Q&A with Ryan Wilusz, reporter at the Morganton News Herald

ryanwilusz

Ryan Wilusz is a breaking news reporter at the The News Herald in Morganton, North Carolina. He is a 2017 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. In this interview, conducted by email, Wilusz discusses his job reporting and editing at the News Herald.

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

A. I will describe my job for you, but I don’t know how much of it will be typical. In the two months I have been a breaking news reporter with The News Herald, I have reported from funerals and emergency rooms, and I have witnessed multiple car chases, a water rescue and a large warehouse fire (just to name a few things). Each day is completely different, and that’s why I love what I do. But there are some routine parts of each day.

As soon as I wake up, I turn on the police scanner if it’s not still playing from the night before. I have it playing in my car, and it will continue playing throughout the day as I work. It’s just something you have to get used to.

Another typical part of my day is going through the arrest and incident reports on the local law enforcement websites. If I find anything notable, I follow up during the day.

I also make sure to load the software we use to track our stories as soon as I get in the office. It’s very important to know your audience, and the software allows us to see how many people are viewing our stories at any given time and how they are accessing them.

Once these programs are loaded and these tasks are completed, the rest of my day is up in the air unless I have a meeting or event I already plan to go to. You have to be prepared for anything that might come over the scanner. That means having multiple changes of clothes and shoes, a safety vest for roadside stories, a full charge on your phone, an SD card for your camera and a plan to send content back to the office from the field.

You never know what you might have to cover, and you never know how long you’ll be out of the office.

Q. How do editing and headline writing work at the Morganton paper?

A. All editors are different, and I am lucky enough to have an editor who believes in giving the writer a say when it comes to editing. Each story is submitted to our editor through the program we use to place content in the physical paper.

At the top of our document, we write a suggested overline and headline. We also include our own subheads and cutlines, too. The story is then edited and placed in the “ready” folder. As long as the headlines and overlines are not terrible, they are usually returned with minimal changes. A lot of times, the headline will be bumped down to a subhead in the physical paper for space purposes.

After the story is returned with edits, we place it online ourselves. We are also in charge of linking and placing photos and other content on the website.

Students are always taught that being a journalist is a collaborative process. My editor understands that collaboration not only happens between reporters but between editors and reporters, too. When it comes time to decide on story placement in the paper and what should be a primary photo for a story, my editor always asks what we think. And no matter what, she has our backs for whatever feedback we may receive from the public.

Q. While at UNC, you wrote for the College Town website. How did that experience help you start your journalism career?

A. I don’t believe that any one form of experience is good enough to help you start a career. Luckily for students at UNC-Chapel Hill, there are plenty of opportunities to gain real-world experience before the job search begins. I say it is best to dip your toes in as many areas as possible.

College Town helped redefine my idea of what can be considered “news.” As I stated before, it is very important to know your audience. Readers were not going to College Town for breaking news. They were visiting for news that was fun and different but also informative. So I was encouraged to craft themed playlists, stories about campus jogging routes and a Q&A with my own mother about me moving away. But this background wouldn’t land me a job at a newspaper alone.

The Durham VOICE helped me step outside my comfort zone and write stories about people very different than me and about issues I never experienced. My internship at the Statesville Record & Landmark helped show me what an actual career in journalism was like and helped me gain multiple bylines in a professional setting.

My editing classes at UNC-CH taught me how to write headlines and how to be a more precise and concise writer. My audio/video/photography classes at UNC-CH helped me find new ways to be a creative storyteller outside of just words on paper.

The journalism industry is changing, newsrooms are shrinking and employers are looking for candidates who can do it all. And if you want to land a great job, you have to have experience across the board.

Q. What skills that you learned in the journalism school are you using in your job in Morganton? What new ones are you picking up in your newsroom?

A. Literally every skill the journalism school taught me is being put to use at The News Herald.

I’ve often heard students talk about how useless a class may be because in their minds, the skills being acquired have nothing to do with they want to do as a career. But I have found that some of the skills I have learned are coming to use in unexpected places.

I had no plans to be an editor coming out of school. But I ended up landing a job at a place that encourages writers to take on some of those editing skills such as headline writing. I may be a breaking news reporter, but my creative sportswriting class taught me how to think outside the box (or the pyramid) to tell an intriguing, detailed and creative news story. I may not have had plans to be a photojournalist, but I am at a newspaper without a full-time photographer. My photography skills have helped us have compelling centerpieces on what may seem like dull news days.

I will say there are some skills that I wasn’t able to acquire at UNC-CH that I have been forced to pick up along the way. I would love to see a breaking news or crime reporting class in the journalism school. A lot goes into working a breaking news event or a crime scene. Safety of the reporter is always an issue. You also have to know how to work well with law enforcement officers.

There’s a certain amount of give and take between reporters and police officers, and you want to make sure you get your photo and information while avoiding confrontation with officers and bystanders. Breaking news can be hectic, and you don’t want to add to it.

With that being said, however, don’t let anyone influence you or your job. Know your rights! And that kind of goes into the other big skill I have picked up while on the job.

When you are in school, all that’s really on the line is your grade. But when you are reporting sensitive stories about death and about crime, you are the target of a lot of frustration. People will be upset when you report on them or their family members (especially if they are a minor) and will often feel you are the cause of their ruined reputation.

You have to know how to take those phone calls from upset readers and subjects. And trust me, there are a lot of phone calls!

You have to know how to firmly justify and stand by your decisions, but you also have to show some level of compassion because those people who are calling are the same ones who subscribe. Just always remind people that you don’t make the news, you report on it.

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Telling the story of poverty in words and images

A Business Insider story has been bouncing around in my Twitter and Facebook feeds for the past day or so. The article focuses on the increase of poverty in North Carolina.

The topic is certainly newsworthy and worth discussion on social media. This state and others have struggled economically since the Great Recession hit in 2007.

The BI story cites a Brookings Institution report and another from the Pew Charitable Trusts. It quotes Gene Nichol, director of the UNC’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. More sources would add context and nuance to the piece, but the ones used are knowledgeable on the topic.

Where the article falls short is in its selection of photographs and captions. Scrolling down the page, the reader sees images of hardscrabble scenes in Charlotte, Raleigh, Winston-Salem and Greensboro.

The photo of downtown Raleigh caught my eye first. It looks outdated, so I asked on Twitter whether anyone could identify when it was taken. Matt Robinson of Metroscenes.com responded that the photo is from 2005. Here’s a more recent photo of the city’s skyline.

The image from Charlotte is also misleading: The “old movie theater” is a music club called The Visulite. The place may not be pretty, but it’s open for business.

Each image appears to have been pulled from Flickr accounts. Not one has a person in it. The bare-bones captions don’t connect the images to the story text.

My colleague Jock Lauterer, who teaches photojournalism and other courses at UNC-Chapel Hill, suggests this approach to the visual side of this story: Find several people from various backgrounds who are struggling with poverty and unemployment. Take portrait-style shots that reflect their daily lives.

“For a documentary photo to be compelling, it must include the human element,” Lauterer said.

Andria Krewson, an editor at mediagazer.com and a Charlotte freelancer and consultant, reacted this way on Twitter:

Maybe it’s time to start teaching photo editing again. 1. Pick up phone 2. Call a local paper. 3. Offer to pay or swap, because Google search and Flickr search for Creative Commons free stuff ain’t cutting it.

I agree with Andria and Jock. Some news stories can be illustrated by drawing from repositories of free images. This isn’t one of them. Poverty is about people, not buildings. We need to see the faces of the problem to fully understand it.

The option to crop a photo

On Facebook over the weekend, a former News & Observer copy editor posted an image of a front page from 2009. As you can see here, the centerpiece photograph that day was from a tea party rally.

uncropped-pubicLook carefully at the sign held by the woman on the left. You’ll see that she has made the dreaded public/pubic error. It’s a common mistake that can cause embarrassment and prompt apologies.

Now take a look at this version of the same photograph on the same front page from that day of the Raleigh newspaper:

cropped-pubicSee the difference? For the final edition that day, editors at the N&O cropped the image to eliminate the sign’s error.

But was that the right decision? As one commenter on Facebook said: “It’s not a dirty word, and the woman was there to be photographed.”

The Mideast and the media

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the news again, and with it, criticism of the media’s coverage.

Letters to the editor in The News & Observer claimed bias against Palestinians and against Israel. Readers of The New York Times were irritated by photo placement and wording of a caption. And Jon Stewart mocked a “winners and losers” approach to the situation in Gaza.

All of this sounds familiar. As wire editor at the N&O from 2001 to 2005, I heard similar complaints from readers when the Mideast was in the news, especially on the front page. I met on separate occasions from media watchdog groups in the Raleigh area: one saying our coverage was biased toward Israel, the other saying we were biased toward the Palestinians.

The lazy response is to say if both sides are complaining, then your coverage must be right down the middle. That is a cop-out. The reality is no coverage of any issue is perfect. Listening to constructive criticism from readers can be helpful.

My response to critics of what we published and why went like this: Follow our coverage for a longer period than a day or a week. If you look at it on a broad spectrum, you’ll see that we are doing our best to provide a fair view of the region based on the resources (mostly wire services) that we have. That’s all we can do.

Student guest post: Viewing news through a different lens

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 14th of those posts. Emily Nycum is a reporting major and art history minor. After graduation in May 2012, she will expand the professional photography business she started last year, Emily March Photography.

I love photography. Few things on this planet get me as excited as the opportunity to take pictures of a beautiful place or person, and the sound of a shutter is music to my ears. It amazes me how a single image can conjure up a range of emotions. I have always been a very visual person, so what draws me into a story is its photograph.

More than a catchy headline or modern design, a story’s image (if it has one at all) is its hook for me. Have a captivating picture, and I’ll read your story.

With the growth in online media and news, photography has become an essential feature of most stories on the Web. It seems that the vast majority of stories online have some kind of image to go along with them. In many cases (and I love this) the photos are the story.

Slideshows have become an alternative story form that give the reader more to look at than just text. Many news outlets, including The New York Times, have entire sections highlighting unique stories presented through photojournalism. I love the quality and diversity of work seen in this section. Here, photographers have the opportunity to not only share current events visually, but also human interest stories and features that provide additional education to the viewer.

I’ll be honest. I really don’t keep up with current events. You would think that after four years of journalism classes where I’ve learned the importance of media in society that I would have gained some semblance of desire to read the newspaper every once in a while, but no.

Enter the “photos of the day” feature that many newspapers are incorporating into their online platforms. In only a few minutes, I can see what happened in the world that is big, exciting or unique. Plus, I get to learn while feasting my eyes. Features like this are fantastic for people who like to get their news quickly, which is pretty much everyone I know.

Now think about the article you read in this morning’s paper. I don’t know about you, but when I think of the events that have shaped the world during my lifetime, I don’t remember headlines or news articles. I remember images.

Think of Sept. 11, 2001 or the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, what comes to mind? I immediately think of the terrifying sight of the Twin Towers burning and the heart-wrenching scene of a firefighter carrying the limp body of a toddler.

Those scenes have been immortalized because of what they mean to people in light of the events that brought them. Photographs move, inspire and provoke people.  On Sept. 12, 2001, no American could look at pictures of dazed New Yorkers roaming the ash-laden streets of Manhattan and not want to do something about it. I think that Robert Doisneau, an early 20th-century French photographer, put it beautifully: “I don’t usually give out advice or recipes, but you must let the person looking at the photograph go some of the way to finishing it. You should offer them a seed that will grow and open up their minds.”

Pictures have a way of expressing things that words simply cannot. So hats off to the photojournalists who provide a different kind of news, the kind of news that elicits a response, not just an opinion. So maybe a picture is not worth 1,000 words. Perhaps, instead, a picture is worth 1,000 actions.

Hurricane Irene: One photo, two audiences

When Hurricane Irene struck the coast of North Carolina this weekend, journalists were there. It’s dangerous work to cover a storm.

That’s what occurred to me when I saw this photo in a slideshow by The News & Observer shortly after Irene twisted its way across the northeast corner of the state. It’s a picture that captured the attention of many editors.

It appeared prominently on the front pages of several North Carolina newspapers, including the N&O and The Charlotte Observer:

Front pages for NC papers covering Hurricane Irene

Editors at the New York City tabloids also took note of the image as they put together front pages anticipating Irene’s arrival there:

New York tabloid front pages on Irene

It’s interesting to see how these publications cropped the photo and how the images interact with the headlines. One image, two audiences, different tones to the story packages.

Thanks to @RL_Bynum for noticing this and pointing it out on Twitter.

The star of the earthquake

The Eastern United States was surprised by an earthquake this week. The tremors started in Virginia and were felt hundreds of miles away, causing evacuations and general confusion.

Damage was minimal, but that didn’t stop newspapers in the region from making this the big story of the day. An earthquake in this part of the country has the news value of oddity, after all.

Several newspapers chose the same image of Susy Ward, a flabbergasted office worker in Washington, D.C. Here are variations on that theme:

Earthquake front pages

It’s the sort of photo that an editor loves: It has a regular person reacting to an unusual situation, and it has a bit of scene-setting. So Susy is a star for a day.

Not all newspapers went with that sort of presentation. Here are a couple of meta-centerpieces:

Front pages from East Coast quake

It’s a risky choice, even cheesy. If there had been fatalities, these newspapers wouldn’t have done this. But these front pages are serving the purpose of generating lots of talk on Twitter and Facebook.

Here’s what one friend said about the Star-Ledger: “It’s horrible, but I give them credit for trying to make people notice it. At least they’re trying something instead of standing around looking at each other while the paper dies a slow, painful death.”

UPDATE: For more front pages and analysis, check out this post on Charles Apple’s blog.