Q&A with Neil Offen of The Local Reporter

The Herald-Sun | Christine T. Nguyen

Neil Offen is an editor at The Local Reporter, a news startup in Orange County, North Carolina. He has worked as a reporter at several newspapers and magazines, and as a radio news director. In this interview, conducted by email, Offen discusses the focus and objectives of The Local Reporter, and he offers advice to student journalists interested in covering their communities.

Q. What is The Local Reporter? How does it fit into the media ecosystem of the Triangle region of North Carolina?

A. The Local Reporter is a new online hyperlocal news startup serving Chapel Hill, Carrboro and southern Orange County. It is, as Jock Lauterer, a Hussman School adjunct professor and part of our governing board, puts it, “relentlessly local.”

That means we don’t cover Durham news. No state news, national nor international news — except in those cases where there is direct impact on our local area. We cover only the stories that emanate from and have a direct impact on residents here.

The Local Reporter was launched because a number of community activists believed there was a need for that kind of coverage and were concerned that it increasingly was disappearing from our community. Within the last decade, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area had lost three local newspapers to the now common economic stressors affecting journalism. The Chapel Hill News, The Chapel Hill Herald and The Carrboro Citizen all went out of business.

Meanwhile, The News & Observer in Raleigh saw cutbacks after cutbacks and consequently reduced its day-to-day local coverage, particularly of outlying parts of its readership area. The Herald-Sun of Durham, after its purchase by the N&O’s owner, the McClatchy chain, became, essentially, a pale replica of its sister paper, with some additional regional focus.

Chapel Hill and Carrboro still have The Daily Tar Heel, which has increased its local coverage in the wake of those changes. It also has Chapelboro, the online affiliate of the radio station WCHL.

But the DTH remains overwhelmingly focused on the university — as it should. It also depends, naturally, on journalists who may be here in this community for just a few years and thus may lack institutional memory. Chapelboro devotes much of its efforts to sports — WCHL is part of the Tar Heel Sports Network — and breaking news, and focuses as well on a broader geographical area.

Still, both do good work and are useful platforms, but Friends of Local Journalism, a 501c3 nonprofit that established The Local Reporter, felt that our area needed more. The 20-or-so founders believed that the lack of a truly local newspaper dedicated to covering the range of issues that directly affect our community, and putting them in context, is detrimental to the area’s civic health, its sense of community and ultimately to its viability.

The goal is to offer the full panoply of what community journalism can do:

  • rigorous reporting on local issues, of course, including government, law enforcement, development, business and the schools;
  • features and lifecycle coverage reflecting the rich mosaic of life in our community;
  • a civil forum for public debate, through a robust offering of guest columns and letters-to-the-editor, airing the views of our diverse readership.

Do we do all of that now? No.

The free-access website today is a prototype of what we hope a full-fledged news platform can be. It is updated frequently, we send out a weekly news email, and we reach around 3,000 regular readers. We do this mostly with volunteers, but as our fundraising increases, we have begun paying freelance reporters.

Yet even working with a predominantly volunteer staff, we have published some important and significant stories, including:

In addition, we have published many guest columns, on subjects including the pandemic, homelessness and the criminal justice system: https://thelocalreporter.press/challenges-increase-for-non-citizens-during-the-pandemic/

As funding increases, we have been able to add a series of locally focused regular columns on bicycling, gardening, wildlife and vegetarianism, the kinds of columns and varied voices that have disappeared from regional newspapers during this era of consolidation.

Q. How do story editing and headline writing work at The Local Reporter?

A. Although we now pay freelance reporters, the core staff of TLR remains volunteers. Most of those involved with the launch of The Local Reporter are community activists, not journalists. We have people, fortunately, who are skilled in grant writing and others who have financial management expertise and deep governmental and community involvement.

As one of the few professional journalists involved, I do the great bulk of the editing, with occasional help from Alan Cronk, a longtime journalist and former features editor with The Winston-Salem Journal.

Stories are sent to our editor email and then to me. After editing, I return the copy to the writer for review — if there have been any significant changes — and then send it on to (our paid) web person, who posts on our site. I write the headlines for all our stories, although our columnists and reporters are encouraged to suggest heads for whatever they’ve written.

Q. The Local Reporter is a digital publication, though its founders have considered a print edition. What is the latest on that possibility?

A. Last year, when we surveyed residents about what they wanted in a local newspaper, we received nearly 1,000 responses to our survey, and they overwhelmingly favored print.

But print, of course, is far more expensive than digital. During TLR’s gestation period, we discussed this desire for print at great length, but realized, finally, that print is not practical at this financial moment for The Local Reporter. Depending on finances, we still intend down the line to publish a weekly print version of The Local Reporter, with a strong selection of all our new stories.

In the meantime, if we can obtain the necessary grant funding, we intend to publish a special print edition focusing on a series of stories documenting how the local school system has addressed the issue of remote learning for disadvantaged communities. The system, generally considered among North Carolina’s best and one of its most affluent, has nevertheless struggled for decades with equity issues and a significant achievement gap. This special print edition would be direct mailed to households in neighborhoods having a high percentage of disadvantaged residents.

Q. You have a storied career in local journalism. What advice do you have for student journalists who are interested in reporting about their communities?

A. Explore your community. Read about it. Walk around it. Talk to people in it. Get out of your bubble — we all live in our own bubbles — and find out about aspects of your community that might be new to you.

I’ve worked for big city newspapers and national magazines as well as for small, community-based publications and broadcast media. And everywhere I’ve worked, the best stories I’ve done have been the ones where I probably started off not knowing very much about my subject matter. I always did a lot of research, even before Google, when it wasn’t easy to do a lot of research.

I may not have known a lot in the beginning, but I wasn’t afraid to admit that, and to ask questions. Lots of questions.

It’s OK to admit you don’t know about something or someone; in fact, a lot of times, it’s better when you say, “I don’t know about that. Can you explain it to me?”

Student guest post: Integrity in the face of gotcha journalism

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the 15th of those posts. Caleb Schmidt is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in journalism and video production. When he is not writing, Caleb likes to spend his free time watching TV or losing at Super Smash Bros. against his brother.

On April 25, the tabloid website TMZ reported that the supreme leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, died due to a botched heart surgery. Naturally, this sparked a huge reaction in the world of Twitter. From memes to serious reports, my feed was nothing but news about Kim Jong-un’s reported death.

However, as time went on, conflicting reports from Shukan Gendai, a Japanese magazine, reported the Kim was in “a vegetative state.”

That morning, I woke up seeing #KIMJONGUNDEAD, followed by various reports and takes on the death, not that he was in a vegetative state. All of these comments cited the TMZ article, which was widely shared among my peers.

For me, the shock was not necessarily for the reported death of a leader with whom tensions were high. Rather, it was at TMZ.

I know … I know. TMZ is controversial and not necessarily and more tabloid than factual. However, my problem with TMZ is that they are vicious. They don’t spend time fact-checking, nor do they give time for people close to the deceased to learn the news.

In 2009, when Michael Jackson died, TMZ was the first source to report it. However, Michael Jackson did not die until after the report came out. Just last January when Kobe Bryant died, TMZ was the first to report it, and they were criticized for not allowing Vanessa Bryant and her family to hear the news.

You may argue: “But TMZ is tabloid, celebrity gossip.” They may be. However, I would counter by looking at tabloids like the National Enquirer. The National Enquirer’s stories are so outlandish that they are taken with a grain of salt. TMZ’s stories often are very close to factual. That’s their problem. They are too close to being factual without being factual.

TMZ hears a report and works to be first, not right.

They do not care who they offend, who they hurt or who they ruin. As long as they are getting clicks and views, they are good to go in their mind.

As editors, we should ask ourselves: “Is the story factual?” It is not that hard of a question to answer, but it is the most important one. Without it, journalistic integrity disappears quickly, trust vanishes and credibility is thrown out the window.

In a time where people’s trust in the media is at an all-time low, journalistic integrity is needed now more than ever. Websites like TMZ do not help this cause. News websites like ABC, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News write their stories on a factual basis and will often have sources to support their claims. Even if they are wrong, they at least had multiple sources and reliable basis.

As editors, our role should be almost as a defense against gotcha journalism and tabloid sites like TMZ. Our goal should not be to be the first to publish a story. Rather, our goal as editors should be to cut corners, not to defy basic morality, not even to be the first news source to publish a story. Rather, our goal as editors should be to make sure our reports are fair, accurate and respectful.

Student guest post: Keeping up with news in the age of COVID-19

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the 11th of those posts. Hannah McClellan is a senior journalism and global studies major at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is a senior writer on The Daily Tar Heel and print reporter with UNC’s Media Hub. In her free time she enjoys reading, baking and running.

From the time I was 8 years old, reading the news has been a nearly sacred part of my life.

My interest in the news began the first time my dad invited me to sit with him during his morning perusal of our local newspapers. After a few years, I started reading them myself. In high school, I decided I wanted to be a journalist. Now a senior journalism student in college — and reporter myself — part of my homework and job is literally to read the news.

There are current event quizzes and graded discussions based entirely on the day’s breaking news. And of course, you have to know what’s going on in the world to write about any of it.

On a normal day, keeping up with all the world’s big news is daunting. I mean, constantly staying up to date on Australia’s bush fires, President Donald Trump’s impeachment and Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault and rape trials isn’t exactly easy.

And now, an ever-worsening global health crisis that could change the world permanently makes all the other stories seem sanguine: the coronavirus. The New York Times has an entire portal of coronavirus coverage on its website, featuring nearly constant (and free) live updates. Local and national news organizations alike have largely made their coronavirus coverage completely free.

This vast amount of coverage should be good news, and it mostly is. But in the age of so much news — most of it scary or just plain bad — how do we consume it all? What does being a responsible news consumer look like in this coronavirus-obsessed world we find ourselves in?

As someone who is particularly fond of the news, I have realized that healthily consuming means not consuming as much as before. This revelation occurred to me after a conversation with all of my non-journalist housemates. I’d gone on my third or fourth rant of the evening, vomiting up some grim summaries from my news-reading that day: flattening the curve means elongating the curve, some experts predict social distancing measures may last months and many college graduates will need to file unemployment.

You know, normal, pleasant dinner talk.

Even as I’ve tried to avoid the urge to give so many news commentaries, I’ve found myself constantly scrolling through Twitter — desperate to know the next bad thing, to validate my doom and gloom perspective.

Unfortunately, the bad news is true. Global infections are soaring. More people are unemployed in the United States than ever before. Immunocompromised people are dying alone, even as they self-isolate to prevent sickness. Our doctors do not have enough personal protective equipment to stay safe, even as they work to save lives.
In the midst of all the bad news, there are good things too: people are spending more time outside, some landlords are canceling rent payments and celebrities are hosting free, virtual concerts. It doesn’t make the bad news less bad, but perhaps more bearable.

As the coronavirus spreads to nearly every region of the world, Earth continues spinning. Life goes on, even as it rapidly changes.

So what am I saying? That we should shut out the news and fully immerse ourselves into our social-distanced bubbles? In a word, no.

Journalists are always crucial in my opinion, but that is especially true now. Many are working long hours to give Americans desperately needed coronavirus updates.

Journalists are a crucial part of mitigating this health crisis, as we must know what is happening to do anything about it. So we should be reading — and paying — for the stories they’re writing.

But we must also work to keep the news in perspective, to find ways to manage our coronavirus anxiety. Just as we should be striving to stay physically healthy, individually and collectively, we must also strive for positive mental and emotional health.

For me, that looks like checking the news just three times a day: an hour after I’ve woken up, sometime in the afternoon and then again in the evening. I still end up seeing all of the major updates, but I’m not inundated with it all day every day.

In the time I’m not checking the news, I have time to read, study and talk with friends without distraction. I spend less time on my phone and more time outside. I’m happier.

Reading the news is important, but so is living life — even if it is in the same house, at a 6-foot distance, for a while.

Student guest post: How TMZ reports deaths, bears bad news and violates ethics

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the sixth of those posts. Maddie Fetsko is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill double majoring in journalism and communications. After graduation, she plans to move to Los Angeles and participate in UNC’s Hollywood Internship Program.

When someone dies a newsworthy death, it’s second nature for journalists to report it. However, it’s important to note that if journalists don’t know whether the family has been notified of the death, they should wait to report it. It is a fundamental principle of ethics.

Although this seems like common sense, some media outlets have neglected it. Specifically, TMZ.

Almost a month ago, the nation stood in disbelief when TMZ reported the death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant. He died at the age of 41 in a California helicopter crash alongside Gianna Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter. Shortly after the first report, other news organizations quickly confirmed the story.

Hearts shattered at every headline that broke through. There’s no denying the public’s sadness at the loss of the basketball hero. No individual’s tears outshined another’s. Everyone was a part of an unspoken agreement that everyone was equally hurt.

Although we want to believe we were all hit the same on an emotional level, we cannot ignore the severity of the pain suffered by those closest to Kobe and Gianna. Imagine being a wife, mother, daughter, son, sister or brother, finding out that your loved ones died from a celebrity-gossip news website.

When social media users learned that the deaths were publicly reported before informing the Bryant family, TMZ faced harsh scrutiny. Tim Murakami, undersheriff of Los Angeles County, was one of several law enforcement officers to criticize TMZ on Twitter.

“I am saddened that I was gathering facts as a media outlet reported Kobe has passed,” Murakami said. “I understand getting the scoop but please allow us time to make personal notifications to their loved ones. It’s very cold to hear of the loss via media. Breaks my heart.”

Kobe’s death is only one of many high-profile deaths that TMZ has reported over the years. When TMZ was the first to report Michael Jackson’s death in 2009, TMZ founder Harvey Levin said, “We are totally wired in this town.”

Since the gossip-based website’s launch in 2005, TMZ’s network has grown to include various tipsters, entertainment lawyers and court officials. Matthew Belloni, the editorial director of The Hollywood Reporter, told CNN in a phone interview that if TMZ reports a celebrity death in Los Angeles, it almost always correct.

More recently since the death of Kobe and Gianna, TMZ reported the death of rapper Pop Smoke, born Bashar Barakah Jackson, on Feb. 19. This makes Pop Smoke the second celebrity death reported by TMZ before the family was notified in less than a month.

Several Twitter users joked by tweeting things like “TMZ be knowing you died before the doctors” and “Killers be texting TMZ like ‘it’s done.’”

Laughs aside, some users got serious. Color of Change, a nonprofit civil rights advocacy group, started a social media petition asking advertisers to stop supporting TMZ until the outlet consults with Black families before reporting deaths.

“TMZ has used Black celebrity deaths as a driver for website clicks and profit for far too long,” the petition stated. “TMZ’s lack of journalistic integrity should have consequences.”

One of the major foundations of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics is to minimize harm. The code specifically states, “Journalists should balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”

Reporting a newsworthy death before the family is informed is not only arrogant and intrusive but disrespectful. Steve Buttry, the late director of student media at Louisiana State University, said it best when he said that being the first with the story doesn’t mean you won a journalistic race but lost an ethical one.

Journalists and editors should be cautious when reporting sensitive material. This offers respect to individuals personally affected by death and prevents friction between the media outlet and the general public.

Q&A with Andrew Kenney, reporter at Colorado Public Radio

andrewkenney

Andrew Kenney is a reporter at Colorado Public Radio in Denver. He previously worked at newspapers such as The Denver Post and The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, and at digital startup Denverite.

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

A. I’m one of two public affairs reporters for CPR. Bente Birkeland and I are mostly tasked with covering state politics, which means that most days from January to May are spent in the statehouse.

A typical day there is spent between committee meetings, the two chambers and (just as importantly) finding legislators to interview in the ornate red onyx corridors of the Capitol. Bente and I also pick up Colorado coverage of our federal elections — so I’m writing this from the press pen at the Trump 2020 rally in Colorado Springs.

I also like to take political stories out of the statehouse. A story about, say, the transition to renewable energy, or the effects of Airbnb in mountain communities — those are great reasons to drive to the far-flung cities on Colorado’s mountains and plains.

The statehouse is its own bizarre and interesting world, with plenty of intrigue and politicking to watch. But it’s also the crossroads for tremendously important issues that start and end in the real world.

Q. How do story editing and headline writing work at the CPR site?

A. CPR has built itself from a public radio station to a full-fledged multimedia product, so stories can take a lot of forms — principally audio and text. I come from newspapers, so the text stories are more straightforward for me. I’ll pitch the idea, get an edit or two from my editor, and whip the thing into shape.

Our digital production team helps us figure out an interesting and appropriate headline, along with technical stuff like search engine optimization. We’re trying to get digital involved earlier in the process to help us find sharp, web-friendly angles on our stories. You can’t just expect your editors to pull a good headline from a pointless story!

Audio stories come in many different packages: a “debrief” where a host interviews me, a shorter item that I record myself, or a longer feature story. Each of those can involve varying degrees of field-recorded audio, ranging from a simple “bite” to a fully designed audio piece.

Partially due to my inexperience in audio, I discuss these pieces a lot more intensively with my editor before I produce a draft. The more naturally I can explain it in conversation, the better the finished piece will be. In some cases, we might even record those conversations to capture a more natural style. (I also like to mumble my scripts to myself. There’s a lot of mumbling-to-self in the newsroom.)

What’s interesting about CPR is how many hands might touch a single story. Especially in my later newspaper years, I could take a story soup to nuts: Report it, write it, take the photo, get it online.

With radio, I’m more likely to have a producer or editor helping me assemble the story. Then it also has to get scheduled, the host has to get their own script to introduce it, and of course there’s all kinds of technical wizardry to keep the broadcast running. I’ve had to plan and communicate more intensively as a result.

Q. You are a 2008 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What skills and concepts that you learned there do you use today, and what new ones have you picked up?

A. My strength was my ability to research deeply and explain concisely, which is helpful when you have just a few minutes of airtime for a piece on a complicated topic. Your headline-writing sessions were especially helpful in tightening up my writing. Column-constrained headline writing may seem obsolete, but fitting big ideas in small spaces will always be relevant. (I am failing at that in this interview…)

I also went deep into the photojournalism curriculum with Jock Lauterer and Pat Davison. I don’t have an SLR anymore, but multimedia editing and photo chops have helped me get more than a couple jobs. Everyone needs a spare photographer.

Separately, I took a couple of stats classes. Everyone should take stats classes. Excel is ridiculously useful.

Q. You have worked for daily newspapers, a digital news startup and now public radio. What advice do you have for journalists looking to make similar changes in their careers?

A. Do things for a reason. Each assignment can be an excuse to learn a new skill or a new subject. The more expertise you accumulate, the more adaptable you’re going to be. Also, I’ve tried to educate myself in the business of journalism, and I always experimented or at least followed along with formats outside of print.

But, more importantly, journalists need a moral and philosophical grounding for their work, and they need to take care of themselves. We’re swimming upstream. The industry’s in chaos.

Find a reason to care about what you do. Try to make it matter. Ask for help.

Read Andrew Kenney’s stories on the CPR website and follow him on Twitter.

Q&A with Sarah Day Owen Wiskirchen, editor and publisher of the Raleigh Convergence

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Sarah Day Owen Wiskirchen is editor and publisher of the Raleigh Convergence, an email newsletter that publishes three times a week. Owen Wiskirchen previously worked as an editor and reporter at USA Today and other newspapers in Georgia, California and Iowa.

Q. What is the Raleigh Convergence? How does the newsletter fit into the media landscape in the Triangle area?

A. Raleigh Convergence is a modern local media company connecting Raleigh-area people to local issues, homegrown ideas and their creative neighbors. Raleigh Convergence focuses specifically on Wake County and explains news events in a way that’s both actionable and understandable. It’s a guide to help Raleighites navigate civic and cultural life quickly and effectively.

It’s unique in the Triangle media landscape because of its narrow focus on Wake County (versus Triangle-wide), its modern storytelling strategies (primarily an email newsletter, but also short web posts, publishing short stories on Instagram and in-person content through events) and its community journalism DNA.

I also think it’s unique in its focus on constructive engagement journalism. I see my role as a facilitator of a community conversation as much as it is journalist and editor.

Q. How do you go about putting together the newsletter and reaching potential subscribers?

A. This is a self-funded operation of one (with now some freelance resources), and I didn’t invest a lot of funding toward advertising, so the growth is mostly organic. I see Instagram and events as key parts of the consumer journey. Word of mouth has also been powerful.

For my three weekly newsletters, I write/curate a few at a time, just like you might work on a few stories at one time. What you see now is an almost year-long evolution with feedback from readers to find the right mix of content, length and design to make it useful, understandable and interesting.

Q. As part of the Facebook Journalism Project, you recently received a grant of nearly $20,000 to cover communities that may be overlooked by other news organizations. What are your plans with that initiative?

A. With so many people moving to Wake County (I was one of them not too long ago), there’s an opportunity for people to learn about their new home from existing neighbors. The New Neighbor Project works with community ambassadors — those existing neighbors — to create hyperlocal content and build social connections in person and on social media.

I’m focusing on Knightdale (the fastest-growing town in Wake County), Southeast Raleigh (which is experiencing transformation and displacement of longtime residents), Cary and Raleigh at large.

While most large local media companies are focusing on urban centers and regional impact reporting, there’s less attention to suburban or hyperlocal community reporting. That’s a complementary way that hyperlocal startup organizations like Raleigh Convergence can work in a local media ecosystem while meeting communities’ unmet information needs.

Q. You have significant experience working for newspapers in Georgia, Iowa and California. Now you’re on your own. What advice do you have for journalists considering a similar path?

A. I’m grateful for the experience I had in Augusta, Des Moines and Palm Springs. I learned important journalism and intrapreneurial skills while at Gannett, and I had great editors as teachers.

I was also terrified of public speaking before I was the editor of a magazine that hosted a big annual event that the editor always emceed. So I learned to get over that.

I learned human-centered design, actionable analytics, storytelling coaching and so many more things that I use now by working at legacy media organizations for more than a decade.

My editing job in Palm Springs, where I was the consumer experience director and second in operations in the newsroom, particularly prepared me for what I do now. I have muscle memory for making editorial and ethical decisions by learning from my former boss, who invested his time in growing my skills and judgment.

I had champions, mentors and access to leadership training that helped me be a better journalism and leader while in former jobs that also helps me now. I think legacy news organizations, alt weeklies and other newsrooms where you can grow and learn from other journalists are a great place to build a career.

For me, I’m glad I took the time to learn journalism before trying to reinvent it.

Subscribe to the Raleigh Convergence newsletter and follow Sarah Day Owen Wiskirchen on Twitter.

A lasting VOICE in Durham

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Students at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media edit stories for the Durham VOICE.

The Durham VOICE has turned 10 years old.

The VOICE is a student-produced publication and a collaboration between UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. Central University. Teen journalists contribute material as well.

Students in my “Advanced Editing” class play a role in the VOICE too. On five occasions this semester, they will edit stories reported and written by their counterparts in the “Community Journalism” course taught by my colleague Jock Lauterer. In addition to editing posts, adding links and writing headlines in WordPress, my students also create printer-friendly PDFs of the stories using InDesign.

Last week, we posted the first set of stories for the semester. They show the array of people, places and issues in northeast central Durham, North Carolina. It’s an area that is often neglected by other news organizations.

If you live in Durham, look for the monthly print edition of the VOICE, which is free and delivered by students to 60 dropoff sites in the city.  If you live elsewhere, check out the VOICE website and Facebook page. You can also follow on Twitter.

Happy anniversary, Durham VOICE. Thanks for being a part of our community.

Student guest post: How can editors combat against public distrust in the media?

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the third of those posts. Suzanne Blake is a junior studying journalism and political science at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is a senior writer for The Daily Tar Heel and an intern reporter at local tech news site GrepBeat. Previously, she worked for one of her hometown community newspapers, The Rolesville Buzz.

As a student journalist, I have felt tension in the air when I announce to a stranger my course of study or that I work for the student newspaper. Whether it’s a retort that I’m going to work for “fake news” or that the media is so biased that attempting to be an ethical, objective reporter is pointless, I feel there’s some distrust from all sides.

A Gallup poll shows this is the case: only 41% of Americans trusted the media in 2019. This was actually an increase overall from 2016, a pivotal election year, when trust in the media hit an all-time low of 32%.

This is not only because of President Donald Trump’s verbal attacks on the media, but it is overall indicative of increasing polarization in politics. If we identify strongly as conservative or liberal, more than previous Americans did, we expect the news media to show us the world we feel we’re living in with all of our own preconceived biases more.

Naturally, I think the news media should throw that expectation to the wind and confront readers with diverse viewpoints and coverage that will make them think. Openness and respectful conversation may be the only way out of this dangerous bubble of political hatred we seem to be in. But that’s where the distrust pops up, and how can journalists make the impact we’d like, in holding those in power accountable and shining light on dark places, if readers don’t even trust us?

Editors naturally play a big role in establishing trust with readers. Yes, the writer has to do the most important fact gathering and maintaining of ethics in how they report and write the story, but the editor is also key. They, after all, have the power over the headline, which frames how readers understand and recall the story.

Ullrich Ecker, neuroscientist at the University of Western Australia, proved this in a study that factual articles with misleading headlines hurt a reader’s ability to recall the story’s details.

But the editor’s role goes beyond writing headlines that are both intriguing and accurate. The editor has to work to build transparency with readers on how and why newsrooms work the way they do.

It may come as a shock to journalism students, but most everyday people don’t know one of the top missions of a news organization in addition to merely informing the public is to hold those in power accountable. They don’t understand the use of anonymous sources and why they might or might not be necessary. And they often meticulously judge why journalists focus on certain aspects of a story and issue and not others.

Our job is not to please everyone or anyone in particular. It’s to deliver accurate, meaningful and gripping content and stay true to our journalism ethics. But it could help if the public understood what those are.

Working on media literacy for the public and the youth is one step to get here. Editors and newsrooms across the country should consider creating posts or videos describing more on how the newsroom works and why journalists make the decisions they do.

We cannot assume the readers will assume the best in us and that we truly have their goals as informed citizens in mind. We must prove it.

Student guest post: How community papers transform journalism and change lives

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Carlton Koonce, left, of Partners for Youth Opportunity and Jock Lauterer, right, of the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media lead student journalists on a tour of the northeast-central section of Durham, North Carolina.

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the first of those posts. Elisabeth Beauchamp is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in journalism and linguistics. She is heavily involved in the student theater community and runs her own dog-walking business in her free time. After college, Elisabeth hopes to become an editor or reporter in North Carolina.

According to David Kurpius in his book “Community Journalism: Getting Started,” “community journalism helps stations to include context in news stories and encourages journalists to add more depth to their coverage.” To Jock Lauterer, adjunct professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, community journalism is so much more.

Lauterer, 74, is a Chapel Hill native and has been in the news business since 1963, when he fell in love with working on his high school newspaper. After high school, he attended UNC-Chapel Hill, double-majoring in journalism and geography, and working on The Daily Tar Heel. After graduating, Lauterer worked with several start-up newspapers and taught journalism at multiple universities. In 1995, he wrote the first edition of his textbook “Community Journalism: Relentlessly Local.”

Community newspapers can be classified based on the size of the newspaper and the news balance. The newspaper size for community newspapers used to be a circulation of 50,000 or fewer.

The second classifier for community newspapers, news balance, has not changed over time. Community newspapers’ news balance is local, or as Lauterer says, “relentlessly local.” These papers are not secondarily local; they do not cover world news on the first page and then dedicate a measly inside page to “local news.”  They are local first and overwhelmingly so. Community newspapers have also expanded to cover communities of interest and communities of ethnicity.

Not just community journalism, but journalism in general has vastly changed since Lauterer entered the business in 1963. Lauterer, who started out using a manual typewriter and analog camera to collect stories, describes the journalistic changes he experienced as revolutions in technology.  These revolutionary technologies, such as digital photography, computers and the internet, sprung up so abruptly that community journalists didn’t have time to sit around and adjust.

“There was no ‘Oh, let’s take three months off to learn how to do this stuff and we’ll get back to you,'” Lauterer says. “We still had to put out the paper.”

Because they had less overhead and financial burden, community papers were able to forge the way in journalistic technology. Instead of needing to buy 20 cameras or 10 computers, small newspapers could just buy one.

According to Lauterer, “anything small can be nimble and can turn on a dime.” In other words, smaller newspaper teams can make decisions quicker and don’t have to navigate through as many layers of bureaucracy to accomplish tasks.

Despite all the technological changes journalists have faced over the years, Lauterer says the core values of journalism — getting to the truth, remaining objective and practicing impartiality — have remained unquestionably the same. In fact, such values of fairness and balance are even more important now.

In the past several years, Lauterer has seen not only a resurgence in print, but also record enrollment in the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. He connects this surge of interest to people seeing the relevance and importance of journalism, especially in the politically polarized climate of the United States since the 2016 presidential election.

“There is so much untruth out there,” Lauterer says. “You have to have somebody in the truth business.”

Though Lauterer has been in the “truth business” since the 1960s, one of his greatest ventures as a journalist began about 10 years ago. Lauterer is the founding publisher of The Durham VOICE, a community newspaper and website that covers a 300-block area of Durham, North Carolina. Students at UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. Central University report, edit and post the stories. Here is how Lauterer describes the VOICE’s beginnings:

The origin story of the Durham VOICE lies in tragedy. There’s a real irony in that, because right away I have to say that I love Durham. … And there are two Durhams. Our Durham is the Durham of color, and it’s right there beside that other gentrified Durham. The Durham VOICE owes its existence to some activists who helped me realize that Durham needed its own voice. That’s exactly where the name came from. After the 2008 murder of UNC student body president Eve Carson that was perpetrated by two African American teens from the inner city, it was suggested to me that I take my anger and frustration and put it into a positive effort — to go start a paper for those guys, to get those guys off the street. Put a camera, put a laptop in their hands and teach them how to do good stuff instead of bad stuff.

To Lauterer, community journalism isn’t just some definition about reporters adding depth to their coverage. Lauterer practices community journalism to convince people that their lives matter — “that their opinions should be heard and that they need to be civicly engaged.”

Lauterer believes our country is blessed to have the freedom of press, and that if we don’t appreciate it, we stand to lose it. For this reason, it is important that all people, not just politicians in big cities, have a seat at the table of democracy.

“Never underestimate the power of your work. You may think it’s a little doo-da story, but to the source — the person — it’s a big deal,” Lauterer says. “Don’t forget that. That’s community journalism.”

Q&A with Jamie Hancock, editor and internship coordinator at the Dallas Morning News

Jamie Hancock portrait

Jamie Hancock is assistant politics editor at the Dallas Morning News. She also serves as the coordinator for the newspaper’s internship program. In this interview, Hancock discusses DMN’s approach to covering politics and what it looks for in interns.

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

A. Part of why I love working in journalism is that no day is typical. But I do start each morning with a meeting with other news editors to discuss what we’ll have for that day’s digital presentation and the next day’s print edition. I also check our political reporters’ digital metrics every day to see how readers responded to their stories.

Throughout the day, I’ll edit any daily or enterprise stories our reporters file. All of them except one work in Austin and Washington, so we mostly use Slack to communicate with them about their work. Two days a week, I write Political Points, a newsletter we started this year to engage with readers and help them reach our content.

My role as intern coordinator changes over the course of the year. With our summer interns in the building, I’m available to answer any questions they have and make sure they know when and where their weekly brown-bag sessions are held.

Last week, we toured our printing press in Plano. This month, I’ll start making plans to recruit our 2020 class and visit campuses for interviews, including UNC. Applications are due Nov. 1.

Q. Politics is a subject as big as Texas. How do you and your colleagues decide what news takes priority?

A. We view the news through a Texas lens. Reader metrics have shown that our Dallas audience wants us to provide political news with a local bent. They want to know what their elected officials are doing in Washington, so we don’t focus on every piece of news that comes out of the White House — only what directly affects Texans.

We adopt a similar approach with the Texas Legislature, writing stories about our North Texas senators and representatives and the legislation they’re introducing, as well as how the big bills working their way through the chambers will affect North Texans. This year, the legislative session was all about property taxes and school finance.

Q. You are a 2005 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What skills and concepts that you learned there do you use today? What new ones have you learned during your years in Dallas?

A. The journalism school and its excellent professors gave me the foundation I needed to succeed the moment I left Carroll Hall.

I learned the finer points of editing from Frank Fee and Bill Cloud, and I loved my sports journalism classes with Mick Mixon that taught me how to conduct a great interview. The fundamental reporting and editing skills I learned in college are still critical, even as the industry has experienced momentous change.

But with that change comes new responsibilities and areas of focus, such as interpreting reader metrics and audience behavior. It’s one of the most fascinating parts of my job, and it’s vital to our business strategy.

I’ve been fortunate to have great mentors in Dallas who have helped me develop leadership and management skills. They’ve seen potential in me when I didn’t necessarily see it in myself, and I’ve tried to pass on the confidence I’ve gained and the lessons I’ve learned to younger journalists in the newsroom.

Q. What do you look for in interns for the Dallas Morning News? Any tips for students looking to apply?

A. We look for interns who are inquisitive, eager to learn and from a wide variety of experiences and backgrounds. We treat them like full-time staffers from their first day, so typically they’ve had strong experience interning for another professional publication. Our reporting interns have the skills to conduct interviews and write stories, sometimes under deadline pressure, and we also have interns in photo, audience, copy editing and digital design/data.

As a a digital-first news organization, we’re looking for interns who are armed with social media expertise and knowledge of story metrics and online performance. Students looking to apply should pay attention to detail in their application packets and make sure they submit error-free résumés and cover letters. We expect our interns to work hard, but they have a lot of fun, too.

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