Q&A with Bryan Hanks, editor of Neuse News

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Bryan Hanks is the editor of the Neuse News, a recently launched news website covering Kinston and Lenoir County in Eastern North Carolina. A U.S. Army veteran, Hanks worked at newspapers in Lincolnton, Gastonia and Shelby before arriving in Kinston in 2002 as sports editor of The Free Press, where he later served as editor. Hanks left The Free Press in 2016 and has worked with the Kinston-Lenoir County Chamber of Commerce and as the public-address voice of the Down East Wood Ducks, a minor-league baseball team. He also has been the media director for Raleigh’s John Wall Holiday Invitational basketball tournament since 2007.

Q: What is Neuse News? What are your goals for the site?

A: It is a hyper-local news site created and published by former Kinston Mayor B.J. Murphy with one simple goal: Present local news without favor or bias on a site that requires no subscription fees and that doesn’t force you to sit through irritating pop-up advertising.

Because of the manner in which print media literally gave away its product online when the internet exploded, consumers became accustomed to reading stories for free for almost 20 years. When those same print media outlets then tried to begin forcing consumers to read their product after going through paywalls (which include those irritating pop-ups and subscription fees), you can’t blame the readers for being upset. It was a bad business model in the beginning to give away your product and then expect your customers to start paying for it after they’d been getting it for free for decades.

I like to use this analogy: Imagine McDonald’s has given away Big Macs for 20 years by delivering them to your living room whenever you want them. Yes, they’re tasty but when — all of a sudden — McDonald’s expects you to start paying for those burgers, you’re going to be upset. On top of that, when you have to eat three celery sticks before you can even get to the Big Mac, it irritates you further and makes you begin going after other options.

With Neuse News, our goal is to deliver a better product than the local newspaper, which makes you pay for its non-local content and forces you through pop-ups even after you’ve paid for their content.

Additionally, our entire staff — all freelancers for the most part — live and work in Kinston and Lenoir County and care only about this area. That can’t be said for the local newspaper, whose publisher lives in Wilmington (and is rarely in town) and whose editor lives in Craven County (and is responsible for editing several other newspapers). Its newsroom staff has only a couple of county residents who are responsible for a lot of coverage for not just Kinston and Lenoir County but for areas outside the county.

Q: You previously worked at newspapers in Kinston, Gastonia and Lincolnton. How is Neuse News different for you?

A: The hyper-local thrust that B.J. insists upon is refreshing to me. We care about what is going on in Lenoir County — not what’s happening in New Bern, Jacksonville, Wilmington, Raleigh or Charlotte (unless, of course, it directly affects our folks in Lenoir County).

In my last few years at the local newspaper, we were forced to do more with less on a daily basis — have more local bylines with less staff and cover more news with fewer resources. It was frustrating to lay off and furlough talented journalists who wanted to do nothing more than be great reporters. It was also frustrating to try to recruit reporters to an area when you knew in the back of your mind they’d probably end up eventually being laid off or fired because of the corporate structure of news-gathering organizations.

With Neuse News, we’re already delivering a superior product by employing former local journalists who have moved on to other chapters in their lives. They still have that passion for local news and this is an avenue for them to pursue that passion.

Q: It’s a tough economic environment for news organizations. Neuse News promises no pop-up ads or subscription fees. How will the site survive and thrive financially?

A: That’s probably a question best answered by B.J., but I know this much: A bunch of local businesses and individuals — who have missed local journalism by journalists who live in their community (the way it used to be here) — have stepped up to help us start this venture.

We are thankful and grateful to those businesses and individuals for their help. Honestly, the Neuse News doesn’t exist without that help because we are committed to being that free source of news to Kinston and Lenoir County.

Q: You’re a strong advocate for Eastern North Carolina. What makes the region special to you?

A: I grew up in Wilkes County in northwestern North Carolina, then went to college and began my career in the Charlotte-Gastonia-Shelby area. For nine years, I dated and then married my late wife, who lived in Raleigh. As a freelancer, I traveled to literally every corner of the state, so I feel like I know North Carolina a little better than the average Tar Heel.

Kinston and Lenoir County is unique in a lot of ways. It’s about an hour from the beach, 30 minutes from Greenville and ECU, less than 90 minutes from the Triangle and three hours from the mountains, so you’re in the middle of everything.

But the difference is the people that are here; again, I’ve lived and worked all over the state, and I’ve never seen a community of people that truly love their home the way folks do here. This area has been through several hurricanes and floods, a tragic plant explosion (West Pharmaceuticals in 2003), the loss of major economic drivers such as tobacco, but the folks here continue to love and advocate for Kinston and Lenoir County.

I may have been raised in Wilkes County, but Kinston and Lenoir County is my home. I plan to be here for a long, long time.

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The front page still matters

Roseanne Barr made news this week when ABC canceled her show a day after she posted a racist tweet. Puerto Rico was also in the news because of a study that put the death toll from Hurricane Maria at more than 4,600 people — much higher than previously reported.

Which story is more important? A lot of the discussion I saw on social media argued that the Roseanne news was overplayed and Puerto Rico underplayed. Here’s an example from Twitter:

It’s interesting that the writer uses the print edition of The New York Times as a measure of its priorities. In 2018, he is judging its news judgment based on a printed page — not a website, podcast or Facebook posts.

Here in North Carolina, I noticed that The News & Observer, the newspaper I read every day, placed the Roseanne story on page 2A and the Puerto Rico story on 7A. Local stories about the state budget and gentrification in Durham made the front page. That makes sense, given the Raleigh newspaper’s focus on the state’s Triangle region.

Page number alone doesn’t provide a full picture of story emphasis. In this instance, the N&O ran about nine column inches on the Roseanne story but more than twice that on the Puerto Rico story as well as a photo.

Nowadays, many of us primarily read our news not by turning pages, but by scrolling on smartphones and laptops. We get news in a timeline format on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Algorithms influence what we see there.

Yet many readers still rely on the front page in print — with stories selected by editors — to reflect the important news of the past day and the day ahead. These readers see the front page as an indicator of a news organization’s values. What does this newspaper care about? What are its priorities? How is it serving the community?

These are questions that can be answered on a front page. Even in 2018.

Q&A with Lisa Tozzi of BuzzFeed News

Lisa Tozzi is global news director at BuzzFeed News, a position she has held since 2013. She previously worked at The New York Times, contributing to coverage of the 9/11 attacks, the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina. In this interview, conducted by email, Tozzi discusses her work at BuzzFeed and offers advice to student journalists.

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

A. I oversee the breaking news, newsroom operations teams and curation (the team that helps manage and grow BuzzFeed News’s presence on various platforms) and work with the editors and reporters from other BuzzFeed News desks like world, investigations, politics, tech, etc. to coordinate news coming from their reporters. I also have the great fortune to be media editor Craig Silverman’s editor and to work with him and Jane Lytvynenko on fake news and debunking.

Breaking and curation is a 24/7 operation, and we have a reporters and editors in New York, Los Angeles and London and hand off to one another, which is especially critical when big news happens overnight or early in the morning.

I tend to loudly and nervously laugh when someone asks me what a typical day is like because I don’t remember typical days. Most days begin with looking at Twitter too early in the morning and needing a lot of coffee.

But every day is a bit of a wild ride, particularly over the past few years when the world feels increasingly chaotic and it is more important than ever that we are providing people with clear, reliable information around the clock. Luckily, I work with a magnificent team of reporters, editors and producers who are incredibly creative and smart and collaborative and just make me feel I won the lottery when I come to work no matter how crazy things get.

Q. Before working at BuzzFeed, you were at The New York Times. What was that transition like?

A. It wasn’t a shocking transition as I had long been more digitally focused at the Times and loved doing breaking news. But there were definite differences I noticed immediately.

One was that I suddenly didn’t have to think at all about a legacy product. I love The New York Times, I grew up reading the New York Times, I still get the print paper delivered to me on weekends. But it was interesting — dare I even say liberating — to not have to think about cutting a “web story for print” or ordering column space for Sunday on Thursday afternoon anymore. Stories didn’t need to be held for a slot on Page One, we could run them when they were ready to go. (I should note that The Times has changed a lot in the five years since I left.)

Also five years ago, news at BuzzFeed was very small and newish, and I had a chance to help build an operation and a culture rather than try to change a long-established one. Oh, yeah: There was also the whole bit of reporters having to constantly spelling B-U-Z-Z-F-E… when on the phone with sources when identifying themselves (DOESN’T HAPPEN AS MUCH ANYMORE!) and reading stories about BuzzFeed that talk about whether a site that is “known for cat GIFs” can do news. (STILL, SHOCKINGLY HAPPENS!)

Q. BuzzFeed is known for its headlines. What trends in headline writing are you seeing?

A. I don’t have any clear-cut trends to report, but we’ve always talked about writing stories people want to read and share at BuzzFeed. Some of what goes into that is thinking about how you frame a story vis-a-vis the headline.

We always stress that headlines should be conversational and not include jargon, as if you are telling a friend about the piece you’re writing. We experiment with different headlines in a story to see how they perform which can teach us a bit and help us inform future decisions. (Sometimes the headline conventions that a lot of people claim to hate are the ones readers respond to.)

Q. What advice do you have for journalism students interested in working for BuzzFeed?

A. I think a big mistake some journalists make is they come out of school and expect to immediately be an investigative reporter or think that they must immediately have a beat as if they’re picking a college major. At BuzzFeed News specifically, and for journalists in general, it really helps to be flexible and to experiment with different types of reporting and writing styles.

One of the many tragedies about the collapse of local newspapers around the country is that they were the best training ground for new journalists. I got my start as a general assignment reporter at a newspaper in New Jersey and covered everything from City Council meetings to crime to courts to political campaigns, and it was incredibly valuable to learn to be fast and versatile.

Reporters and editors on the breaking team at BuzzFeed News need to be able to write about everything from natural disasters and mass shootings to how YouTube and Instagram are changing celebrity to the viral story about a woman flushing her hamster down an airport toilet. We take social news really seriously and apply the same rigor we do with “hard news” to the quirky talker, and readers respond to that. Newsrooms shouldn’t think they’re above a certain kind of story if it is something that readers really care about, which is something we’re really conscious of.

Also: Learn how to spot misinformation and fake images. And read a lot.

Follow Lisa Tozzi and BuzzFeed News on Twitter.

Student guest post: My experience at the Salisbury Post

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the fifth of those posts. Savannah Morgan is a junior studying journalism and English. She is also a member of the piccolo section in the Marching Tar Heels and the Athletic Bands.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to work at The Salisbury Post as an intern. The paper serves Rowan County — a mostly rural county in the southwestern part of North Carolina.

Having the privilege to work at a functioning paper was a very good experience not only because I could take notes on what the paper did well, but also because I could learn from the paper’s problem areas. One of the struggles that I observed during my time at the Salisbury Post involved news judgment and news curation.

The editor and reporters at the Post felt it was important to serve each part of the diverse county equally. This involved giving each school (especially the high schools) in the county equal press time, reporting on things that rural readers would care about and reporting on things that readers in the more urban and suburban areas would find interesting. This included an article about the retirement of the local school system’s nutrition director one week and an article about the summer’s crops a few weeks later.

To combat the problem of giving all parts of the county equal coverage, the Salisbury Post also runs an interesting story series, which I was able to see in progress during my internship. The series is called The Dart, and the paper describes it like this: “The Dart is a regular feature that requires reporters to throw darts at a map of Rowan County and use the locations to find a story.”

Not only does this interesting story series allow reporters to give a voice to people who may not otherwise have ever been featured, but it also allows for a diverse blend of stories to come from diverse parts of the county. Although I never wrote a Dart story during my internship, I did find it fascinating to hear updates from the reporters as they looked for stories.

Another problem I observed during my internship dealt less with the Salisbury Post specifically and more with a general problem that I am sure many papers face. Keeping readers’ interests from week to week can be difficult—especially in the summer months, which I found were often slow for news. This problem can be heightened by the fact that it is often necessary to keep the same topic relevant for more than a few days or a week.

For example, the summer I was at the Salisbury Post, two people drowned in High Rock Lake in the eastern part of the county. After the initial stories about the drownings broke, the editor felt it was important to keep the story relevant.

So she had me to interview the head of the emergency department at the local hospital to learn more about drowning and then to speak with the head of the Rowan County Rescue Squad to learn what to do in a situation where someone might be in danger of drowning. After that story was written, the consensus from the newsroom was that High Rock Lake had been getting a bit too much bad press.

To balance our coverage of the lake, the editor assigned me a positive story about it. I wrote about the lake economy and the many ways the people of Rowan County enjoy the fun the lake has to offer. The two stories ended up running alongside each other.

Providing equal coverage for all of the readership area, choosing stories that interest all readers and keeping the readership interested are all problems that many small or local newspapers frequently face. My experience at the Salisbury Post working under the experience of the editor, Elizabeth Cook, and her staff helped me to learn how to combat these obstacles.

Pushing the news

Each semester, I ask students in my courses at UNC-Chapel Hill how they get their news. I encourage them to be honest, and I tell them that there are no right answers.

As in recent years, several mentioned The Skimm, an email newsletter. Others said they regularly read CNN.com and the digital versions of The Washington Post and The New York Times. A few said they still like to get news in print via The New York Times or The Daily Tar Heel.

No one mentioned regional newspapers such as The Charlotte Observer. Same for radio and television.

Several students said that they rely on push notifications on their phones. In previous semesters, I had never heard that answer. Those students said that they relied on the notifications to let them know about big news. They catch up on other things later.

Like a headline, a push notification should match the tone of the news and the tone of the organization. Editors must use news judgment to decide when and how to send such notifications. Too many can be overwhelming.

I will keep an eye on how news organizations are exploring how to push news in this way, perhaps incorporating that into my editing course. If students receive news that way, they should know how to send it.

The public editor, before and after

The recent news that The New York Times was cutting the position of public editor prompted me to think about my time at The News & Observer. I worked at the Raleigh newspaper twice: from 1992-97 as a copy editor and from 2001-2005 as wire editor.

For most of that time, the N&O did not have a public editor, a role also known as an ombudsman or reader representative. That changed in 2004, when the newspaper added that position and hired Ted Vaden, a longtime journalist who had served as editor of The Chapel Hill News, among other jobs.

Before Vaden’s hiring, I got feedback from readers via email, voicemail and phone calls. Some of these communications were hostile and unproductive, but some led to helpful conversations about how the newspaper operated and what we could do better. I also looked at letters to the editor for responses from readers on how we covered national and international news.

After Vaden was hired, I still received phone calls, voicemail and emails from readers. I also heard from Vaden, asking me why we covered a topic a certain way or why a story had not appeared in the pages of the N&O.

On at least a couple of occasions, I was interviewed by Vaden for columns that he wrote for the N&O addressing concerns from readers. One that I recall was about how the N&O had covered the Terri Schiavo “right to die” controversy. Some readers complained that we had approached it as a political story rather than a medical one. I told Vaden that I saw it as both and that our coverage had tried to address each angle.

His column suggested that we had fallen short. I disagreed with that assessment, but I appreciated how Vaden went about his work. He asked good questions and came up with conclusions based on evidence and analysis.

Vaden left the N&O in 2009, taking a communications job at the state Department of Transportation. The role of public editor at the N&O was lost amid a wave of layoffs.

I recently caught up with Vaden, who has left the DOT and has written columns on various topics for The Chapel Hill News in the past few years. In light of the news from The New York Times, I wondered what he thought about his time as public editor in Raleigh. Here are my questions and his responses:

Q. How did you approach the job of public editor at the N&O?

A. I suppose I tried to assume the role of “honest broker” between the readers and the paper, serving as intermediary to hear readers’ concerns, communicate them to the people inside the paper and explain the journalism of The N&O to the public. I felt that my first obligation was to the readers – to ascertain their concerns about the issues shoved into their consciousness by the paper, and to hold the paper accountable in areas of fairness, taste, ethics and professionalism.

I tried to do this in two ways – in a Sunday op-ed column that usually focused on the most controversial coverage of the preceding week and in a weekly report (I can’t remember what I called it) that I distributed by email inside the building relaying the issues large and small raised by readers during that week.

That inside column was distributed not just to the newsroom but to all 900-plus employees of the paper. I thought it was valuable for the entire enterprise to hear what the readers were saying about The N&O, and I was gratified to get a good deal of response, questions and ideas from non-editorial employees.

Q. You were public editor for five years. What did you learn doing that time?

A. I learned that it is a very difficult balancing act to straddle the divide between people out in Readerland and the journalists inside the paper. Journalists as a breed are very defensive about their work, and it was quite ticklish to bring the same kind of watchdogging to them as they did to the public.

I tried to rely on my instincts, but if anything, I erred on the side of being too critical of the paper, in order to maintain credibility with readers. Nevertheless, I’m sure I let my bias and identity as a journalist creep into my opinionating.

I believed independence was the most critical asset of a public editor, and I was fortunate that I was in the position of reporting directly and only to the publisher (Orage Quarles III), who created and appointed me to the position in the first place. He read every column before it was published. He occasionally disagreed with my conclusions, but in five years there was only one instance in which he directed me to change my column. Even then, we ended with a compromise (which I still didn’t like).

I felt that if there were not always some journalists inside the paper who were not happy with my columns, then I was not doing my job. I’m proudest that I took a critical stand early on over the N&O’s coverage of the Duke lacrosse case, even when that angered some editors.

But there were also instances of which I was less proud, when I wasn’t forceful enough. I still remember a comment from one reader that I wasn’t “tough-minded” enough. Ouch!

I thought it was very important for the public editor to stay in close touch with readers. Over those years, I developed a database of 300-400 readers whom I would survey regularly to get a sense of broader opinion of coverage that I could relay to the newsroom and discuss in the column. The newspaper also created a Reader Advisory Panel that met every month with me and different journalists from the newsroom. Both the journalists and the readers learned from those interactions. I think it still functions.

Finally, it’s a mixed legacy to say that I was the first and (presumably) last ombudsman of The News & Observer. It was bold of Quarles to create the position – to open the paper to regular criticism. But it was a sad commentary on the state of journalism even as early as 2009 that the role of in-house critic was one of the first positions to be determined to be dispensable.

I agree with Vaden that the role of the public editor was valuable. His presence in the N&O building was a reminder that it was the readers that mattered most. Unlike their emails or voicemails, he could not be ignored.

In lieu of a public editor, The New York Times says it will look to social media for reader feedback. It will certainly find plenty of it there, starting with tweets from the president. But how will journalists hear signals amid the noise? Will they fail to hear alarm bells as they tune out the trolls?

Student guest post: Don’t give up on the truth in the face of fake news

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the third of those posts. Elise Clouser is a senior from Matthews, North Carolina, majoring in reporting and minoring in biology. She wants a career writing about science, and in her free time, she can usually be found hanging out with her cat.

Back in December, as the dust finally began to settle after the 2016 election, “fake news” grabbed hold of national attention, and it hasn’t really let go. It was straightforward enough in the beginning – fake news was any completely made-up news story written to sound like fact. Remember that time Hillary Clinton ran a child sex ring from a pizza shop? One hundred percent certified fake news.

I remember how incredulous I was when the “fake news” story broke. Who actually believed this stuff anyway? My Facebook timeline was full of fellow journalists and other university folks posting perfectly credible articles from The New York Times, NPR and The Washington Post. Any editor worth his or her salt wouldn’t let a fake news story slip past their desk, right?

Hoaxes, half-truths and propaganda are certainly nothing new, especially when politics are involved. It’s practically accepted as fact that politicians lie. So what makes fake news different?

Fake news fits nicely into the narrative that we are living in a post-truth society. In fact, post-truth, meaning “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief,” was Oxford dictionary’s word of the year for 2016. And when “alternative facts” are now part of the mainstream American political rhetoric, it’s not hard to see why.

But fake news has evolved to mean more than just a false news story. It’s now been co-opted to mean “anything that contradicts my worldview.” Biases have always existed in news reporting. But when “fake news” is conflated with “anything that paints me in a negative light,” the line between what is real and what is fake seems even more blurred.

All of this is pretty disheartening to journalists and editors who have always strived for fairness and for reporting the truth. It feels as though we need to be on the defense, especially when we’re called the “opposition party.”

The role of the editor has evolved just as the media have evolved over the past few decades. But in the face of “fake news,” the editor must do what he or she has always done: dedicate himself or herself to the truth. Sensationalism gets the clicks, but I think that people still crave the truth.

People want to be informed. Yes, sometimes we want to hear things that reinforce our personal opinions, but we also simply want to know what’s going on. We don’t always want loaded language and jabs at the other side. Sometimes we just need the facts.

More than ever, editors must ensure that they publish the facts. There is still a place for facts in modern society. Editors are in the powerful position of making sure facts are out there.

Editors need to not only trust their reporters to be thorough and fair, but to hold them accountable if they are not. Editors need to verify information before publishing. They need to present both sides of the story. Editors will have to make tough news judgments in the coming months. It will be tempting to shun the facts when they don’t fit a certain narrative. But editors never give up on the truth. There is still an audience for the truth.

Restoring the public’s faith in the press is not a task that can be accomplished overnight. There are no easy answers for how to combat fake news or the filter bubble. Fake news may be here to stay, but so is good, truthful journalism. And we can’t give up on it just yet.