have your heart.”

Add it to the list of grammar casualties.

Maybe The Associated Press style was different in 2004 (Well, of course it was; there’s a new edition every year.), but all I could think about was the “that, which (pronouns)” category in the AP Stylebook. I edited Usher in my head, changed the station and “went home proud,” as my professor Andy Bechtel would say.

“There’s always that one person WHO will always have your heart,” but I guess that person isn’t Usher for me anymore.

This is the life of an editor, or in my case, a student editor.

I correct song lyrics I hear on the radio, posters I see walking around campus and friends’ Facebook posts without thinking twice. My friends text me asking, “Can you help me?” and it’s never about relationship advice.

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The other day, I was sitting with friends during lunch when the dreaded dilemma of among vs. amongst came up. “I think they’re interchangeable,” the table agreed before turning to me for a final opinion. “Among,” I corrected.

Later, of course, I double-checked my instinct against “Grammar Girl” who considers amongst “archaic and overly formal or even pretentious in American English.”

It’s not as if I advertise my status as an editing major, but once the word gets out that you’re good with grammar, it spreads quickly.

The thing is, I don’t know all of the answers. As my editing professor Denny McAuliffe once told me, “You don’t need to know the whole book, just where to look.”

But honestly, I don’t always use my AP Stylebook. In my day-to-day life outside of Carroll Hall, I don’t usually have it on me. (When will they release a pocket version like the Bible?) Usually, I refer to the previously mentioned “Grammar Girl” or, more commonly, I end up on “Grammar Girl” after a quick Google search.

Just the other night I needed to write a killer Instagram caption. I’d forgotten the rule for “each other” vs. “one another.” Which one was used for more than two people? Which one was used for indefinite numbers? (Spoiler: I chose “each other” even though I was referring to four people. The truth is sometimes you need to go with what sounds better.)

I’d hardly call myself a Comma Queen, but I do take pride in having an “Editor’s Eye.”

It does get in the way of jamming out in my car, though — like when I changed the station from Usher and the new One Direction song “History” came through the speakers. The chorus, “you and me got a whole lot of history,” made me seriously consider sticking to CDs. Do they even make those anymore?

Student guest post: A different kind of news judgment

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 12th of those posts. Katie Reeder is a senior journalism major and the managing editor of Southern Neighbor. She has a deep appreciation for coffee, witty humor and Carolina basketball.

I avoided social media after the Tar Heels lost the national championship on a Monday night in what was the most heartbreaking game I have ever watched. I did not want to see the comments — good or bad — or stories that I knew were coming. My friends had already agreed not to talk about basketball for the next few days.

By Wednesday, I decided I could handle the stories. March Madness was over, and I knew I would miss the college basketball coverage. I started with The News & Observer and ended with Adam Lucas’ column on GoHeels.com.

When I logged onto Facebook, the Lucas column was at the top of my news feed, and I could see that more than 20 of my friends had shared it. But what caught my attention was that my news feed also had a good number of blog posts friends had shared (mostly written by people other than themselves) about the season and what this team had meant to them.

I will admit that I read just about everything relating to Carolina basketball that I saw on my news feed. But as a journalist, I was struck by the seemingly illogical reasoning behind this. I was reading essentially the same story retold with a different personal angle. Most of those stories could be boiled down to this: We are heartbroken but proud, and we are still Tar Heels. There was no new information, but so many people read it and shared it anyway.

So what does this mean for journalists and editors? It’s tempting to say, “You’re talking about social media and blogs. There are different rules.” But when more than 50 percent of Americans consider Facebook a news source, the rules of Facebook are something to pay attention to.

Add in the fact that Facebook has an algorithm for what shows up in news feeds, and it begins to sound like the curation side of an editor’s job. The front page of The New York Times may still have the box boasting that it’s “all the news that’s fit to print,” but social media has taken away much of that authoritative voice and changed how people consume news.

I do not think all blogs are journalism, and I do not think the rules of social media are always transferable to traditional media. But the common denominator between the two is information intake. Both forms of media ask the question, “What do people care about?”

If my news feed the week after the national championship game is any indicator, people do not always care about fresh information or how timely a story is. The news values of proximity and magnitude came into play here, but do they fully explain why people continued to read and share similar stories? I don’t think so.

Sometimes people like to see the same story retold because they love a basketball team that lost a heartbreaking game, and reading those stories reminds them why they loved the team in the first place. Sometimes stories are about connecting with others and feeling like you can say, “Me too.”

We’re not always taught that in our newswriting classes, and this is not meant to discount the importance of objectivity and accuracy. But I think as journalists learn to navigate the increasingly social digital world, it’s important to remember that people don’t always share what we think they should share. Sometimes stories are more about fostering a sense of community than taking in new information. 

Student guest post: Four takeaways for journalists from a reporter in elementary school

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 11th of those posts. Tatiana Quiroga is a first-year master’s student at UNC-Chapel Hill specializing in reporting. She hails from the Sunshine State and cheers on the Gators and the Tar Heels.

Last week, a 9-year-old girl and her journalistic endeavors went viral.

Hilde Kate Lysiak is the one-person team behind Orange Street News, a monthly newspaper delivering all the noteworthy happenings in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, to its residents. The newspaper has a print and online version, and though her older sister films and edits the site’s videos, Hilde is the lone reporter.

She doesn’t just cover entertainment (“Exclusive: Taylor Swift Coming to Grove in June!”) and community events (“Library mini golf a hit!”), but also crime and public health. The reporter published a series of posts on a vandalism case and even investigated local water quality.

So on April 2, when she learned of an alleged homicide on Ninth Street, Hilde chased the story and published the facts she gathered.

That’s when the criticism and insults from Selinsgrove residents rolled in. In a video posted on her site, spunky Hilde reads the personal messages and fires back. One person suggested she should be having tea parties instead of reporting on a major crime.

At the age of 9, Hilde has already learned some important lessons about journalism – lessons even veteran reporters could be reminded of.

1. Negative feedback can be a driving force.

In her response to critics, Hilde spoke in a direct, gutsy way, and with a bit of humor. We have heard it time and time again: Journalists need to develop thick skin. It’s not uncommon for a reporter to take angry calls from viewers or readers, listen to them rant, thank them for their feedback and move on.

It’s crucial for journalists to learn how focus on the next task at hand. Negative feedback can even motivate us in our work. Since Hilde posted her response to critics, she’s reported on an exchange student from Brussels and the Selinsgrove Borough Council voting to limit public comment at meetings. She’s clearly not stopping anytime soon.

2. Community publications matter.

Hilde is covering news that matters to the people who live in Selinsgrove, which has a population of 5,790. Orange Street News is a hyperlocal news site that uniquely serves the community by covering issues that are highly relevant.

Journalism acts as a watchdog for society and holds powerful people accountable. And it’s a reporter’s job to get out all the facts. “I just like letting people know all the information,” Hilde told The Washington Post.

3. Have a healthy skepticism and be curious.

As my college reporting professor often reminded us, “If your grandma says she loves you, check it out.” Journalists need to develop a nose for news. What is unusual and out of place? That’s what we need to cover.

And if we aren’t curious about the world around us, we won’t ask the hard questions, and we won’t dig deeper. Curiosity seems to come naturally to Hilde, who also investigated drug rumors at a middle school and local park.

4. Perseverance is key.

When Hilde heard from a credible source about the homicide on Ninth Street, she said she confirmed it and then began to knock on doors in the neighborhood to get more information. That relentless search for the truth is what makes a good journalist.

The young reporter told The Washington Post that her passion for journalism isn’t a childhood phase. “It’s just what I really want to do,” she told the Post. “And crime is definitely my favorite.”

Maybe Hilde’s tenacity and spirit can inspire us all to continue on in our pursuit of truth.

Student guest post: 5 reasons why listicles are good for modern journalism

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 10th of those posts. Carly Peterson is a senior journalism major with a reporting specialization who enjoys music and the arts. She writes for the UNC-Chapel Hill branch of Her Campus, an online publication that targets college-age woman.

Just admit it, we all read listicles. They are everywhere you look — as you scroll through your Facebook feed, as you check today’s email newsletter, and as you spend endless hours mindlessly reading BuzzFeed. Listicles are the hot topic in today’s journalism.

Listicles have driven journalists to choose a side — either pro-listicles or anti-listicles. Journalists who are typically pro-listicles acknowledge that they are useful as an alternative story form for reporting and are not completely mindless, while journalists who are anti-listicles criticize them as uniformed and representative of bad writing.

As a descriptive writer, I have to admit I had to get use to writing listicles for Her Campus, but now I really enjoy putting a well-written and informed list together that will interest the website’s audience. I do not believe that listicles are the death of quality journalism, but they should be looked to as a viable option for an alternative story form.

1. Listicles are time-saving tactics for writers.

The journalism industry is a fast-paced business. A journalist’s goal is to get the story first and to send the story out to the public before another publication can. A journalist could probably write a couple of listicles in the time it takes to write and report one story. Even though the writing is short, listicles do not give journalists room to be lazy in their writing and grammar skills. A listicle should be informative but concise, which can be harder for descriptive writers like me.

2. Listicles are helpful for a busy audience.

In today’s world, everyone is on the go. The public has less time to sit down and read a newspaper front to back except for maybe on the weekends. Listicles are a great way to get a news or human-interest story to the public. The listicles’ best feature is that they are easy to scroll through. Since the story is essentially a list, they are easy to format for cellphones or tablets. The public spends a great deal of time on these devices.

3. Listicles already come with a headline.

The typical format for listicles is a number plus what the list is conveying to the reader. The nature of listicles incorporates attention-drawing headlines that capture the reader and encourage them to click to read more, which is termed “clickbait.” The reader automatically knows what this story will be about just from the headline for example this headline from BuzzFeed:

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4. Listicles draw attention and keep readers.

Listicles contain numbers that stand out automatically from all the other text-heavy articles. The list format helps to make the article easy and fast to read. Most use some sort of picture or GIF to go with each number listed. From my experience with listicles, I am drawn to the article because I am curious as to what the numbers are and then find myself reading the entire article when I just meant to skim it. I am sucked into the article anticipating what the next number will hold.

5. Listicles are great for social media.

The best part about listicles for a publisher is that they are easily shared on social media feeds such as Facebook and Twitter. I believe the listicles that draw the most traffic on social media are the ones that tap into human emotion and life experiences, or incorporate informative tips as seen here at BuzzFeed:

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Listicles do not have to be for everyone, but do not turn them down before you try them. As a writer, I was skeptical at first, but now I find listicles as a fun and easy way to engage with the audience. They can be timsaving tactics that come with eye-catching headlines. Readers will want to read the listicle because they can scroll through the article quickly while on the go. The list can be effortlessly shared on social media, which means more traffic to the publication’s website.