Submitting facts to a candid world

declaration-painting

“Writing the Declaration of Independence,” a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

As one of the best breakup letters of world history, the Declaration of Independence is a wonderful document.

Its author is Thomas Jefferson, with editing help from John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. The Continental Congress also changed some wording before approving the declaration.

The list of complaints against King George III is especially interesting in its detail. That section is introduced this way: “Let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”

On this holiday, I encourage you to read the full text of the Declaration of Independence or listen to a reading by NPR journalists. In either form, please appreciate the declaration’s language, structure and message, and have a safe and happy Fourth of July.

Q&A with Kelsey Weekman, writer at AOL

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Kelsey Weekman is a trending content writer at AOL. She has also written for Mashable, Reductress and Mediashift. In this interview, Weekman discusses how AOL approaches reporting, editing and headline writing.

Q. Describe your job. What does a “trending content writer” do on a typical day?

A. I spend the day looking for stories that I think will go viral, from animal videos to the latest odd political moment. I write anywhere from 5 to 10 in a day, but since January, it’s always been closer to 10. (Inauguration was in January, so, you can put the pieces together there.)

Q. How does story editing and headline writing work at AOL?

A. Writers write their own headlines, and there are three kinds:

  1. A main title, which shows up on the article page when you open it. We try to give lots of information and use SEO keywords.
  2. A social headline, which automatically shows up when shared on Facebook and Twitter. We try to craft a clever-yet-not-misleading tease here. It’s Clickbait Lite.
  3. A short title, which shows up on the app. We go for a similar tease but can only use 52 characters.

As for story editing, it’s not particularly thorough. I pass my stories on to a coworker on my level or above, and they proofread the article, then send it back. I make my own changes and publish my own work.

Q. You also edit an email newsletter called Keeping Up With The Content, and you’ve researched newsletters as part of an independent study. What do you like about the newsletter format?

A. I experimented with quite a few newsletter formats myself, but I found the one that works best for me, a content curator who pulls from a ton of different websites, is really just making a list of headlines divided by topic. I format it with fun colors and a trendy font to make it feel more like a zine than an email marketing tactic.

Q. You are a 2016 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What skills that you learned there to do you use in your job at AOL, and what new ones have picked up?

A. What I learned in the most basic news writing class has never left me. It drilled how to write a proper news article into my brain. My specialization was in public relations, which I realized about halfway through is not what I want to do, but having to be creative with words in any format was an invaluable exercise.

Most importantly, I learned to be scrappy. I learned that you have to be your own best advocate because the journalism world is wildly competitive. If you want to do something, do it, don’t wait for someone to create a way for you to accomplish it.

UPDATE: In August 2017, Weekman accepted a position writing for Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter.

Follow Kelsey Weekman on Twitter, read her stories and subscribe to her newsletter.

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: Editors, let your reporters prove you wrong

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 15th of those posts. Ryan Wilusz is a senior majoring in journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill. He has written for the College Town website, and after graduation, he will work as a reporter at The News Herald in Morganton, North Carolina.

As a journalist, I hate to bring up old news; what’s done is done.

But with Bill O’Reilly no longer a member of Fox News, I have naturally reflected on some of his most outrageous moments from, what Indira A.R. Lakshmanan of The Boston Globe calls his “bulletproof bully’s pulpit.” But perhaps the most noteworthy (and meme-worthy) moment of his long career happened off the air during his time on “Inside Edition.” In outtake footage that surfaced in 2008, O’Reilly can be seen screaming about the teleprompter as he struggles to decipher what exactly his lines are supposed to mean. In the end, he yells profanities at his coworkers and decides to override the script using his own words to end the show.

With O’Reilly’s talent and political knowledge, perhaps you would make an exception for such behavior. But as an editor, imagine for a moment that one of your reporters disagrees with your editorial decision and stands up for his or her choices. Perhaps they don’t stand up quite as strong as O’Reilly, but they stand up nonetheless. What do you say? What do you do?

Being an editor is all about managing reporters and making things right. But don’t think for a moment that the editor should always be the one who is correct. I would argue that good editors should encourage reporters to prove them wrong. In fact, I would say good editors should embrace healthy forms of insubordination. There is such a thing.

But don’t listen to me; listen to legendary investigative reporter Bob Woodward when he said, “All good work is done in defiance of management.” Now I’m not saying you editors out there should let your reporters stomp on your work and disregard your title. You still are the ones in charge, after all. But what happens when reporters begin to accept everything you say? What happens when they begin trying to satisfy you and not the readers?

It may sound silly, but it can happen so easily. Even as a student, this has happened to me. I have found myself, after receiving feedback on early-semester assignments, attempting to write in a way that avoids being counted off for things my professor didn’t like. But the professor is just one reader. The professor is, in a way, the editor. I could sit there and argue about my grade all day, but it wouldn’t change a thing.

But when you encourage arguments and healthy insubordination inside the newsroom, you encourage reaching a conclusion together, you encourage dialogue and you encourage reporters to be inquisitive. If reporter can’t feel comfortable standing up and questioning their editors, how can those reporters feel comfortable asking the hard questions of sly politicians?

And just as politicians will fight back, you should too. After all, good journalists are often the ones who are rough around the edges — ones who refuse to accept what is handed to them until they know it is correct.

I read in Carol Fisher Saller’s “The Subversive Copy Editor” that the editor who makes and stands by his or her countless changes is often not the best editor. Believing there is a standard way to do something and blocking out other voices means you only have a few tricks in your bag.

So I encourage editors: add some tricks. And let your reporters throw in a few tricks of their own. Reporters who feel comfortable standing up for themselves and asking questions will do the same in the field. Practice how you want them to play.

Student guest post: Editing narrative journalism (an essay in question form)

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 14th of those posts. Jordan Wilkie is a first-year master’s student on the reporting track at UNC-Chapel Hill. He focuses on the criminal justice system, with an expertise in juvenile and LGBTQ incarceration.

New Journalism is defined by Robert S. Boynton, the author of “New New Journalism,” as “reportorially based, narrative-driven long form nonfiction.” In other words, journalists tell long stories that are true (we’ll get back to that last word in a minute).

In the obligatory name-drop paragraphs, I’ll mention that the most famous contemporary, i.e. “new new journalists,” include Adrian LeBlanc, John Krakauer and Ted Conover. They inherit their craft from off-beat journalists of the 1960s and 1970s looking to make journalism tell stories rather than just inform. They experimented with language and style, incorporating literary techniques long relegated to fiction. These rebels, who certainly had their detractors, were such giants as Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, Gay Talese and, the man credited with codifying the genre as “New Journalism,” Tom Wolfe.

“New” journalism is, of course, a misnomer. Nothing is new under the sun, and the tradition of narrative reporting harkens back through Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell to a handful of 19th century writers (really, read the summary, it’s helpful).

Now that you’ve reserved 10 more books on your public library’s website, let’s get to the heart of the matter: How do we, as editors, manage creative writing in journalism? How do we negotiate truth — facts, observed reality — and Truth, the honesty and faithful-to-experience essence of a story?

[Spoiler: I don’t know the answer. Ask The New Yorker.]

Let’s look at an article by an up-and-coming journalist, a soon-to-graduate senior, who published an excellent article on Media Hub, a project of the UNC School of Media and Journalism. Tess Allen’s piece on the abuse of women in French refugee camps opens with a narrative scene: A woman goes to the restroom in the middle of the night; she is raped.

Allen is not present to see the unnamed woman wake, to see her tip-toe around others sleeping on the ground, to listen outside the bathroom stall with the broken latch, yet Allen writes with near omnipotence.

She steps out onto the uneven, jagged gravel and the night air hits her cheeks. She shuffles between graffiti-laden shelters and down the dirt road, about 50 yards to the nearest bathroom.

The smell of feces and urine hits her nostrils before she even steps through the raised doorway. She shuffles blindly forward on the floor that’s wet with stale water, feeling for a stall door. Her hand catches the edge of the door, and she goes inside.

The writing is based off good journalism, off interviews and being on-scene. Even if Allen’s subject did not describe the earth under her feet when she stepped outside, Allen would have been able to see this detail for herself when she visited the shelter and later add it to the story. Allen measured, or at least eyeballed, the distance to the nearest bathroom.

But how did Allen know her subject shuffled to the bathroom? Does she always shuffle?
And how did Allen know her subject smelled feces and urine even before she entered the bathroom? Was that described in the interview? Or did Allen go there herself and think, “How could you not smell this s**t a block away?

[Disclaimer: I have never met Tess Allen and know nothing about the editorial process for publication on Media Hub. I chose her work to rep UNC and because it is a solid piece of journalism – for anyone, not just for a student.]

Journalism is the reporting of facts, which makes new journalism — such as narrative journalism and creative non-fiction — especially hard to write. Where does a publication draw the line around reality, and how does an editor enforce it?

If I were editing Allen’s work, I’d be a hard-liner. Show me your notes, show me the interview. Where did she tell you about the smell? Tell you about the water? For a new reporter, I’d say no inventiveness, no assumptions, get it on tape, from multiple sources, or no dice.

The logic is to teach the young reporter to ask extremely detailed questions, to elicit sensory descriptions. It is also to protect the reporter from accusations of falsification.

The secondary role of an editor would be to improve the writing, to improve the flow, to edit for the creative presentation of the facts. In that role, I have nothing to offer Allen’s superb writing.

When you make it big, the rules can be bent. Take Gay Talese, famous for his in-depth reporting, which he often takes years to develop. His method is old school. He packs boxes with manila folders stuffed with clippings and notes, then covers them in collage relating to his stories. Talese earned his stripes decades ago – his career took off in 1965 with his story, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” which he researched in the lightning’s flash of 31 days. Right at the beginning, Talese does the impossible:

The two blondes knew, as did Sinatra’s four male friends who stood nearby, that it was a bad idea to force conversation upon him when he was in this mood of sullen silence, a mood that had hardly been uncommon during this first week of November, a month before his fiftieth birthday.

Talese gets into their heads!

He didn’t interview the women, does not know their names, nothing. The line was an educated projection, a third-party judgment from afar, just shy pure fancy.

But I’ll be dammed if it didn’t sound good.

Real news, real editing

For many years, students in my Advanced Editing course have collaborated with counterparts in a community journalism course to put together the Durham VOICE. It’s a fun and fruitful collaboration.

This semester, I’ve expanded that idea. In addition to work on the VOICE, my students are collaborating with students in a feature-writing course to create a website called Omnibus. The site’s name reflects the broad spectrum of stories there.

Both the VOICE and Omnibus let students edit real stories written by their peers. They also write headlines and captions, and add links. I’m grateful for the opportunity to help them gain this experience.

Q&A with Marnie Shure, deputy managing editor at The Onion

Marnie Shure is deputy managing editor at The Onion, the satirical website that describes itself as “America’s Finest News Source.” In this interview, conducted by email, she discusses her role at The Onion and how editing and headline writing work there.

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

A. A typical workday actually starts around 7 a.m. In addition to being the deputy managing editor, I’m also the features editor, covering small content types; this means I have to find news topics early in the morning for the writers to comment on throughout the day.

Later, at the office, we typically have between one and three different meetings in a day, targeting certain editorial objectives like slating a future issue or responding quickly to a developing news story. In between, I am assembling features, communicating with freelancers, looking over content schedules and generally just shepherding things through the various stages of production.

I also occasionally still copyedit stories when I can, which is a delight all its own.

Q. How do writers and editors at The Onion come up with ideas for stories and “report” them?

A. Every writer has their own methods of generating story ideas to bring to the table, but of course keeping an eye on real news trends and developments is a huge part of that.

From there, the process is incredibly collaborative: Headlines are read aloud in a meeting and voted upon, and selected stories are brainstormed as a group. Drafts are written, rewritten, edited and edited again.

All told, each piece of content goes through about six different rounds of review. But it has to begin with a headline that could just as easily stand on its own, without text. If the headline cannot be fully understood without further elaboration, then the headline isn’t strong enough to be selected in the first place.

Q. How do story editing and headline writing work at The Onion?

A. Story editing is also a group effort, in that no single person’s preferences are shaping the finished product. Each sentence is scrutinized for joke opportunities and infused with as much satire as can be stuffed into it.

At the same time, though, nothing can read too much like a joke is being made; it should sound natural, businesslike, and newsworthy, no matter the topic. It’s this particular aspect of the voice that makes it hard to master: It can never sound as though anyone but a journalist is writing it.

Q. Working at The Onion sounds like fun. What advice do you have for people interested in jobs there?

A. Working at The Onion is certainly very fun, provided you are an obsessed freak like me!

Within the editorial realm, a borderline unhealthy fandom for America’s Finest News Source (coupled with a workhorse mentality and gluttony for punishment) outweighs the most esteemed journalism degree. I’ve never been around people who work so hard in my life.

So I guess the answer is, find it fun to work very hard at this one particular thing. I’m not good with advice.