Q&A with Karen Willenbrecht, editor at S&P Global Market Intelligence

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Karen Willenbrecht is associate coal editor at S&P Global Market Intelligence. She previously worked as a copy editor at newspapers such as Stars And Stripes, The Denver Post and The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, Willenbrecht discusses her job at S&P Global and her transition from newspaper editing.

Q. Describe your work at S&P Global Market Intelligence. What is your typical day like?

A. Our teams are divided up by the industries we cover. My team covers coal and is fairly small: We have two editors, two U.S.-based reporters and a reporter based overseas.

Our day starts at 8 a.m., and my boss, the industry editor for coal, scours news sources for story ideas, assigns stories and checks in with the writers to form a coverage plan for the day. If he’s out, I handle that. Throughout the day, I edit stories as they come in and post them to our site. I also do some writing.

Q. The S&P office is in Charlottesville, Virginia, and you live in Raleigh, North Carolina. What is it like to work remotely?

A. Working remotely has benefits and drawbacks. I’ve found that people collaborate better when they’ve met face to face, and I’m grateful that my training was held in one of the main offices so I could meet most of my colleagues in person. Communication is obviously vital, and we use chat apps constantly. I also found it helpful to set up office space in my spare bedroom and not go in there when I’m not working, so I don’t feel like I live at work.

The biggest drawback for me is that I’m a fairly social person and I miss having people to joke with and bounce ideas off of. I’ve partly solved that by joining a co-working space, which has the added benefit of much better Wi-Fi and coffee than I have at home. I usually co-work two or three days a week and spend the other days at home. I’ve tried working from coffee shops, but the Wi-Fi is often unreliable or too slow. Plus, I wind up spending too much money and eating too many baked goods.

I also have two cats, who love it when I’m home all day. I have to be honest, though — they’re terrible office mates. I often tell them I’m going to file an HR complaint over their failure to respect boundaries.

Q. The company has a policy of paying $50 when a reader finds an error on the site. How does that affect the work of writers and editors there?

A. I was a newspaper copy editor for years and watched sadly as paper after paper decided that editing wasn’t important, so I was excited to work for a company that still valued editing and accuracy. And I like things to be right, so I enjoy being surrounded by people who feel the same and strive for that.

Our culture is all about transparency and accountability — every time an error is found in a published story, it’s logged and everyone responsible is notified, even if it’s caught internally. Part of our annual bonus is based on staying within our department’s budget for errors that result in a payout, so accuracy is a team effort.

Q. You previously worked at The News & Observer and other newspapers. What has the transition to a digital-only organization been like? What advice do you have for editors looking to make a similar change?

A. Transitioning to digital-only was easier than I thought it would be, in part because the N&O had shifted to a digital-first strategy, so it wasn’t a huge jump from “print is not our priority” to “print doesn’t exist.”

One nice thing, as an editor, is that there’s no extra work for converting a story from print to digital, since it was never set up for print. So, for example, there’s no need to write a print headline and a web headline.

I also find that the writers think differently about timing — no one has the holdover idea that they’re working toward a print deadline and don’t need to file before 6 p.m. Stories are filed as soon as they’re written, and the writers do things like inserting links to related stories that are often done by editors or web producers at a newspaper.

That would be my main advice for an editor looking to make that transition: You have to let go of the mindset of working toward a fixed deadline and adjust to a real-time environment. I still sometimes miss that adrenaline rush of racing against deadline and the wave of relief once everything is done, but it’s probably better for my blood pressure that I don’t do that anymore.

Student guest post: A first-hand look at a championship win in a student newsroom

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Staff members of The Daily Tar Heel hand out copies of the newspaper the day after UNC won the national championship in men’s basketball.

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 11th of those posts. Hannah Smoot is a senior journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill. She spends most of her waking hours working at The Daily Tar Heel.

On April 3, UNC won the NCAA national championship in men’s basketball. As a senior at UNC, this was a dream come true. As managing editor of The Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s independent, student-run newspaper, my feelings were a little more complicated.

More than anything, I was excited — this year, The Daily Tar Heel stopped producing a print newspaper on Tuesdays, but we had a special edition championship edition in the works.

Part of me was apprehensive at the same time. While we’re used to putting together a print paper every day, this would be an especially taxing night.

In preparation, we moved our print deadline to 2:30 a.m. — and missed it by about an hour. We were stuck waiting on writers in Phoenix (the site of the Final Four) to find Wi-Fi and send in their stories. In this situation, we had to figure out how editors can effectively communicate with writers and hold writers to a deadline.

Before we sent writers to Phoenix, we sat down and asked them what a reasonable deadline would be. We talked about how long it would take them to check stats, interview players and finish writing, and then brought that deadline to our printers and worked out a deadline.

Of course, the night of the game, this deadline was much harder to hold our writers to. Holding writers to a deadline can be difficult enough when they’re in the same room as you — but we realized just how hard it could be when they’re not even in the same state.

While we missed our deadline, we were able to get the pages to the printer in time to start handing out papers at 7 a.m. This was in part because we were firm with the writers — and made sure they knew why the deadline needed to be followed as closely as possible. Communication is always important, but in this case, over-communicating our needs with the writers was critical to printing a paper at all.

When we finally got the stories, we sped-read the stories, checking for accuracy in record speed. We went to bed, woke up at 7 a.m. and started handing out papers.

In all, I got about one hour of sleep and worked over 30 hours almost nonstop in two days. While it was one of the most exhausting days I’ve had at the DTH, working for a student newspaper during the NCAA championship was an incredible experience unlike any other Franklin Street rush.

How a college newspaper won the national championship

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People line up to buy extra copies of The Daily Tar Heel a day after the men’s basketball team won the national championship. (Photo courtesy of Jock Lauterer)

Like many college publications, The Daily Tar Heel is free and distributed via newsracks placed across campus and in downtown Chapel Hill. That makes it easy to pick up a copy on the way to class.

But that system broke down one day in 2009. The men’s basketball team won the national championship, and people grabbed more than one copy of the DTH from newsracks. Some snatched dozens and sold them on eBay. A lot of people missed a chance to get a souvenir of UNC’s victory, and the DTH missed a chance to make some money.

This week, UNC did it again, defeating Gonzaga to win the NCAA Tournament. But this time, the DTH changed the way it distributed this keepsake edition of the newspaper.

To do that, DTH staffers handed out newspapers at various locations on campus — one copy per person. If a person asked for more than one copy, the staff member told them that extras were available at the DTH office for $1 each.

“We wanted to ensure that everyone in the community got their one free copy and avoid people getting 50 copies,” said Erica Perel, the newspaper’s adviser.

The plan worked. Basketball fans got souvenirs. The DTH gave away or sold more than 50,000 papers compared with 10,000 on a typical day. That’s significant for a news organization that has struggled financially in recent years.

So, congrats to both groups of Tar Heels — the men’s basketball team and the student journalists. You both won big.

A newspaper as tocsin

The Washington Post made news this week with a new slogan at the top its homepage: “Democracy dies in darkness.”

Newspaper slogans are not new, of course. The New York Times has “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” The Chicago Tribune is “The World’s Greatest Newspaper.”

In North Carolina, The News & Observer of Raleigh calls itself “The Old Reliable.” For decades, it has also published this quote from publisher Josephus Daniels:

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When I posted this image to Twitter in a discussion about the Post’s new motto, a few followers took note of “tocsin” in the quote. It is an unusual word, one that I looked up when I started working at the N&O many years ago.

A “tocsin” is an alarm bell or warning signal. Here is what the Merriam-Webster online dictionary says about the word:

Tocsin long referred to the ringing of church bells to signal events of importance to local villagers, including dangerous events such as attacks. Its use was eventually broadened to cover anything that signals danger or trouble.

A news organization does many things. It informs and entertains. It serves as a check on government and powerful institutions. And on occasion, it warns of dangers to our well-being: physically, mentally, emotionally and politically.

Like Daniels, I would wish that the N&O, the Post and other news organizations will continue to be “the tocsin” for years to come.

A newspaper helps with giving

trianglegivesThe Thanksgiving Day newspaper is typically the largest of the year, loaded with advertising for Black Friday. That’s true of The News & Observer, the paper I read every day.

My favorite section of the Thanksgiving edition of the N&O is Triangle Gives. In print, it consists of 40 pages of profiles of nonprofit organizations that do good things in North Carolina. Some, such as Habitat for Humanity, are familiar. Others, such as the Diaper Bank of North Carolina, may be less so.

I’ll use the Triangle Gives section to select a few organizations for donations during the holidays. I’ll ask my 16-year-old son to do the same.

And if you live in North Carolina, I’ll ask you too. If you missed the section in print, you can read it online. Either way, I hope you will follow the advice of one of the headlines in Triangle Gives: “To do the greatest good, write a check or volunteer.”

Q&A with Ellen Meder, editorial adviser at N.C. State University

Technician, the student newspaper at N.C. State University, recently switched to a tabloid format and reduced its printing schedule to two days a week.

Technician, the student newspaper at N.C. State University, recently switched to a tabloid format and reduced its printing schedule to two days a week.

Ellen Meder is editorial adviser for student media at N.C. State University, a position she has held since 2014. An alumna of the University of South Carolina, she previously worked as a multimedia journalist at TV station WSPA and at The Morning News in Florence, South Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, Meder discusses her role at N.C. State and changes at Technician, a campus newspaper.

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

A. The main goal of my job is to teach, train and advise the students who run N.C. State’s two student newspapers, Technician and Nubian Message. Basically, I use my professional experience and perspective to help them do what they do better.

It’s nice that a “typical” day doesn’t always look the same, but I’m usually juggling creating or leading training sessions on reporting or editing, holding critique sessions with newer writers, marking up the latest issues with constructive criticism and doling out advice for the papers’ senior staff on everything from management styles to good design.

Another role is helping writers and editors strategize on how to pursue difficult reporting — which is often one part coach, one part gumshoe and one part paralegal — but that has to be one of the best parts; seeing students’ curiosity get sparked and realize that they actually can track down the truth. Sometimes paperwork wrangling and departmental reports sneak in there, too, unfortunately.

Q. Technician will reduce its publication schedule in print to two days a week. What is the reason for this change, and what else is ahead for the newspaper?

A. We are definitely viewing the change as a shift of how and where content is produced, not as an overall reduction. It was a tough decision and one our professional staff and students didn’t take lightly.

We took the idea to this year’s editor-in-chief when we realized that a change in the print production schedule could bolster some of her goals, including pushing toward a more web-first mentality and really shaking things up with multimedia content and design, and our departmental goals, like increasing student pay for our leaders as to take down a barrier to diversity and stanch the flow of talented students who couldn’t afford not to have better paid, low skill jobs.

So those are the primary reasons for the decision being made now: It will lend more in the budget for payroll, and it will give the team time and space to focus more on their online output, instead of grinding so hard on each print edition that they’re too burnt out to think of producing anything until 5 p.m. the following day.

But it’s not something that had to happen right this second. Decreased advertising revenues would have eventually forced a reduction, though. We saw the writing on the wall with other universities and our own budget trends and decided that we’d rather make the move when our backs aren’t yet against the wall, when we can control it, and when we can advance other goals.

As far as what’s next, Rachel Smith, the editor-in-chief, has some great goals, and we’ll all be working toward making this transition smooth and ultimately more useful for readers. That means restructuring the newsroom work flow to get news online accurately and quickly (not the other way around) via the website, mobile, the app and social media.

Technician definitely wants to meet readers where they are, and that’s frequently on their phones. The students also want to produce more graphics for web and continue beefing up their video department.

The push to web means that the balance of content will likely shift in the print editions, since no one wants to put 24-hour old news on stands to sit for three days. It’s also transitioning to a modified tab format, so they’re trying new things with design and more engaging covers that don’t look the exact same each day. It’s definitely an exciting time!

Q. How did you get involved with student media, and what do you like most about the job?

A. I loved student media in college, and The Daily Gamecock newsroom was my second home. After I graduated, I worked as a reporter in TV and then at a newspaper in South Carolina for a few years before I started looking around for a new challenge.

I grew up in Raleigh, and when I found the listing for this position, I was super excited and, during the interview, very nervous because I wanted it so badly. I had contemplated going to graduate school for higher education administration when I was scared I’d never get a job in news, but this position meshed my love of journalism and helping college students grow into awesome, productive adults as so many staffers at USC had done for me.

The best part of the job is hands down the students. Watching them learn and grow is exciting and they are hilarious, smart, ambitious and excited. There isn’t the same pall of a declining industry in a student newsroom, nor the jaded curmudgeonliness that was starting to tint my outlook at a small-town paper.

Plus, they are downright challenging. Each student and each group is different, so I have to adapt my teaching and communication styles to best serve them and help them do what they do better. Sometimes that goes great! Sometimes it’s more frustrating, and I have to keep adapting. But when they get it, when they publish a damn good paper, uncover something important or cover a difficult topic with sensitivity, grace and attention to detail, there is nothing better.

Q. What advice do you have for college students considering working for campus publications?

A. Jump right in! Go talk to the students who are already working for the publications and ask why they love it, what makes it worthwhile and even what makes it hard. They’ll be honest with you, and if you stick around for a staff meeting or a production night you’ll find a tight-knit, and hopefully welcoming, group that works hard and has fun. Regardless of the outlet, you will learn skills that you can use in any industry you go into after college, and will gain valuable experience and probably some hilarious stories.

Plus, you’ll find some lifelong friends. I met some of my best, most trusted friends in student media, and we still go on vacation together once a year! I just got back from Nashville with them last week.

Once you’re involved, it’s all about continuing to ask questions and use the resources at your disposal to grow. Pick the brains of older students, your advisers, students at other outlets, alumni and just about anyone on campus who you have questions for! Being in student media is like having an all-access pass to your community.

Last piece of advice: Learn more than one hard skill. If you’re interested in reporting, spend some nights on the copy desk and learn the design software your team uses. If you love shooting photos, go ahead and work with the video team, too. Like it or not, if you want to go into journalism, you are going to need to be a jack of all multimedia trades, in addition to having a solid foundation of journalistic ethics, tenacity and know-how.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Negative feedback can be a driving force.

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

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

2. Community publications matter.

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

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

3. Have a healthy skepticism and be curious.

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

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

4. Perseverance is key.

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

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

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