Q&A with Brian Long of the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs

Brian Long is director public affairs North Carolina’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. In that role, he oversees the department’s communication efforts, including the N.C. State Fair. He is a 1988 graduate of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. In this interview, conducted by email, Long talks about his job and what to expect at this year’s fair.

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

A. Unpredictable. It doesn’t matter what I’m planning to get done on any given day, there’s always the possibility that I’ll end up spending my day working on something entirely different.

The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has a lot of service and regulatory responsibilities, so there’s always a possibility of some issue popping up. The unpredictability keeps my job from being boring, but some days can definitely be a challenge.

I usually start my day reviewing news stories related to agriculture or other topics the department has some connection to. I spend a good chunk of time editing news releases, speeches and blog posts written by the other members of the Public Affairs staff. I also do a bit of writing myself, though not as much as I would like because I find myself pulled into a good number of meetings.

Q. It’s almost time for the State Fair. How does your job change in the weeks leading up to this event? In the aftermath?

A. We begin working on the State Fair in the winter, developing a theme and working with the fair’s ad agency on a media plan and creative concepts. We do some publicity during the summer — announcing the theme, updating the website and publicizing the concert lineup and advance ticket sales, which usually start in early August.

We get more focused on the fair in September, planning what I call “events within the event.” Our staff is responsible for organizing a pre-fair media lunch, a press conference focused on safety, an opening ceremony and the annual State Fair Livestock Hall of Fame induction. We move our office from downtown to the fairgrounds a week before the fair opens.

Once the fair opens, our duties involve responding to media requests and helping reporters with story ideas, publicizing winners of livestock and cooking contests and taking photos of the fair. After the fair, we typically deal with any follow-up media requests regarding attendance and our overall impression of the fair, and we announce any remaining livestock show results.

And before we know it, we’re getting ready for the next year. I also should mention that even though we’re absorbed by the fair, we still have responsibilities for assisting the rest of the agriculture department with any communications needs.

Q. Each year, the fair has a theme. This year it’s “the October Original.” How do those themes come about?

A. Caffeine and sugar usually play a role in our theme development. We get together and brainstorm ideas based on the fair’s characteristics.

We strive for themes that create a certain mood or feel. For this year’s theme, we wanted to play up the fact that the fair is a unique North Carolina experience.

Q. Unfortunately, the fair is not just fun, food and games. Last year, an accident on a ride injured several people. This year, a concealed-carry group said it wants to bring guns to the fair, bringing a political debate to the event. How does your office handle these situations?

A. We believe in transparency and accuracy.

When the ride accident happened last year, we immediately began gathering as many known facts as possible so that we could hold a news briefing and put out a news release. The initial focus was on what happened, because we didn’t know when the investigation would determine why it happened. By providing accurate information as quickly as possible, we hope to guard against speculation and rumors.

When situations like this occur, the relationships we’ve built with news media over time are invaluable. We have a track record of being accessible and helpful to the media, and there is a mutual respect for our respective jobs.

Q. Social media must play a role in the fair nowadays. Any advice for those of us visiting on how and what to tweet and post to Instagram this year?

A. Because of the popularity of selfies, we are rebranding our photo-op spots as “selfie stations” this year. We also encourage visitors to post about their favorite things at the fair, whether it’s the food, the exhibits, the rides, the animals or the entertainment. Use #ncstatefair or #octoberoriginal (this year’s theme).

A show of hands in Hong Kong

Pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong are front-page news around the world this week. This helpful primer on the BBC provides background on the reasons for the protests.

Tens of thousands of people took to the city’s streets and refused to budge. The demonstrations are reminiscent of the Occupy movement in the United States and elsewhere in recent years. There’s an #OccupyCentral hashtag on Twitter.

Some protesters have also held up their hands in a “don’t shoot” gesture. That has led some U.S. journalists to compare the Hong Kong movement to the demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri. Some have drawn a direct connection, as seen here:


I wonder whether such a link exists. Are people in Hong Kong aware of what has happened in Missouri? Are they using the “hands up” gesture in solidarity with protesters in the United States? Or is it coincidence?

Via email, I contacted three people I know who live in Hong Kong. Here are their impressions on this topic:

  • “Was wondering myself. Seems like a natural defense gesture to me. That story [Ferguson] isn’t as big in HK as in the US. Race relations and sensitivity are rarely debated, so that story wasn’t as prominent in local media.” — Eldes Tran, copy editor at the International New York Times
  • “That’s the word on the street, but I can’t say for sure. It would be a good story if so, but hard to prove the origin. There was also talk of police threatening to use rubber bullets Sunday, so it’s possible it was a coordinated show of peacefulness.” — Emily Matchar, author and freelance writer
  • “I don’t think there was any conscious move to link events here with Ferguson. Certainly no one I’ve spoken with here believes the issues at stake are in any way similar, except for the fact that police overreacted to demonstrators. It’s also worth noting here that the police force here is overwhelmingly Chinese and still viewed with some respect. While they overreacted, they’re not like the cops in Ferguson.” — Jeffrey Timmermans, lecturer at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong

I know that these are the views of a few. It’s possible that there is a Ferguson connection, but at best, it’s unclear. We simply don’t know, and it’s OK to report that uncertainty. But drawing concrete conclusions in news stories and tweets is irresponsible.

In the end, a firm connection between Ferguson and Hong Kong (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter that much. Each story is important in its own way, with its unique issues. I hope that journalists will continue to cover them both closely — and accurately.

Edit like a pirate

College football is in full swing, and with it, so are the rivalries and trash talk.

Here in North Carolina, East Carolina is emerging as the best team in the state. ECU smashed rival North Carolina 70-41 last weekend. It was the second consecutive win for the Pirates over the Tar Heels.

That resounding victory has apparently inspired this billboard, which is making the rounds on Twitter:


The sign includes the score of that game as well as a mocking reference to N.C. State University’s retired “Our State” slogan. ECU and NCSU are also rivals.

Some UNC fans have responded by questioning the billboard’s grammar. Shouldn’t the hashtag be “#beneathwhom” rather than “#beneathwho”? Technically, yes. But I reserve my who/whom distinctions for formal writing like cover letters and academic journals. I’ll give this casual usage a pass, though the hashtag’s meaning is a mystery to me.

My problem with the billboard is a different one. Happy pirates say “arrrr!” not “aargh!” And ECU fans are certainly pleased, not dismayed, with how their team is playing this season. (You can read more about pirate vocabulary at the Talk Like A Pirate Day site.)

Finally, we come to the question of whether ECU fans are trolling their rivals, as some on Twitter are suggesting. That depends on the billboard’s location. If it’s west of I-95, it is. If it’s east of I-95, it isn’t. Proximity to campuses and their fan bases is our guide.

The sign is apparently in Winterville, a town that’s east of I-95 and less than 10 miles from the ECU campus in Greenville. So this is an example of fans celebrating, not trolling.

I wish ECU fans well on the rest of the season. May you say “arrrr!” throughout the fall. But like Jerry Seinfeld, I don’t want to be a pirate.

No time for trolls

A troll can be annoying in role-playing games and on social media.

Twitter can be great for exchanging ideas and sharing links. It’s my favorite news source, a sort of wire service that I can customize and interact with.

It has its downsides, too. A big one is the problem of trolls — people who seek to harass, badger and engage in straw-man arguments. They’ve been an issue online for a long time, including in comment areas on news websites.

I’ve fallen into trolling traps on Twitter a few times over the years. Lately, I’ve been working on ignoring and, in some cases, blocking trolls. Here’s how I decide whether to respond to someone on Twitter:

  • How many followers does the person have? Less than 100 means it may be a troll.
  • Does the account have a profile photo and a link to more about the person elsewhere online? An egg avatar and lack of a link mean it may be a troll.
  • What is the name on the account? Is there a first and last name, or name of an organization? If not, it may be a troll.
  • What are the account’s other tweets like? If they are mostly replies to other accounts that take a hostile tone, it may be a troll.

I like chatting with people on Twitter. I’m open to constructive criticism and civil discussion. But I have no time for trolls.

Writing and editing with Weird Al

“Weird Al” Yankovic is back. The song parodist who lampooned Michael Jackson and “Star Wars” back in the day has a new album called “Mandatory Fun.” Each day this week, Yankovic is posting a music video from the album on his website.

Two of the songs from “Mandatory Fun” share a “wordy” theme. “Mission Statement” takes aim at those jargon-filled declarations from corporations, government and academia. “Word Crimes” offers advice on grammar, word choice and punctuation, all to the tune of “Blurred Lines.”

“Word Crimes” has generated chatter on Twitter among writers, editors, linguists and lexicographers. Here is a sampling:

  • I think ACES has found its new theme song.
  • “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Word Crimes” is fun but reinforces stereotype of editors as cranks who need to get a life.
  • I always take peeves as a sign that the person truly cares about language. Which is a start.

I see some truth in each of these statements. As an editor, I like grammar and have my own peeves, but I’m also more flexible on matters of language than I used to be. And I don’t edit personal email and text messages that I receive, as Al apparently does. Calling a lapse in grammar or bending of a style rule a “word crime” makes me uncomfortable, as does the song’s scolding tone.

But this is Weird Al. It’s all in good fun. His song uses a slinky beat and clever lyrics to share a lot of solid tips for writers and editors. If “Word Crimes” helps someone remember the difference between its and it’s, then I am willing to smile and sing along.

UPDATE: More reaction on “Word Crimes” from Grammar Girl and ACES blogger Pam Nelson.

Mapped out

Last night, The News & Observer shared the latest about Arthur, a tropical storm that may soon brush the North Carolina coast. The Raleigh newspaper’s Tweet included this map.


As you may have already noticed, the labels for North Carolina and South Carolina are switched. South Carolina is highlighted, but for Raleigh readers, North Carolina should be. Also, Kentucky is marked as the United States.

The N&O’s Twitter followers quickly pointed out the error, some more politely than others. To its credit, the newspaper acknowledged the error and said it was working to repair the bad map.

carolinas-goodmapIn this morning’s print edition, the map is right. The Carolinas are appropriately labeled, and Kentucky is no longer a separate country.

The Web version of the story has the correct version of the map, but it apparently had the one with the errors posted for a while. You can tell by the reader comments, but the story doesn’t have a correction or acknowledge the earlier error.

I asked Craig Silverman of Regret The Error what the newspaper should do when a map is right in print but wrong online. His answer: Include a correction online, but don’t worry about mentioning it in print.

I agree. The N&O did the right thing by responding on Twitter, though I wish it had Tweeted a corrected map. A correction on the story page on its website is also necessary. A simple “an earlier version of this map …” would do.

We all make mistakes. It’s what humans do.

Careful editing can prevent many, but not all, errors from being published. When mistakes happen, it’s best to come clean, acknowledge the errors and set the record straight. On occasion, a dose of humor can help.

UPDATE: As Arthur passed through North Carolina, broadcasters had similar problems with geography, as seen here and here.

Q&A with Jordan Rogers of Raleigh & Company

Jordan Rogers is co-creator and an editor of Raleigh & Company, a collaborative website that consists of the work of nearly 20 writers. In this interview, conducted by email, Rogers discusses the site’s mission and its position in the Triangle’s media landscape.

Q. What is the objective of Raleigh & Company? What do you hope to achieve?

A. There were a lot of us sportswriters or freelance writers in the Triangle area who were already running our own blogs or writing creatively on our own. At some point a few of us figured, why not do this together and get the spillover from each other’s readerships?

We want to tell great stories, talk about important topics and give creative and smart people a platform to reach those in the area who would like to hear from them.

Q. How are writers selected for the site? Are their posts edited by you or other editors?

A. It has started with a loose group of writers, and we’ll do a mixture of invitations and accepting requests. Anyone who wants to potentially contribute should absolutely contact us. Most of the currents are either a professional writer, in an interesting professional field, or simply were such good writers we couldn’t say no.

I’ve done a little over half of the editing so far. That’s usually a good idea early in the development of any site to keep things similar stylistically, but we’ll spread out more duties as we go along.

Q. You’re on Twitter. How does Raleigh & Company plan to use social media?

A. As our main source of traffic. We simply hope to give people great stuff to read. If they like it, they’ll share it. I don’t know what else to say.

Q. The Triangle region of North Carolina is a crowded media market online, with not only traditional media like The News & Observer and WRAL, but also blogs like the Raleigh Connoisseur. How does Raleigh & Company fit into that market, and how can it thrive here?

A. You’re right, there are fantastic media options in and around the Triangle. It’s almost overwhelming.

WRAL is a national leader in local news, and it’s hard to get away from their footprint. (And there’s a reason for that — they’re insanely good.) INDYWeek has been so successful in this area in a time when other print weeklies have failed nationally because the Triangle demands an alternative and smart source of great writing and they’ve delivered for decades. And although in Greensboro, Our State magazine has been making a strong online push on social media with some great content. WCHL is a staple in Orange County, the N&O does fantastic work, and I should just stop there because I would leave someone out and the band orchestra is starting to play.

But that is what a smart and educated populace is all about: options; different points of view and topics. We might do a long form look at recreational adult leagues in the Triangle, discuss whether a terrible comic book has value, or do some reporting on the homeless that no one else is willing to talk about.

We might send a sportswriter to cover a cooking contest (and he did a fantastic job, didn’t he?) or we might send a culinary writer to cover the dining options at a basketball game at PNC. The Internet allows us to do a lot of different things and we plan on taking full advantage of that.

But to your point, we’re interested in making interesting things, and if people like it, they’ll respond. I couldn’t be less worried about “competing” and I only hope RaleighCo can be a part of the great media in the area.