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.

Q&A with Morag MacLachlan, communications director at Division of Infectious Diseases at UNC-Chapel Hill

Morag MacLachlan is communications director at the Institute for Global Health & Infectious Diseases at UNC-Chapel Hill. She previously worked at two Boston hospitals and as a reporter at a newspaper and TV station in New England. In this interview, conducted by email, MacLachlan discusses her job at UNC, the news media’s coverage of infectious diseases and her transition from news to public relations.

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

A. I am the communications director for UNC’s Division of Infectious Diseases and its Institute for Global Health & Infectious Diseases. We have clinicians and researchers in Chapel Hill as well as our sites in Malawi, China, Zambia, Nicaragua and the Galapagos tackling global health questions. For example, at our UNC Project-China site, staff are leveraging crowdsourcing to promote condom use, HIV testing and other important sexual health messages.

It’s fascinating for me to learn how people in Chapel Hill are making a worldwide difference, and it is always humbling to learn that a disease we do not normally worry about in the U.S. can pose a deadly threat abroad. Malaria is not a disease that most Americans think about, but it is a major problem in many parts of Africa and Southeast Asia.

There really is no typical day. I try to begin with my list of things I want to accomplish – posting to our Facebook and Twitter accounts, writing an article for our website, editing a video for our YouTube channel, etc… – but something always pops up.

For example, the day Charlie Sheen went on NBC’s “Today” show and disclosed that he was living with HIV, I had to drop the plans for the day and begin fielding media requests to speak with our infectious diseases clinicians who primarily treat people living with HIV.

It’s never a dull moment and no two days are alike, and that is far more exciting to me than doing the same tasks day in and day out. It does mean long hours sometimes, but I think getting the word out about the important public and global health advances UNC is making is rewarding.

Q. On occasion, infectious diseases such as Ebola or SARS are big news. How can the news media better cover that topic?

A. We have a different speaker each Friday morning during the academic year come present about an infectious diseases topic. And this fall, we had a lawyer from the University of Louisville talk about how public health professionals really failed, in his opinion, when it came to keeping the public informed during the Ebola outbreak last year.

During the comments period, many of our ID clinicians and researchers who had responded immediately to West Africa and had even helped create Ebola response guides for the CDC voiced their frustration with how hard they are treated during an emerging infection. The public and the media want answers immediately, and these doctors and nurses are working around the clock to try and prevent mass casualties while simultaneously trying to figure out the rules of the infection in order to discover prevention, treatment, and ultimately, cure techniques.

In this age of 24-hour news cycles and endless Twitter updates, the pressure on these front line workers to have answers right away is tremendous, but also unrealistic. No response is interpreted as a failure. Yet sometimes there is no response because the infection is in its infancy and they do not want to speculate on the source of a disease.

I know the news media are also under pressure to rush to be first and hold the largest share of their respective market. But at some point, especially when the news story deals with public health, accuracy should be the goal, not just reporting speculation for the sake of reporting something.

Q. You previously worked at a TV station and for a newspaper in New England. What was it like to make the transition from news to public relations?

A. Honestly, if you had told me when I started out as a reporter that I would eventually be working in PR, I would not have believed you!

I hated getting cold calls from PR professionals as a reporter. I was of the school of thought that as a journalist, I would immerse myself in the community I was reporting on and find news stories that way. I didn’t need a PR professional trying to pitch to me.

But journalism is a very tough field to make a living in, and I can’t imagine how difficult it would be now. I was working as a full time television reporter in 2003, but also needing to work three nights a week teaching aerobics classes and two nights a week teaching business communications at the local community college just to make $19,000 a year.

This was just as having an online component to complement your news broadcast or newspaper was beginning to take off. There was no social media. There was no citizen with an iPhone on the scene who submitted footage to you and received the title of iReporter in return.

Newsroom budgets are shrinking, and fewer reporters are charged with more and more beats. Gone are the days where you could specialize in health reporting or feature writing. You really have to be able to cover multiple beats at a moments notice for poor pay. You have to be in journalism because you love it, not because you are going to have normal work hours and a big paycheck.

I was able to do it for about four years full time, and then I won an award for health reporting from the New England Press Association. The awards ceremony was on the last day of NEPA’s journalism conference. I sat in on one workshop where a features editor from the Portsmouth Press Herald in New Hampshire was talking about how he made the switch from that job to the communications department of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

In that moment, I realized I could continue to use my storytelling skills by working in the communications departments of hospitals. What appealed to me about this form of PR is that even though I am talking about the same client every day – the hospital – you can do that in a variety of ways. You can feature a grateful patient or a new piece of technology or a staff member who became a healthcare professional because they lost a loved one to a specific disease. You can find these tremendously touching stories to tell.

To me, healthcare communications seems less like I’m selling you a story and more like I am telling you a story that I hope convinces you to get your care here, or enroll in a research study here, or train here, or make a donation. I eventually got hired at BIDMC.

Then four years later I left to work at their competition – Brigham & Women’s Hospital. And two and a half years after that, I was recruited by the Division of Infectious Diseases at UNC. It’s been an unexpected professional path, but I wouldn’t change it. I love my job.

Q. What advice do you have for journalism students interested in jobs like yours?

Write, write and write some more! Being a good storyteller is the foundation for a successful career.

I wrote my broadcast packages when I was a TV reporter, editing the soundbites and voiceover tracks together. Then as a newspaper reporter, I wrote for a print audience. Making the switch to healthcare communications also boils down to being able to tell a compelling story.

But unlike journalism where the reporter tells both sides of a story and is doing the public an informational service, PR is trying to influence the public’s behavior. So my storytelling now really has to have a call to action – getting people with a certain disease to want to be in our clinical trials, getting future infectious diseases professionals to want to train at UNC and getting the public to come to our ID Clinic for their care.

I would say students interested in a career in PR need to do an internship or two to figure out if what they are learning in the classroom is really a life they can lead once they graduate. I interned with the director of public relations at my alma mater when I was a student, and I found I didn’t like academic PR. I really enjoyed health reporting as a journalist and found that I also like healthcare PR/communications.

So it is important for students to find that niche that excites them and would make them want to come to work each day. I think Dr. Charlie Tuggle’s Media Hub class at UNC is also a great way to expose students to careers in journalism because they are creating content as you would in a newsroom, but the students also have access to professionals in the field for guidance. An internship in addition to this class would be ideal.

Finally, you need to have a thick skin and be able to roll with the punches. You will pitch stories to reporters and never receive a call back. Or a reporter will reach out to you with a last-minute request, and then some other major news event will happen and your hours of coordinating the reporter and doctor’s schedules will go out the window.

Al Jazeera America approached us in November to comment on the outrageous price hike of a drug called Daraprim. I scrambled to get the UNC TV studio booked and the doctor ready to run over to make the interview with the team in L.A. that would be cutting the package and then the San Bernardino office shooting took place. Al Jazeera bumped the story with us and we had to start over again a few days later with the logistics.

But that’s the world of news, and you can’t get frustrated. You will also be the spokesperson during bad news sometimes, and you have to be strategic about when to advise people to comment and when to tell them to refuse to respond. That’s a tough call, but it gets easier with practice.

Again, I think doing an internship can expose students to this. It’s an exciting field and one I think will remain in demand.

From headline to hashtag

In recent years, politics in Raleigh, North Carolina, have been pretty polite. Elections for City Council and mayor have rarely seen negative campaigning.

That changed this week when this full-page advertisement with a provocative headline appeared in two community newspapers owned by The News & Observer.

drunktown

The impetus for the ad is a debate regarding outdoor drinking at some bars. Earlier this year, the City Council narrowly passed an ordinance to address concerns about noise and crowded, dirty sidewalks. Bar owners said the ordinance has failed to address the problems while cutting into their business.

What struck me about the ad is how quickly it became the topic of conversation on social media. The hashtag #DrunkTown began trending almost immediately. There’s already a T-shirt.

The hubbub prompted local media organizations, including The News & Observer itself, to write stories about the ad. Other stories included a look at Raleigh’s “besotted past.” The ad even inspired an Onion-style bit of satire.

The “DrunkTown” campaign has since expanded to radio and direct mail. But it started in print.

It’s interesting that even today, with revenue for newspaper advertising in steady decline, an ad in print would become the talk of the town. The newspaper is sometimes still a conversation starter. I imagine that publishers will make a toast to that.

Why the Charleston shootings should be front-page news in Durham

The Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine people were killed  on June 17, 2015. (Creative Commons image)
Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine people were killed on June 17, 2015. A 21-year-old man was charged in the racially motivated slayings. (Creative Commons image)

The killings of nine people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, have shocked the nation this week. The shooter was driven by racist beliefs to enter the historically black church, participate in a Bible study and then gun down his victims. He was captured the next day in Shelby, North Carolina.

Most North Carolina newspapers had the story on their front pages on Friday, with one notable exception: the Herald-Sun in Durham. It published a story about the shootings on page 7A.

Ostensibly, the reason for the story’s placement is that the news from Charleston is “not local” to the paper’s readers. The Herald-Sun places a heavy emphasis on news of Durham and nearby Chapel Hill on its front pages. News of the nation and world appears on inside pages.

Charleston is about 300 miles from Durham. But “local” is not simply geographic. It can also be political, historical and cultural.

Durham has a prominent place in the struggle for civil rights in the United States. It is the home of N.C. Central University, a historically black school. Race continues to be an important topic in the city.

Those characteristics about Durham connect the city to the Charleston shootings. To its credit, the Herald-Sun did publish a story about the killings on its front page on Saturday, focusing on reaction in Durham.

Proximity has long been an important news value, as it should be. But editors at the Herald-Sun and other news organizations should keep in mind that “local” can mean more than mileage on a map.

Q&A with Tracy Boyer Clark of Reportory

Tracy Boyer Clark is founder and CEO of Repotory, an online service that allows readers to create a daily newspaper based on their interests. She is also a senior marketing manager at IBM. Clark started her journalism career as a multimedia producer at The Roanoke Times in Virginia. In this interview, conducted by email, Clark talks about the origins for Reportory and how the service works.

Q. What is Reportory, and how did you come up with the idea for it?

A. Reportory is an à la carte news customization platform that allows readers to create a daily customized news digest based on what news sources they read, which sections they enjoy and any key terms they want to be sure not to miss.

The word “Reportory” is a mixture of “report” and “story” as we see our product being exactly that — a report of multiple news stories. It is also a play on words to repertoire, a collection of things.

I came up with the idea in 2008 while working at The Roanoke Times. I went on a delivery ride one morning and thought about how this model couldn’t exist much longer but that the personal touch of hand-delivering your news was something that readers valued.

Then, at an earnings meeting when I learned that people and paper were the two most expensive components of running the newspaper, I started to think about ways to remove the printed paper and reduce the people involved while still delivering the news in a packaged way — but with a new twist to use technology to customize the news for every person since readers only like certain sections. So now I still “deliver” customized news to readers, just into their inbox, not their doorstep.

Q. The site delivers the news primarily as a PDF. Why did you go with that format?

A. Glad you asked! When I started working on this business, I recognized the plethora of news aggregation apps out there already (Flipboard, News360, News Republic, Circa, Yahoo News Digest, etc).

However, those are just available on mobile with no other reading format. This works great for Gen Y, but I wanted to focus on the two generations before them who have been loyal print readers and are used to that personal news delivery. Not all of them use smartphones or are as comfortable with mobile technology as the younger demographic. So as they cancel their news subscriptions due to rising costs or other frustration, I wanted Reportory to fill this news void for them.

That all being said, even though the PDF digest is the “personalized newspaper” we were first and foremost working on, readers also receive a daily link to read their articles online in their own customized news portal. In early 2015, we will be releasing our iOS apps for phones and tablets where readers can access their articles on the go.

Q. The big question for any startup is how you plan to make money. What about that aspect of Reportory?

A. One of the main differences with Reportory and any other news aggregation site is that we do not use free RSS feeds to link readers back-n-forth across the web. Instead, we license 100 percent of the content in order to use the entirety of the articles to create this new product.

However, since our platform is totally customized in terms of the news it delivers to each reader, we do not pay editors or other journalists to hand-pick what the top news should be. Thus, at this point content licensing and technology development are our two largest costs.

All Reportory readers can receive 10 news articles a day for free, and we will be implementing some customized advertising to offset this cost. Then, for serious readers who want more content, we have a tiered pricing model where they can pay $4.99/month for 20 articles daily or $9.99/month for 30 articles daily.

We have plans to provide paying users with additional benefits such as a list of stock market data in their digest if they select business as a preferred topical section or a list of sports scores if they select sports. Our goal essentially is to recreate the newspaper from the ground up for these readers but only with the content they want.

Q. You’ve seen many twists and turns in your career in journalism and communications. What advice do you have for today’s students who want to go into the field?

A. I have indeed!

I dabbled in traditional newspapers right after college, then went back to graduate school during the economic crisis to receive an MSIS because I am fascinated with technology and an MBA as I love all aspects of business and marketing. During grad school, I interned at a startup and at Lenovo before finally landing at IBM and now working on my own startup. So I have truly stretched and explored a good deal over the past 10 years!

My biggest advice for students today is to experiment and explore as much as they possibly can. They should realize that their first job out of college is likely not their 20+ year spot as it may have been for their parents. Instead, they should push themselves to try a role that they might not have initially targeted or a company that wasn’t initially on their radar.

Each of my internships and jobs has taught me so much about myself — what inspires me, challenges me, bores me, etc. That self-awareness is so important to determining one’s career path … and one I am still learning as I continue to stretch and explore!

I love the saying, “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go” by T.S. Eliot. That is my biggest takeaway for people in their 20s: to heed this advice and take those risks in the early part of their career and never live their lives with “what ifs.”

Remembering Elizabeth “Bricks” House

I am saddened to hear of the death of Elizabeth House, a former colleague at the News & Record in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Elizabeth and I worked together in Greensboro from 1989-1991. My job on the copy desk there was my first full-time gig in newspapers. Elizabeth was always kind and helpful to newcomers like me, eager to show us the ropes.

Bricks, as she was known, did everything in Greensboro: reporter, sportswriter and columnist, copy editor and page designer. She was similarly versatile after moving to Hawaii, where she worked from 1993 to 2010.

In 2013, Elizabeth organized a reunion of News & Record journalists. I was able to attend and catch up with friends and colleagues from more than 20 years ago. The gathering took place on a perfect September afternoon in downtown Greensboro, and it wouldn’t have happened without Elizabeth.

Farewell, Bricks. You will be missed.

A story that’s set in agate and unfolds in a box

This weekend, I plan to attend a baseball-themed “block party” in Durham, North Carolina. The event is pegged to the upcoming all-star game between the International League and the Pacific League.

One of the bands performing at the event is The Baseball Project, which includes two members of R.E.M. Their latest album includes an ode to the box score, as printed in the sports sections of newspapers. Some sample lyrics:

  • “For a half hour every day, let the box scores have their way.”
  • “I don’t need a website recap or highlights on ESPN.”
  • “The box score tells the whole truth. That’s the way it was designed.”
  • “And when the last newspaper goes, we’ll just read ’em on our phones.”

I too have been a reader of box scores since I was a child. The story of a game is in there as much as it is in traditional story text. That goes for sports besides baseball.

So I figure I will sing along to “Box Scores” on Saturday, assuming The Baseball Project performs it at the party. If you cannot be there, you can read the lyrics to the song and listen to it on YouTube.