Q&A with Suzanne Tobias, reporter at The Wichita Eagle

suzanne-tobias

Suzanne Tobias is a reporter and columnist at The Wichita Eagle. Her primary beat is covering the Wichita public schools. In this interview, Tobias discusses her job and the newspaper’s recent move, and she offers advice to aspiring journalists.

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

A. I cover education for The Wichita Eagle and Kansas.com, with a primary focus on the Wichita school district, which is the largest and one of the most diverse in our region. School finance has been a huge story in Kansas for the past decade or more, as the Wichita district and others have sued the state over education funding.

I enjoy the variety of stories on the education beat. On any given day, I could write about teacher contract negotiations, concealed-carry guns on campus, discipline in schools, refugee students or a new strategy for teaching math. When the Kansas Legislature is in session, I collaborate with our Statehouse reporters to cover education policy news; during the slower summer months, when teachers and students are out of school, I try to work on big-picture investigative or data-driven stories.

My typical day starts about 7:30 a.m. or earlier – partly because I’m an early riser and need to get my own kids to school, and partly because it meshes well with school schedules and allows me to better reach sources. I generally post at least one story to our website before noon, updating it throughout the day if need be, while also juggling weekend stories and at least one longer-term project. I check in with my editor at least briefly each day, either in person or via email.

Every other Monday I cover the Wichita school board, which meets in the evening, so I start a little later those days. I try to head home by 5 or 5:30 p.m., but I usually take my laptop with me in case news breaks and I have to cover that from home.

Q. The Eagle recently moved. What is it like to leave a newsroom behind and move into a new one?

Moving to a new building this past spring was exciting, exhausting and a little emotional. The Eagle had been at its previous location since 1961.

As our primary focus evolved from print to digital, we moved our printing operation to a sister paper in Kansas City and downsized significantly. That meant the old place had lots of unused, unneeded space. We moved just a few blocks up the street, but the new office has way more modern amenities and energy. It’s brighter, with balconies off the newsroom that overlook Wichita’s Old Town Square. Television screens throughout the newsroom broadcast breaking news or website analytics.

The move was a great excuse for a lot of us to ditch old junk and start fresh. The old building is being demolished to make room for a new business. While I thought I’d be sad – we posted a huge “-30-” on the out-facing windows when we left – I think the new place means progress for our company and the community.

Q. You are active on Twitter. How do you use social media as part of your work?

A. I began using Twitter in 2008, before most of my editors and colleagues really knew about it or realized what a great tool it could be. I have a loyal cadre of followers – mostly teachers and parents – who thank me for live-tweeting Wichita school board meetings so they can keep track of discussions and debates.

I regularly use Twitter and other social media to find or track down sources, to flesh out tips, to gather input and to share links to my stories. A few years ago, a random tip from one of my Twitter followers – that a Kansas student’s disparaging tweet about Gov. Sam Brownback angered the governor’s staff and landed her in the principal’s office – resulted in The Eagle’s No. 1 story of the year for online page views ().

Q. You have worked at the Eagle since graduating from N.C. State University in 1990. That’s unusual in a highly transient profession. What has kept you in Wichita?

A. It’s funny, because when I moved to Wichita from North Carolina, I swore to friends and family that I would be here for a couple of years and then try to get a job at one of the papers back home. Part of the reason I stayed is that I met my husband (an Eagle photographer) here, and we bought a house and started a family.

But more than that, this newspaper offered so many opportunities to try new things, cover various beats and keep things fresh. Over the years I have covered general-assignment news, city government, military and education. I tried my hand at editing, supervising a seven-member education team. (I learned that I much prefer reporting and writing.) I was part of The Eagle’s first foray into online journalism. I flew with the Blue Angels. And I started a weekly column on parenting and family life, which I still write.

I’ve been here 27 years, and I still love what I do because my job and our industry keeps changing. And have you seen a Kansas sunset? Seriously, they rock.

Q. What advice do you have for aspiring journalists?

A. First, don’t let the haters get you down. Journalism is a necessary and noble profession, and one that’s just as important now as it ever was.

It’s also a pretty awesome way to make a living – being nosy, getting the scoop, writing it down, telling all your friends and neighbors. No matter what your passion might be – politics, science, sports, movies, books, business, food – there’s some kind of job in journalism that will let you explore it. Also, journalists are some of the smartest, funniest people you’ll ever meet, and working around them every day is good for the soul.

Oh, and READ. That’s my primary advice for aspiring journalists: Read, read, read, read. Readers make the best writers.

Read Suzanne Tobias’s stories at Kansas.com and follow her on Twitter.

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All that journalism

This week, I am stepping out of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill and spending my afternoons at the music department. I am one of several instructors in a one-week jazz workshop. It’s the second year that I’m participating in the program.

So what is an editor doing at a jazz workshop? I’ll work with about 15 students who want to learn about digital journalism as part of their workshop experience. Here are our topics and tasks for the week:

  • MONDAY: What makes a good post? Create a blog at web.unc.edu. Post your impressions and a photo of the evening performance at Wilson Library.
  • TUESDAY: Exploring alternative story forms and learning how to interview sources. Interview a workshop participant and post a vignette about them.
  • WEDNESDAY: Using social media to cover an event. Use Twitter (and more) to document the evening performance. The hashtag is #UNCjazz.
  • THURSDAY: Writing headlines and captions. Revise the headlines and captions on your earlier posts.
  • FRIDAY: Curating social media. Use Storify to document the week.

Thanks to Stephen Anderson, the workshop’s director, for the opportunity to work with these students. Now let’s turn music into words and images.

UPDATE: We had a great week. Examples of student work included a review of one of the performances, a profile of a bass player who plays in a Beatles cover band, and a Storify overview of the workshop.

Remembering Mark Binker

One of North Carolina’s best journalists, Mark Binker, has died at age 43.

For a dozen years, Binker covered state government and the General Assembly for the Greensboro News & Record, WRAL and The Insider, a newsletter affiliated with The News & Observer. His Twitter feed was an essential follow for anyone interested in North Carolina politics.

Here’s a sampling of reaction to his sudden passing:

  • “Mark Binker was an outstanding journalist who uniquely understood complex issues and explained to viewers and readers why they should care.” — Gov. Roy Cooper
  • “Binker always called himself a ‘scruffy old reporter,’ but his humility couldn’t hide his sharp intellect – he was a policy wonk at heart who always did his homework.” — Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger
  • “In many ways he represented the very best of North Carolina, and no one knew or covered the General Assembly better than Mark Binker.” — House Speaker Tim Moore
  • “Binker would be laughing at all these politicians praising him. ‘That’s not what they said before. They want something.’ ” — John Robinson, former editor at the News & Record

I never met Mark Binker in real life, but we did communicate via social media on occasion. He was helpful, humble and humorous.

I’ve also mentioned Binker to journalism students interested in covering politics. Whether in print or on screen, he exemplified the best of journalism: careful, thorough, ethical and open-minded. Binker was a role model and mentor to many.

On Twitter, political strategist Alfredo Rodriguez suggested that the North Carolina Press Association create a Mark Binker Award “to honor journalists for their dogged and honorable pursuit of truth.” I support that idea and hope that the NCPA will consider it.

In the meantime, I offer my condolences to Binker’s family, friends and colleagues. We will all miss him.

Student guest post: Should Facebook Live be deleted?

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 13th of those posts. Avery Williams is a junior studying editing and graphic design at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is the campus editor at The Tab – UNC, an online newspaper.

Facebook Live was launched in April 2016 as a reaction to consumers of media becoming media producers themselves. More than ever, major news events are filmed by civilians on their smartphones and shared with their friends and followers. News outlets have picked up on this trend and now use Facebook Live for many of their own events or coverage, including using Facebook Live footage from their viewers for their own news coverage.

Using Facebook Live rather than posted a video shortly after recording it has some benefits. This function allows the user to see how many people are currently watching them as well as any likes or comments along the way. If a comment brings up a certain question, the person(s) in the Facebook Live video has the ability to respond in real time. It has become a popular tool to many since its launch, especially to those with a large following.

What started out as a way to better interaction and interconnectedness has now shown some of its negative side effects. On Easter Sunday 2017, Steven Stephens killed an elderly man and recorded the entire ordeal and posted it to Facebook. He later allegedly posted several videos bragging about killing more random civilians throughout the day.

Close friends of Stephens say they have no idea what the motivation could have been and have never noticed violent tendencies or clues toward this behavior.

Facebook has come out saying the video of the homicide was not live, but other videos throughout the day were. Even if this particular event was not done through Facebook Live, this opens the question of what would happen if it actually were.

Social media sites have a certain responsibility to censor posts to their viewers without too much restriction, but Facebook Live has always been in the moment with no previous review, censorship or filtration.

Even if this homicide was not committed on Facebook Live, it has proven that this could very possibly occur on the social media site.

Should users have this much power? Is no censorship and the ability to go live socially responsible for everyone, or should only trusted sources and media organizations have this power?

Many may argue that Facebook Live does more harm than good, allowing entertainers and public figures alike a chance to speak to their audience directly in real time. The issues that have now arisen deal with what happens when this power gets into the wrong hands. This is certainly not the first time illegal activity was filmed on Facebook Live, and it will not be the last.

Steven Stephens was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot on April 18, two days after the homicide.

One-and-done digital news

This week, I visited the website of the Louisville Courier-Journal for the first time. I did so via links on Twitter to a couple of its stories about a passenger being dragged off an overbooked United Airlines flight.

The newspaper covered the story extensively because the flight was bound for Louisville and the roughed-up passenger lives in that area of Kentucky. A follow-up article that looked into the criminal past of that person drew heavy criticism: What did drug-related offenses from 13 years ago have to do with the incident on the plane? Here’s how the newspaper tweeted about that story:

united

The Courier-Journal’s executive editor defended the story as newsworthy to a local readership and as a part of the newspaper’s overall coverage of the airplane incident. He also said this:

We didn’t account for the fact that some people might just hit on that piece, and we didn’t put the necessary context for a national or international audience to understand. We’ve since done that.

Editors need to understand how readers get to news on their sites. Readers do that largely through social media and search engines. Those paths lead directly to individual articles, not home pages.

People like me are clicking on a link, reading the one story it leads to and moving on. It’s a different experience from picking up a print publication and seeing a set of related stories. If newspapers are to survive in the digital era, journalists must recognize that reality and edit accordingly.

Student guest post: The editor’s edge in breaking news

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 10th of those posts. Sara Salinas is a senior majoring in journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill. Originally from Maryland, Sara has previously worked with The Daily Tar Heel, Baltimore Business Journal and Indianapolis Star. She will move to Boston after graduation for an internship with The Boston Globe.

News is getting faster, but reporters really aren’t.

To no fault of training or dedication, reporters are struggling to keep up with the digital demands of a constantly breaking news cycle. You hear a tip, read a blurb, scroll past a vague tweet, maybe, and the starting gun fires.

Who can you call to confirm it? How quickly can you get a story up? How much context can you throw in? Which outlets have already beat you to it?

In an industry more concerned with speed than ever, editors can keep the breaking news from breaking their reporters or their reputations.

As a breaking news reporter at The Indianapolis Star, I spent most night shifts listening to police scanners and waiting for an emergency run worth reporting. The waiting could very quickly turn into scrambling if the right call came in — and that’s when our online producers shined.

The Star’s producers monitored local TV channels and news outlets for updates or confirmation, tweeted initial reports and photos, and published a basic outline of the story to be updated.

In top priority breaking news situations, producers pulled information from reporters’ tweets to update the outline as the story developed.

The added eyes and ears on a breaking news story relieved the need to scramble and made our coverage more streamlined, more accurate and more complete.

Producers used the official Star Twitter account and retweeted reporters on their personal accounts, so there was never any redundancy or confusion — just the opposite. There was clear delineation from the reporter on the scene to the larger outlet.

Though our online producers had a slight edge over the average editor in that their regular task was exclusively digital, any editor can adopt the same practices and strategies to alleviate the chaos of reporting breaking news:

  1. Designate one or two reporters to tweet developing information. If more than one reporter is updating, do your best to assign each one an angle or focus, so information isn’t repeated and time isn’t wasted.
  2. Retweet the most important information from the publication’s account. Pull a photo if the reporter has taken one. (Bonus: using the same photo repeatedly, as long as it’s representative of the full situation, can be a visual cue for continuing coverage — but don’t overdo it.)
  3. Update the online story with information from the reporter’s tweets. The work is already done, why wait to flesh out the breaking shell?
  4. Pull context from related stories and link in the breaking story. Context is the first casualty of breaking news, and including background will give the story legs and increase engagement.
  5. Keep watching your competition. If your local TV station runs with new information you don’t have yet, you know you’re behind on your reporting and, more importantly, you know what to confirm next.

We like to say journalism is a public service — and I do believe that’s still true — but it’s also becoming increasingly market-driven. Traffic to online content is both what nearly killed the industry and what’s going to save it.

And speed in breaking news situations can be one of the biggest defining factors for which news outlet gets traffic over another.

Streamlining breaking news to be useful, accurate and complete demands more than a single reporter. The editor’s edge is a digital-driven curation of updates in a situation where getting the news is just as important as how fast you do it.

Student guest post: With the Facebook Journalism Project, a social media site turns editor

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the seventh of those posts. Sam Miner is a senior from Boston majoring in reporting and sports administration at UNC-Chapel Hill. She has previously interned at Cosmopolitan magazine and Time Out Sydney, and she hopes to go into digital media upon graduation. Miner also loves all things Boston sports, Chance the Rapper and Frank Ocean related.

We all have that uncle or cousin who continually posts about and shares 100 percent fake news that we all know is fake but it fits his/her point of view so he/she buys in completely and clutters our Facebook timelines with frustrating falsities. This is why Facebook’s announcement of The Facebook Journalism Project should cause a communal sigh of relief through the journalistic community (and with editors especially).

The Facebook Journalism Project is essentially Facebook’s attempt to clean up its reputation as the breeding ground for all those seedy news hoaxes that have been buried deep, deep in the internet and somehow find the light of day. After this past election — where fake news raged rampant (Donald Trump and “Republicans are the dumbest group of voters” and “Hillary Clinton’s child abuse ring being run out of a pizza shop”) — it’s more important now than ever before to monitor fake news and teach news literacy. This is the mission of Facebook’s new project: to create a “healthy news ecosystem” where journalism can thrive by weeding out the hoaxes and promoting news literacy among its users.

Facebook will accomplish this task through:

  • Collaborative development of news products
  • Training and tools for journalists
  • Training and tools for everyone

The portion of Facebook’s project that I want to focus on falls under the category of “Training and tools for everyone”: continuing efforts to curb news hoaxes. Facebook is aiming to weed out fake news from its site with the help of Poynter’s International Fact Checking Code of Principles. While I 100 percent support the filtering of fake news on Facebook, this does raise some ethical red flags for me as an editor.

Freedom of speech is the foundation upon which the profession of journalism stands; and, yes, sometimes freedoms need a check or two. I don’t think many people would mind their newsfeeds being free of hoaxes. The question that remains is: How can we fight for and defend the right to free speech on one hand and yet decide that some speech shouldn’t be entirely free?

As I see it, there are a few ways this monitoring could be done: leave it to the individual to decide (people can download Chrome extensions like the Fake News Monitor or allow social media platforms to do the curation. The latter, in a sense is what reputable news sources do regularly.

It’s the job of the editor to curate — to weed out the bad and bring to light the necessary. While there are certainly First Amendment implications with sites like Facebook and Google taking aim at fake news, they are essentially taking on a new role as editor and, as editors, I feel we should be excited about that.