Q&A with Matt Brooks, food digital editor at The Washington Post

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Matt Brooks is food digital editor at The Washington Post. He previously worked at the Post as a sports reporter, blogger and editor. In this interview, conducted by email, Brooks discusses his role as a food editor, his transition from sports and some of his favorite things to eat.

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

A. As the digital editor for The Washington Post’s Food department, my role is a hybrid between an assignment editor, a web producer, a digital project manager, a social media strategist and a liaison between Food and the rest of the newsroom. Of course, digital strategies and responsibilities are constantly evolving here, so by the time this publishes, there’s a chance everything I’ve said will be moot.

What do I do all day? Eat.

Well, that’s part of my day. I always start my morning by checking web traffic reports from the day before and scheduling out a few early tweets on our @WaPoFood account before I head into the office. Once there, I open way too many Google Chrome tabs and check real-time traffic to see how our stories are performing in search and on various social media platforms.

I’ll scan buzzy food news websites and Twitter and pitch a few quick story ideas to our writers, then work on editing newsy posts or restaurant reviews. In this role, I’m often the ambassador to the editors who run our national homepage and the main Post social media accounts, so whenever we publish a story, I’m pitching editors on appropriate platforms to get promotion beyond our own Food channels.

We have a few weekly meetings where we analyze stories that generated significant traffic and try to figure out why others with potential didn’t perform as well. In Food, we have a weekly brainstorming meeting to generate more ambitious story ideas.

And about that eating: We have a food lab where our recipes editor and other members of the team are constantly testing recipes and cooking up all kinds of fun stuff. Tuesdays are food lab photo shoot days, which means there’s always a ton of tasty food for the offing. I never pack a lunch on Tuesday.

Q. You previously worked in sports at the Post. What are the similarities and differences between covering sports and covering food?

A. The food is the biggest difference. There are always snacks in Sports, but in Food, it’s gourmet, restaurant-quality, composed dishes. Not a bad perk.

The pace is very different. I spent nearly 10 years either frantically filing (as a reporter) or frantically editing (as an editor) live-event stories with hard nightly deadlines for the web and our three print editions.

Sports also has its own full copy desk, so the workflow is rapid — because it needs to be. On either end of that workflow, there’s a substantial adrenaline rush associated with those deadlines, no matter how seasoned you are.

In Food, we’re always working ahead, since the Food section is a weekly in print, and we’re not as tied to events. That generally affords more time to consider when and how to publish a story, who our intended audience is, and how our designers and photo editors can work with us to make our bigger pieces resonate.

Our content is wide-ranging, from recipe-driven columns to long features and enterprise stories to newsy blog posts about the craziest new fast-food trend. There’s a calendar rhythm to covering and editing sports. In Food, things can be very different week to week.

The jargon and style are also quite different. I went from three-pointers, RBIs and 5-under par rounds to pâté, cronuts and frosé.

Q. You are a 2007 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What skills you learned there do you use today, and what new ones have you picked up?

A. I could ramble on about everything I learned inside Carroll Hall (the building formerly known as the School of Journalism and Mass Communication), but here are two things that really stuck with me:

  • Never stop asking questions, because the next one you ask will be the one that makes your story. When you’re reporting a story, always seek out one more source. Get one more person to confirm the account your original source provided, ask smart follow-up questions and make sure you’re providing an opportunity for the other side to be heard. When you’re working on a story that’s competitive, being first is important, but if you’re able to provide more depth and context while also considering the all-important question of “Why should people care about this?” your story will resonate with a wider audience. As an editor, always ask your reporter that extra question to make sure the facts are air-tight and that he or she has covered all the bases before you publish.
  • Be nimble and capable of adapting on the fly. A key component of my reporting class with Paul O’Connor involved him lobbing scenarios at us to see how we’d react on the spot. (“So you’re the new metro reporter in Red Wing, Minn. You have no friends, until you start dating the mayor’s daughter. Life is good. Then you find out the mayor is embezzling money with the help of the mob. What do you do?”) I never made it to Red Wing, but that type of thinking has come in handy more times than I can count. You never know what’s going to happen on a reporting assignment, and as an editor, you have to be prepared to deal with people missing deadline, technology crashing and all manner of disasters. On one of my first deadline football game coverage assignments for The Post, my CCI-issued laptop battery crapped out, and I didn’t have the right key to get into our satellite bureau in the Northern Virginia suburbs. So I ended up filing two game stories for two different zoned editions of the paper while sprawled out on the floor of a gas station. You just never know.

As for key skills I’ve learned since graduating … building relationships across a newsroom is paramount. No matter the size of the publication, people up and down the chain need to be able to communicate effectively and efficiently and share ideas to execute high-quality journalism. Reporters and editors shape the written content, but our collaboration with designers, graphics editors and developers is what takes a great story and turns it into a memorable visual experience on your desktop, cellphone, Instagram, Snapchat and so many other platforms.

Understanding and valuing your audience is another skill we’re constantly trying to hone. When we come up with a story idea, we consider whether we’re targeting search or social audiences (or both), and that helps us choose an appropriate headline. Should it be SEO-driven or fun and conversational?

Engaging with those audiences is also critical. David Fahrenthold’s incredible series of stories about Donald Trump’s charitable giving (or lack thereof) was fueled by Twitter crowd-sourcing, and his followers helped him uncover information that ultimately resulted in a Pulitzer Prize.

I’ve also learned how to be flexible and willing to get outside my comfort zone. I always wanted to be a sports columnist, so I covered and edited sports for The Daily Tar Heel and applied to dozens of sports jobs after college. When I didn’t land any, I worked as a temp in classified advertising at The Post for a few months, then wrote about sports for a hyperlocal website at (the then-separate) washingtonpost.com, then served as the editor of a several blogs, then worked as an SEO specialist and national sports aggregation blogger. I applied for a job as the high school sports editor on a whim, was stunned when I got it and spent the next five years working crazy hours and learning how to run my own department.

If you’d told me six years ago that I’d be an editor in the Food department, I wouldn’t have believed you. But here I am, and I love it.

Q. What is your ideal meal?

A. In this job, I’ve had the opportunity to eat some incredible meals and try several creative, funky dishes. I recently reviewed a gnocchi dish with kimchi ragu; zucchini bread topped with a foie gras spread and bee pollen; and a burger slathered with pimento cheese and topped with a fried green tomato.

But as yawn-inducing as this might sound, I will never turn down a good pulled pork sandwich — Eastern North Carolina style, of course — and the couple of times a year I’m able to get back down to Chapel Hill, my first stop is always at Allen & Son or Bullocks.

We just published our annual D.C.-area barbecue rankings, and while there are some very solid Texas-style shrines to smoked meat here, it’s nearly impossible to find a top-notch chopped pork sandwich. (Perhaps addressing that void will be my post-journalism calling.) So give me a proper pulled pork sandwich with a peppery vinegar sauce, crunchy coleslaw, hush puppies and fried okra, and I’ll be content.

I’m also a sucker for perfectly seared sea scallops and Peking style duck.

Follow Matt Brooks on Twitter and connect with him on LinkedIn.

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Q&A with Mallorie Sullivan, social media manager at The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Mallorie Sullivan is social media manager at The Cincinnati Enquirer. In this interview, conducted by email, she discusses her job and offers advice to journalism students interested in careers in social media.

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

A. It really depends on the day! I was recently promoted to social media manager from being a digital news and social producer, where I would edit, publish and “pin” our stories on the website and stick them on social. While I’m still doing that on the weekend for The Enquirer/Cincinnati.com and our 10 Gannett Ohio sister sites, my role now is focused largely on social media and community engagement.

I generally begin my day by seeing what people are talking about on Facebook and Twitter, so I can get a feel of what posts I should either write or make a video for that day, or be looking out for on USA TODAY (The Enquirer is part of the USA TODAY Network) or on the wires.

Once I identify what’s trending and schedule it out on Facebook, I generally check out Chartbeat, one of our analytics tools, to identify what’s trending locally on social to see if there’s anything we missed from the day before that we can bring out on Facebook or if there’s anything that is doing well on Facebook that can be brought out on other social platforms, like Twitter and Instagram, for an extra boost. This routine often goes in cycles throughout the day, with daily local content added into the mix on top of trending topics.

In terms of community engagement, I am largely responsible for answering messages from readers – think subscription problems, story tips – on The Enquirer’s branded social accounts and making sure they’re happy and taken care of. When I’m not taking care of the branded accounts, I’m tending to our Facebook community groups, of which we have several for the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky region. That largely consists of accepting or denying member requests, keeping or deleting reported posts within those groups, and keeping the peace among members.

Q. There’s Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat, among others. What’s your favorite platform on social media?

A. Because I’m a journalist, my favorite social media both for personal and for work use is Twitter. It’s the first thing I check in the morning and the last thing I look at before I go to bed.

Twitter is where I consume most news. While I subscribe to and receive news alerts for The Enquirer, USA TODAY, The Washington Post and The New York Times, I admittedly go to Twitter first and scroll through my timeline because it’s easier for me to get a gist of what’s trending so I know immediately what I need to have on deck for our social media that day. I also find following a variety of publications and journalists is a good way not only to get a mix of news but to maintain a semblance of objectivity in a space where you can so easily be seen as biased based on what you’re retweeting, what you’re liking and who you’re following.

Twitter is my favorite to use at work because our audience there is younger, so we’re able to be a little cheekier than we would be on Facebook, where our audience skews a little older. I also use it to test different social chatter with a story to see the reactions I receive — if something doesn’t do that well, then I’ll try it again with another nugget of information in the story. If something does well, I’ll consider expanding upon it and using it for Facebook. It’s a nice little laboratory for all of my creative ideas.

And, while it was already a favorite of mine for personal use, Instagram has become something of a creative outlet for me since the debut of Stories. The Enquirer’s Instagram is run entirely by our photo staff, who has helped build quite a following there showcasing their work.

Now that we have Stories, me and my boss, Katie Vogel, and a few others are testing out how best to use that space to supplement coverage for both breaking news and general interest stories. For example, the other day we broke a story about an umpire filing a racial discrimination suit against Major League Baseball. I put together a few slides on Canva with the basics while it was pulling good numbers on social, and if people wanted to read it, they were able to swipe up on the last slide to read the whole story. The next day, I put together a Story on how to best take photos of fireworks without a fancy camera, and if readers wanted to know specifics, they could swipe up.

Q. On occasion, Cincinnati makes national news. Examples include the death of Harambe the gorilla in 2016 and the president’s visit earlier this year. How does being in the spotlight affect how the Enquirer covers a story?

A. It’s actually really interesting how often Cincinnati finds itself in the middle of news! Despite our size, it sometimes feels like any national news story can be tied back to us any given week on any given beat.

This happened most recently with the release and subsequent death of Otto Warmbier, the college student who spent 17 months imprisoned North Korea who also happened to be from a small suburb of Cincinnati. It also occurred on a different scale during the congressional baseball practice shooting, when Rep. Brad Wenstrup of Cincinnati administered first aid to Rep. Steve Scalise. It also happened in sports, when FC Cincinnati, our USL soccer team, beat the Chicago Fire from MLS on national television. And of course it happened with Harambe, with the trial of former University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing and with presidential visits.

Because this happens quite often, we’re pretty well-adjusted to working under the spotlight and, while we may enlist more people to work different angles of a story, we don’t stray too far from how we typically approach a news story. We have the ability to amplify our work through the USA TODAY Network, and do what we can to tell the story from start to finish. We’re small but very mighty!

Q. What advice do you have for journalism students interested in careers in social media?

A. Diversify your skill set and stay curious! There are so many things I never learned in college because I was either too intimidated by them (shooting and editing video and photos) or they just didn’t exist in my college classes (how to read analytics, for example).

In order to work with social media, you’re going to want to know how to make quick social video (it’s actually really fun!), you’re going to want to know how to take decent photos, you’re going to want to know how to code — even basic HTML/CSS skills are fine — and, even though you’re trying to get away from it by going into journalism, you’re going to want to know basic math and statistics. It helps out a lot when trying to analyze month-over-month and year-over-year analytics to determine audience growth.

Writing up trending social stories may also be part of your job, so don’t let yourself get rusty with your AP style, headline writing or writing in general.

Another thing I recommend, simple as it may sound: Allow yourself to unplug. For a few hours, for a day, for a week. A lot of us already spend so much time on our smartphones, that when we work in journalism — and with social media, especially — it makes it so hard to unplug because we don’t want to miss a thing that happens on the internet.

Go on a run, spend time with your significant other sans smartphone, take up baking. Just don’t allow yourself to be the person who’s always “on,” because an unhealthy relationship with your work can put a strain on the relationship you have with your friends, with your significant other and with yourself.

The last thing I can’t stress enough to journalism students, regardless of whether you want to go into social media: Take as many internships as you can. I took three in the span of a year, and I learned so much more than I ever did in the classroom just by being out in the field, asking a bunch of questions and doing more than what was expected of me.

Doing so allows you to build upon the skills you’ve already learned; to make mistakes and learn how to bounce back from them; to absorb some of the shell shock that comes with the long, unpredictable hours and the weekends in the middle of the week, and to rub elbows with the best in the business so you have recommendations when applying for jobs down the road.

Follow Mallorie Sullivan on Twitter and connect with her on LinkedIn.

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.

Q&A with Kelsey Weekman, writer at AOL

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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!