Q&A with Kevin Schaefer, columnist and editor at SMA News Today

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Kevin Schaefer is a writer and community editor at SMA News Today, a website about the genetic disease spinal muscular atrophy. He lives in Cary, North Carolina, and is a graduate of N.C. State University. In this interview, conducted by email, Schaefer discusses his work at SMA News Today and offers advice on how others with SMA can explore careers in writing.

Q. Describe your job at SMA News Today. What is your typical workweek like?

A. I started working for SMA News Today a few months ago writing a weekly column. Recently I started full-time as a community editor. In addition to writing my column, I also write and edit content for our news section.

Our news page is divided into two main sections. There’s the research side, which covers all of the latest research news within the SMA community and information about clinical trials, and those articles are written by people with scientific backgrounds who have direct access to the literature. The other component is our social clips section, which I’m now helping oversee. This is where we post articles about managing life with SMA and also do profiles on SMA individuals.

Some of the articles I just wrote for this section include: “5 Tips for Going To School When You Have SMA” and “5 Tips for Supporting a Friend or Family Member with SMA.” My executive editor and my publisher really wanted a patient specialist like me to provide feedback on this content and take a more active role in producing content from here on.

That said, my day-to-day work kind of varies depending on what tasks I have to do. At the beginning of the week, I chat with my editors and our social media team to brainstorm ideas and decide which articles we’re going to run on our social media pages. Then if I’m not reviewing other posts, I’m usually writing.

So far I’ve been writing a couple social clips articles per week, and then I write my column on Thursdays. I also record weekly audio flash briefings of previously published content. These are basically mini-podcasts that anyone with an Echo device from Amazon Alexa can access. I just read an excerpt from one of my articles from that week and do an audio recording.

My next project is to produce a monthly podcast in which I’ll interview various people with SMA. I just scheduled my first interview, and I am working to get that first episode live on our site by the end of the month. So it’s a very multimedia job that requires me to use all of my journalism and communication skills.

Q. How do editing and headline writing work at SMA News Today?

A. SMA News Today is one of multiple websites that are owned by a parent company called BioNews. Each of these websites provides daily digital coverage of a specific neuromuscular condition.

BioNews has a vast network of employees from all around the world. I live in North Carolina and work from home, my main editors live in Texas, another lives in Canada, etc. As such, all of our communication is done digitally. We use an app called Slack, which despite the name is basically a professional version of GroupMe. We use it constantly to share ideas, ask each other questions and conduct conference calls.

So when I post one of my columns, I save it as a draft so my editors can look it over and make the necessary changes. I’ll post a placeholder headline which they usually like, but if they come up with something better, then they’ll change it.

Most of the editing so far has been of previously published content. One of my first tasks when I started this new role was to go through all of the old articles in the social clips section and provide feedback. Here I did change a few headlines and make some other suggestions for specific articles, and I just had a conference call last week with my team in which I shared my thoughts on this section as it is and also pitched ideas for future content. It went great, and I’m excited for the ideas we came up with together. All that said, every post is a collaborative effort, and we go through an extensive editorial process just like any other professional publication.

Q. What is your assessment of how news organizations cover SMA in general? How could they improve?

A. You know, there was a tragic story last year about a teenage girl who had a severe case of SMA and who made the decision to get rid of all life support. She died a few weeks later, and every media outlet was all over this story like a pack of wolves. Every one of them competed to produce the most heart-wrenching account of a story that was so grounded in ethical controversy. The message they all sent, however, was that SMA is nothing more than a terrifying disease, and that everyone with it is better off dead.

Yeah SMA is terrifying and difficult, but so many of us who live with it are living great lives and not letting it stop us. We also now have the FDA-approved treatment Spinraza, as well as an abundance of support within the SMA community. I was pretty enraged by the sheer laziness of these journalists who all took the same watered-down approach to this story, and I wrote about it in my school newspaper while I was still in college.

It’s getting better, but a lot of times the mainstream media either portrays people with disabilities as helpless objects of pity or as angels who are only here to inspire the rest of the world. We’re just people who have different challenges and obstacles than someone who is able-bodied.

In terms of good media examples, I’ve enjoyed reading The New York Times section on disability. This is a weekly series of essays by disabled authors, and I know of at least one SMA writer who has contributed to it. The last one I read was by a woman who wrote about online dating when you’re in a wheelchair, which I found really insightful. I also love watching the ABC sitcom “Speechless” with my parents, which does a great job juxtaposing humor with its more sentimental aspects.

In terms of what makes SMA News Today and BioNews stand out is that we’re the only publication producing daily coverage of SMA. The organization Cure SMA, which I’m also involved with, does post news stories, but their primary focus is raising money for research. SMA News Today posts both news articles and a wide range of columns. Including me we have four columnists right now, and we each bring something different to the table.

It’s pretty surreal working for this site. I always figured that if something like SMA News Today existed, I’d have to be the one to start it. Thankfully, that’s not the case! I love the job I have, but I could never handle the pressure or skill level of a CEO or publisher. Mike and Chris (my executive editor and publisher) have done a fantastic job building the company from the ground up, and I’m happy to be a part of it now.

Q. What advice do you have for other people with SMA who are considering careers in writing?

I encourage anyone who has SMA and who has an interest in writing to pursue it. The great thing about it is that you can do it from anywhere, and despite what people tell you, it can lead to a paying job eventually. You just have to stick with it and figure out what kind of writing you’re good at.

For me, I was a theater kid growing up, and my high school drama teachers noticed I had a knack for writing when I scripted monologues for my peers to perform. I tried my hand at writing longer plays and prose fiction, but it was always too amateur. Still, my parents and all my teachers were supportive, and I remember my creative writing teacher at the time observing how I’d always have a graphic novel on me every time she saw me. It’s fitting that I’ve now written several comic book scripts and am trying to break into the industry.

Then in college I majored in English hoping to become a screenwriter, and I kind of stumbled into journalism on a whim. Although my parents were both journalism majors in college and have years of experience working for newspapers, I went into N.C. State’s student newspaper office without an ounce of knowledge about reporting. I’m pretty sure I even spelled a source’s name incorrectly in my first article. I came in just wanting to write movie reviews, and I ended up staying there throughout my college career and even being the features co-editor my junior year.

I definitely wouldn’t have this job if it weren’t for my time at the Technician, and it was there that I wrote my first columns about my disability. Though I mainly wrote for the Arts & Entertainment section, my articles about how people with disabilities are portrayed in the media were some of my most well-received. The same thing happened when I tackled the subject in my fiction-writing classes. I realized how much I had to say about life with SMA and that I could convey my perspective through a blend of humor and serious essays. That’s basically the foundation of my column “Embracing My Inner Alien.”

So that’s how I got to this point, but there’s no secret formula. If you’re an SMA individual who wants to write, then start writing now and read every book you can. You don’t have to become an English major, but I do strongly recommend some form of higher education.

All it boils down to is your willingness to put forth the effort and getting your work out there. Start your own blog. Write a book or a screenplay. We need our voices heard and our stories told, and in this day and age it’s easier than ever before to build an audience. You can start your own blog for free or submit articles to different publications and acquire freelance work that way.

Heck, I’ve even done stand-up comedy a couple of times, and I’m now working on several comic book projects with some artist friends of mine. There aren’t many limits you have in terms of what you can do as a writer, and the term “writer’s block” is nothing more than a BS excuse to be lazy.

I’m far from a perfect example of an ultra-disciplined writer, but if I go a day without writing at least a page of something or an article, I feel guilty. If I’m ever feeling complacent with my writing output, I look at heroes of mine like Neil Gaiman and Scott Snyder and get back to work.

Follow Kevin Schaefer on Twitter and read his posts at SMA News Today.

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Submitting facts to a candid world

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“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.