Q&A with Tara Jeffries, reporter at Morning Consult

Tara Jeffries is a reporter at Morning Consult, a technology and media organization in Washington, D.C. In this interview, conducted by email, Jeffries discusses her work there, its process for editing and headline writing, and her use of social media. 

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

A. I’m a finance reporter at Morning Consult, a nonpartisan media company that focuses on the issues driving Washington, Wall Street and Silicon Valley. I cover the intersection of Congress and the financial services industry, with a dash of tax policy, trade and occasional coverage of the presidential candidates’ economic proposals.

I write a mixture of longer, policy-oriented stories and shorter pieces about the news of the day. I’m also the co-author of Morning Consult’s daily Finance Brief, a newsletter that captures the top headlines of the financial services beat.

My routine differs based on whether I’m heading up the brief or my colleague on the finance beat is handling it. On a day that I’m writing it, I’ll gather stories throughout the day and file a draft toward the end of business hours. I file my final draft and go through the editing process with my editor in the morning.

My days also depend on whether Congress is in session. When it is, I’m on Capitol Hill basically every day. Many of my quotes come from committee hearings — I keep detailed tabs on committees pertinent to my beat, like the House Financial Services Committee and the Senate Banking Committee. I also stay in contact with press representatives on those committees to keep in touch about what’s going on and what’s coming up.

But a lot of news is made in hallway interviews — spontaneous interactions with lawmakers after hearings, at events and quite literally as they’re walking in the hallways. I got my first taste of hallway interviewing as a legislative reporting intern with WRAL’s state politics team. When Congress is out of session, I spend a lot of time interviewing and meeting with people in the financial industry, whether they’re lobbyists, advocacy group leaders or think tank policy experts.

In my position, I get to cover the nitty-gritty of policy details in my long-term stories, which is one of my favorite parts of the job. Morning Consult is kind of a policy wonk’s paradise. I also get to be out “in the field” reporting, which is something that many reporters don’t experience at other outlets.

Q. How do story editing and headline writing work at Morning Consult?

A. Stories go through a comprehensive process involving multiple editors.

My stories are handled most of the time by our finance and tech editor (my immediate supervisor), our chief policy editor and/or our managing editor. I write my own headlines, but they are sometimes tweaked by editors, or we float headline suggestions back and forth. The editing at Morning Consult has made me a much more precise, detail-oriented reporter.

Since I am on the Hill most of the time, some of my editing is conducted remotely. Generally, my editors and I communicate via email or Gchat in real time after I file a story. They ask questions and make suggestions. Before publishing a story, they provide me with a “readback” of what it looks like post-editing. This gives me the opportunity to review the piece before it’s published, and bring up any concerns if I have them.

Q. You recently live-tweeted the congressional testimony of Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf. What role does social media play in your job?

A. I’m fairly active on Twitter, and it’s a great way to connect with sources and/or other reporters on my beat. I have developed a following of congressional staffers, some lawmakers and policy advocates. I sometimes live-tweet events, particularly highly watched proceedings like the Wells Fargo CEO’s testimony or events featuring high-profile players like Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s economic advisers, whom I covered last week.

Twitter offers the chance to get a little more conversational and interactive with my coverage. I think one of the biggest misconceptions about policy reporters is that wonky has to mean “stodgy” or boring — regulatory policy, banking policy and, yes, even tax policy can be fun to talk, write and tweet about. My Twitter activity also shows industry and policy sources that I am engaged and informed on my beat.

Q. You are a 2015 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What skills that you learned there do you use in your work, and what new ones have you picked up?

A. In my UNC journalism studies, I learned the importance of a fully fleshed-out story that spells out all the players involved in an incident or topic.

In my particular field, I apply those lessons by making sure to show all the context around a given policy battle or legislative issue. For example, in my coverage of Wells Fargo’s consumer fraud scandal, I’ve detailed not only the immediate news — more than 2 million unauthorized accounts; CEO John Stumpf surrendering $41 million in pay — but how that news ripples out to many of the players in the financial services world, how it affects ongoing regulatory battles and how advocates on different sides of banking issues are using it to gain political capital.

Precision in writing is another aspect of my journalism education that I use in my position — something I learned in both your News Editing and Advanced Editing courses. When covering a numbers-heavy and policy-focused beat, I’m careful to be not only accurate, but precise in my details. An example: When I say that Wells Fargo’s CEO had $41 million in compensation “clawed back,” I need to specify what kind of compensation (in this case, unvested stock options).

Read Jeffries’ stories for Morning Consult and follow her on Twitter.

Q&A with Danny Nett, Dow Jones News Fund editing intern

Danny Nett is a senior in the School of Media and Journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill and online managing editor at The Daily Tar Heel. He recently completed a Dow Jones News Fund internship at Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia. In this interview, conducted by email, Nett discusses that experience.

Q. Describe your internship. What was your typical workday like?

A. I went to Penn State for my DJNF training, and I was placed at the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia. My typical day was coming to the office around 3:30 p.m. and leaving around 11:30.

The first few hours consisted of editing advance copy (stories for upcoming papers) in our CMS. A lot of that stuff was from the wire, so it was mostly doing some polishing up and double checking the big facts.

Around 6:30, we’d switch over to daily content. I edited for the business, national and metro sections, mostly. On an individual story, I’d check facts, grammar, AP/local style and clarity in our CMS — then once a designer placed the story on the page, I’d open it back up in InCopy and write the headlines, read-ins and cutlines. When the story got checked back in, I’d write the web headline. If it was from the wire, I’d go ahead and send it; if it was written from someone in the newsroom, it’d go on for a second read from another editor.

As the summer went on and my co-workers started trusting me more, I took on more responsibilities. I got assigned more A1 stories to edit (usually two from A1 and B1), and I’d occasionally proof pages before sending to the printer.

Q. What was the biggest challenge of the internship, and what was the greatest reward?

A. I think I struggled a lot initially with headlines. I’d copy-edited before at The Daily Tar Heel and Southern Neighbor, but the majority of my work is online where the biggest concern is just SEO.

Getting a clear headline on complicated stories is hard in print — especially when you have six words to describe a funding conflict between legislators and a university, or a big crime story. There’s also an element of parachute journalism in the nature of the DJNF program, and not knowing what names locals would or wouldn’t recognize was tough sometimes.

In the same vein and at risk of being super cornball-y, I’d say the most rewarding thing was the progress I was able to watch myself make from the start to finish of the summer. My co-workers were great about offering constructive feedback, and they did it in a really polite way even on my crappiest of headlines.

At one point toward the end of my internship, my boss told me something along the lines of, “Now I read over some of your stuff and think, ‘Whoa, that’s a good hed.’ ” And I think that was one of the best moments of the whole summer.

Q. What advice would you give to students considering applying for a Dow Jones News Fund internship?

A. Honestly, I would just say to go for it; you don’t really have anything to lose from trying, and you have a ton to gain.

My editing skills and news judgment have sharpened a ton, and I met so many awesome people. My DJNF intern class has a Facebook group, and a few of us are getting together and going out in D.C. next semester when the Virginian-Pilot intern gets back from studying abroad. Which is wild to think about — especially when you realize we were all really only together for less than a week.

As far as more specific advice: I went through with the editing test more or less on a whim, and while I was confident in my editing skills, I sort of thought the rest of the exam kicked my ass (am I allowed to say that?).

So definitely be smart about studying beforehand. Don’t just drill yourself on AP style; think about what else news organizations are going to want you to be familiar with that summer. I know the year before me was big on savvy for the web, and my year was heavy on politics and the presidential election, for obvious reasons. The exam is definitely partly about grammar, but I think in a lot of ways it’s designed to make sure you have a good head on your shoulders.

Q. Congratulations on completing the internship. What’s next for you?

A. I’m working as online managing editor at the DTH for my senior year, and I’m really excited. I’ll be doing management reads (final edit before an article goes to copy) on stories and writing web headlines every day, so my experience this summer is definitely being put to good use.

I’m also trying to make the most of my non-rusty editing skills while I still have them. So, like, coming for you, Usage and Grammar Test.

Q&A with N&O reporter Mandy Locke on the Deadly Force series

Mandy Locke is an investigative reporter at The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her recent series, Deadly Force, examines violent incidents surrounding the sheriff’s office in Harnett County, including the death of an inmate who was shot with a Taser. In this interview, conducted by email, Locke discusses how the multimedia series came together and how the N&O published it in print and online.

Q. How did the Deadly Force series come about? What were some of the obstacles you faced in your reporting?

A. I wish I could claim some sort of brilliance, but the initial tip to this story came because of a relationship. I had a long-ago source, an eccentric lawyer whom I met as a cub reporter in 2004. He would now and again leave me ranting, raving voicemails late at night over the years.

He left one of those in December. John Livingston, he said, shouldn’t have died. A deputy who was at the wrong house with no permission to enter had killed Livingston.

Naturally, this sounded important. But it was one of about eight important stories on my list in the new year when I met with my investigative teammates and our editor. How or why I bit this off first may have been simply random; it may have been fate.

Within hours of my visit to Harnett County, to the place where John Livingston died, I was convinced this was something. I didn’t know how big and wide and tough this “something” would be to report, but my gut said, “Whoa, stop. Listen. Think.”

Obstacles? So many. Where to start? Simple sentences:

  • Officials here rarely dealt with reporters.
  • I had few established sources.
  • I was an “outsider.”
  • My subjects had become distrustful; they were beleaguered.

Q. The series was available each day in the print newspaper or all at once on the website. It also has a video trailer and a podcast. Why did the N&O decide to present this story this way?

A. In the last several years, The N&O and our parent company, McClatchy, have learned much about storytelling and how best to harness our platforms. Our digital audience had different engagement patterns than our print audience. Our audience increasingly engages better through video and infographics.

We launched the first part of the series online on a Friday, when our online audience is high; same story ran in print Sunday, when our print audience is high. It takes a mind shift.

I learned this year that there is no shortcut to reporting. You must dig and push and press. However, there are so many ways to tell a story.

Though I love to write, I had to check that sensibility at the door. What is the best way to tell this story? Video? Podcast? How do I help people relate and respond to this work? We do not have the luxury of expecting people to digest our work in traditional formats because they must.

Q. How did editing, fact checking and headline writing work for the series?

A. We are rigid at the N&O. For good cause.

For each and every word and fact, I must present the document or the audio interview or transcript to my editor, Steve Riley. It takes about a day for me to prepare one story for this test. It takes another day to go through it with Steve.

We do not employ fact checkers, and even if we did, there is no shortcut to shoring up a significant story for public scrutiny.

Headline writing is by committee. A team evaluates and challenges, and eventually, we settle on something that works.

Q. Investigative reporting is expensive and time-consuming. What do you see as its future as newspapers continue to face reductions in budgets and staffing?

A. This is the most pressing question in journalism in my estimation.

I give credit to John Drescher and other top leaders of the N&O for preserving and expanding our investigative efforts in the age of falling revenues and layoffs.

As a breed, investigative journalists are expensive. Our work is risky, time-consuming and often does not endear us to those who keep this business afloat through advertising revenues.

Investigative journalism exists because people like John Drescher refuse to relinquish it, despite the expense. It exists because readers tell us over and over that his is what they want and expect from our news organization. We do this because it is our duty.

Read the Deadly Force series and follow Mandy Locke on Twitter.

Q&A with Brooke Pryor, sports reporter at North State Journal

Brooke Pryor is a sportswriter at North State Journal, a new newspaper covering the state of North Carolina. A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, Pryor previously worked at The Herald-Sun in Durham. In this interview, conducted by email, Pryor discusses her job, describes how editing and headline writing work at the NSJ, and offers advice to college students looking to go into sports journalism.

Q. Describe your job at North State Journal. What is your typical workweek like?

A. The best/worst thing about working for a newspaper, and a startup newspaper no less, is that there’s no pattern to my workweek. Most of the time I love variety in my job, but it can also be a little draining to be on call all the time.

My schedule at least starts the same every week when I send in a story budget to my editor Monday morning. He’ll usually shoot back an email green-lighting the good stuff and tells me to scrap anything else.

Then I get to work reporting on all the different stories. As I write this, I’m sitting in the Durham Bulls Athletic Park procrastinating on a story about Rays top prospect Blake Snell. I just finished talking to him, so I want to transcribe the interview and then start writing or at least formulate a lede and an angle.

Right now, the NSJ is a weekly paper, and our hard deadline to submit the pages to the printer is Friday at 6 p.m. Recently, I’ve been flooding the copy editors with stories Friday morning, but I can pretty much file throughout the week up until about noon on Friday.

During the weekends, at least in the spring, I’m usually at baseball games or other events, gathering more material for feature stories. With the weekly print schedule, I have to focus on the long game and spend most of my time working on long-term evergreen stories and personality profiles.

Q. How does editing and headline writing work at the NSJ?

A. Great question — and one that I didn’t know until I went to the office last week. Like pretty much any newspaper, the process to produce a (mostly) error-free paper is a long one.

When I finish a story, I send it to my sports editor, who copy-fits it for print and edits for content, length, accuracy, etc. Then, it gets placed on a page, and when the rest of the stories for the page are placed and copy-fit by our wonderful designer Cece Pascual (UNC and Daily Tar Heel alum, woo!), they are printed out and passed out among the staff gathered in the office.

We circulate the pages for three reads before the section editor goes back to Cece and shows her all of the necessary changes. Then the page is printed out one more time and goes through three more reads before the final edits are made and the page is sent to the printer.

Headline writing is a group effort and usually involves a bunch of people yelling ideas at a computer screen. It’s just as chaotic and riveting as it sounds.

Q. You previously worked at the Herald-Sun. What has it been like to move from an established publication like that to a startup?

A. A lot of my day-to-day work stuff has been the same, but I do get a lot of questions about what the NSJ is or who’s paying for it. Spoiler, in case you thought I would have an answer to the latter: I have no idea. There’s a bunch of rumors floating around, but I don’t pay attention to them because I’m grateful for the opportunity and I love working in such a creative environment.

Because we’re not established, we run into some administrative or copy flow issues that are second-nature at established papers. So we’re in the phase of figuring out the details that make newspapers work, like how to submit photo requests, who should what and when, etc.

One thing I’m interested to see is how much access I’ll get to different events when the college football season starts up. When I was working for an established newspaper, I got plenty of access and interviews and was never denied a credential. But that could change now that I’m working for a brand new paper. Luckily, since I’ve been around UNC/Triangle sports since my freshman year at UNC, I’ve made a lot of connections, and I hope that those will keep me in the loop around here.

Q. Many journalism students have an interest in sports. What advice do you have for those seeking a career in sports journalism?

A. I think the biggest and most helpful thing I’ve learned as a writer is to not be afraid to try something new.

If you’ve only ever watched and written about football and basketball, try covering women’s lacrosse or field hockey. Sports journalism is more than just covering the revenue stuff, and you’ll find that there are plenty, if not more, interesting storylines in the less mainstream stuff. You might not understand what’s going on, but challenge yourself to find a story in an unfamiliar environment. It’ll make you a stronger reporter and adding a variety of sports to your background will come in handy when you’re looking for jobs.

You’ll probably have to cover a lot of random stuff in your career and the more experience you have going into unfamiliar territory, the better. Talk to everyone you can at those events and look for the human angle. People love reading about other people, so even if you don’t understand all the logistics of the game or event you’ve just covered, you can find an interesting story just by asking questions and tapping into human emotion.

Follow Brooke Pryor on Twitter and read some of her stories on her website.

UPDATE: In August 2016, Pryor announced that she had accepted a job covering college football for The Oklahoman.

Editing locally, editing globally

Students in my Advanced Editing class at UNC-Chapel Hill often work on real-world assignments. Their work is both local and global:

  • As in years past, my students work with those in another course, Community Journalism, to produce the Carrboro Commons and Durham VOICE websites. In addition to preparing news for posting on WordPress, the students create PDF “printer friendly” designs for each story. We’ll update the sites five times during the spring semester.
  • Two master’s students, Andrea Patiño Contreras and Gabriela Arp, asked my class to edit feature stories and write headlines for their website about the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. We did so by compiling six stories into a Google document. Half the students focused on fact checking and story structure; the other half edited for grammar, punctuation, spelling and AP style. The remarkable project, called Divided By The Sea, launched last week.

Each project gives students a chance to work with real copy and write headlines and captions that will be seen by readers in North Carolina and beyond. I feel fortunate to work with colleagues who encourage such collaboration — and who value what editors do.

Student guest post: Why editors need to push for more watchdog journalism

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the fourth of those posts. Keith Larsen is a first-year master’s student in the business and media track at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is also a reporter at GreenBiz, where he reports on the intersection of sustainability and business. Previously, he interned at the Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation, where he investigated corporate fraud and misdeeds in the capital markets.

I have undoubtedly become a better journalist during my time as a graduate student at UNC. My knowledge of AP style has improved, I can write better leads and I have gained some semblance of how to tell stories visually.

Yet, while I have been inundated with the fundamentals of journalism and I have enhanced my writing skills, rarely has the question been asked: Why does it all matter? Why do any of us want to become journalists or editors given the obvious decaying economics of traditional newsrooms? Why would any of us take out student loans and subject ourselves to an intense job market only to be rewarded with mediocre pay?

Well, we do it anyway because it matters. We do it because we believe it’s important. And we do it because we want to be the first recorders of history and the tireless watchdogs who hold our institutions accountable.

It is important to remind ourselves why we chose to pursue a job in the news business, not only in journalism schools, but also in the newsroom. It is equally integral that editors continue to fight complacency and push for more watchdog journalism.

The importance of these conversations has become none more evident than with the national media coverage of the Flint water crisis, and the question of whether the national media acted appropriately as a watchdog.

New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan attempted to answer this question in her blog, The Public Editor’s Journal, and concluded that “If The Times had kept the pressure on the Flint story, the resulting journalism might not have made the ‘trending‘ list — but it would have made a real difference to the people of Flint, who were in serious need of a powerful ally.”

Sullivan’s remarks highlight the daunting challenge that editors and journalists face today of providing watchdog journalism despite its marginal financial returns. Subsequently, there is no apparent answer to this challenge. Watchdog journalism can be expensive, it can be more time intensive, and, much to our chagrin, its clicks often pale in comparison to a BuzzFeed list about breakfast food.

However, I believe it is important for editors to continue to hold these conversations in newsrooms and to push back against the business side of news organizations, which might argue that this type of reporting is too costly, or inefficient, or doesn’t affect our core audience.

Undoubtedly, these are all fair points and especially poignant for a concerned shareholder of a media company, but we must never forget why we decided to be in this business in the first place. We must continually think of new ways to make this type of reporting economically viable as well as how it can enhance a media organization’s credibility and bottom line.

Editors must continue to push back against reporting stories simply for convenience and clicks, and push for stories that inform readers about serious issues in our societies through an objective lens.

We owe it not only to ourselves by upholding our most deeply held beliefs as journalists and editors, but we owe it to the children of Flint, who will forever be devastated by lead poisoning.

We owe it to these children not just to report intensively on a crisis, but to make sure that we will always put people ahead of profits because what matters more: a satisfied shareholder or a child’s life?

Student guest post: The Night of the … Journalist?

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the third of those posts. Whitney Harris is a senior editing and graphic design and German literature double major at UNC-Chapel Hill. She enjoys listening to Fleetwood Mac and reading the same Goethe novel repeatedly.

“Perpetrate journalism often, on as many platforms, for as many people has you can. Don’t wait for permission — find your story and prosecute to the fullest.” — David Carr

I’ve always wanted to be a writer. By the time I hit 12 years old, every member of my family knew I wanted to be a journalist one day. I started writing my first book in eighth grade and, despite my best efforts, have yet to find a way to conclude any one of the number of stories I’ve started. But that doesn’t change anything. I still want to be a writer.

Welcome, North Carolina, is a small town near the center of the state. It’s 15 minutes outside of Winston-Salem, an hour and a half from Charlotte, and requires its inhabitants like sweet tea, love Jesus and attend Friday night football games on Palmer Field.

Most kids grew up going to Future Farmers of America meetings, attending church on Sundays and going mudding on the weekends. I was never one of those kids. I liked Charles Bukowski, writing for my school newspaper and sneaking bottles of Arbor Mist onto the baseball field to drink at night with my friends.

Welcome had not yet — and still has not — caught up with the rest of the world, but there was one privilege we were never denied: regular delivery of The New York Times. David Carr wrote for The Times, and he was my idol. I wanted to be a writer, after all.

My admiration for Carr has never faltered, despite his death in February 2015. He embodied everything I want out of a professional career. He was eloquent (albeit vulgar), sometimes abrasive, and witty — all qualities I appreciate.

“Page One: Inside The New York Times,” the documentary released in 2011, stars Carr. Viewers get to see him argue with major players at Vice, set his own deadlines with Media Editor Bruce Headlam and debate over writing a piece about Tribune Company’s bankruptcy (which was published, igniting a fire that contributed to the resignation of Chief Executive Randy Michaels, a win by most accounts).

Carr’s writings, including his memoir “The Night of the Gun,” were inspirational. He was revered, not only for her personality but also for his incredible talent. I often find myself wondering what it would take to become as successful as him, but I also have to ask: Has the media world changed so much in the past decade that this kind of journalism has gone extinct?

It’s an issue that “Page One” and its cast delves deeply into, questioning whether the shift from print to digital will completely rearrange the media landscape as we know, and have known, it for the past hundred years. Is Carr’s nitty-gritty, dirt-under-your-fingernails type of journalism a thing of the past? They certainly didn’t have the answer in 2011. And I still don’t know if we have it now. But there’s something I do know.

I want to be a writer. I want to develop stories that no one else wants to go near, and I want to do it with tact and dexterity. I want to craft pieces that put something good into the world, even if the topics I write about aren’t always great. I want to investigate. I want to write words that make a difference.

We spend a lot of time debating just how the digital shift has changed our landscape and, as someone who is about to graduate from one of the best journalism programs in the nation, I can’t express how scary that can be.

Most of my peers would rather get the news in 140 characters on their smartphones versus picking up the paper. There are strong arguments that traditional journalism has died, and we can either move with the digital shift or get swept away with our print predecessor. I don’t like those arguments.

I don’t believe traditional journalism has died. I don’t believe in Twitter and Facebook as new tests of journalistic merit, but I do believe they’re exciting tools that can be used to reinvigorate my profession. I refuse to compact my story into 140 characters (not to say that I won’t craft a tweet, but you better believe the link in it will lead you to something far greater), and I refuse to think, just because you read it on a computer screen versus in a newspaper, that a story is somehow lesser. The media world has changed. Media itself has not.

Print circulation may be down, you may have to pay for an online subscription of The New York Times and BuzzFeed may be more convenient, but I refuse to give up on something I believe in. If there is one thing I have learned from my admiration of David Carr, it’s that when you want something, you make it happen.

The media world has changed. We, as journalists, have not.