Q&A with Caitlin Owens, reporter at Axios


Caitlin Owens is a reporter at Axios, a digital news organization based in Arlington, Virginia. She previously worked at Morning Consult and National Journal. In this interview, conducted by email, Owens discusses her work at Axios, the site’s approach to news and her journalism education.

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

A. I’m not sure I have a typical day. Right now my official job description is “health care plus” — meaning I cover health care politics and policy, usually from Capitol Hill, along with a few other policy areas when they’re making news. I’m responsible for writing bigger-picture stories that top the Axios Vitals newsletter a couple of times a week, as well as other stories for the website.

I spend a lot of time covering Congress, which I think is the coolest job in Washington! Congressional reporters get great access to lawmakers, most of whom answer questions from us all day long. It’s the most transparent branch of government, in my opinion. There’s no better place to ask decision makers anything you want with a high expectation of getting an answer.

Covering both health care and Congress has also given me the opportunity to appear on national and local television and radio shows – an added perk of the job.

Overall, I like to say that my job is really seasonal – some parts of the year are just much busier than others.

Q. Axios uses short posts that often include labels like “why it matters” and “the big picture.” How does that affect the way you write and report?

A. I think it helps shape my reporting. I only write stories that have a “Why it matters.”

Axios’ philosophy is that if we can’t answer “why it matters,” we’re wasting a reader’s time. These labels, which we call “Axioms,” are used to guide a reader through the news, which is written in our “Smart Brevity” format. The point is to give the reader the information they need while making it easy to digest.

Q. How do editing and headline writing work at Axios?

A. Our headlines need to be short and interesting without delivering false promises to a reader about what the story says. Reporters write initial headlines for their stories, which we often crowdsource when we’re stuck, and editors will occasionally change them before publishing to the site.

As far as editing goes, my editor is in charge of both content and copy when I file stories. A couple of unique things about Axios are that our stories are very short and written in a distinct style, which adds another layer to editing. I’ve had the privilege of being with Axios since the beginning (I’m employee #14!) so helped develop the style, but it’s turned out to be fairly intuitive and not hard to teach new hires.

Q. You are a 2014 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What skills that you learned there do you use today, and what new ones have you picked up?

A. I could go on and on about this one! The media landscape is changing, and it’s going to continue to do so. But there are certain invaluable lessons the j-school teaches that are always going to be relevant.

Ethics, for example, is now more relevant than it ever has been; we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard in order to earn readers’ trust in this hyper-polarized time. Hard work and persistence are always going to be crucial. The ability to think through not just both sides, but all sides of an issue and then present those arguments in your own words or images or graphics is always going to be important.

The j-school teaches some very practical skills, like AP style and basic reporting, and it also gives students the opportunity to get relevant experience. A lot of the required classes are very hands-on, like reporting, video editing and “special project” classes. These classes gave me clips I showed or talked about to future employers, including the Los Angeles Times for an internship and Axios.

In terms of what I’ve picked up, I work for a company that is trying to present news in an entirely new way – which means I’ve also reworked a lot of the skills I was taught in j-school. I don’t write using the inverted pyramid, for example, and I often write using first person and bullet points.

I loved many classes I took at UNC, but one I often think about is my community journalism class I took with Jock Lauterer. I obviously do not work for a local news source, but something I love about my job is that Washington is very much like a little community. This is both very fun and also keeps me accountable; my reputation and sourcing depend on my ability to be both good and fair.

Follow Caitlin Owens on Twitter, and read her stories at Axios.


In the wake of Storify


I was dismayed a couple of months ago when I heard that Storify was ending. I’d used the service — which allowed users to collect and arrange social media and park it all on one page — for assignments in my editing classes.

Thanks to a Twitter tip from editor Gerri Berendzen, I’ve found a successor to Storify. Wakelet lets you to do much of what Storify allowed you to do and more (such as uploading your own photos). Today, I’ll try it in class for the first time with an assignment on alternative story forms.

For more about Wakelet, follow them on Twitter and watch this video on YouTube.


Here are some examples of student work:

Labels and legislation


Public bathrooms have been the focus of North Carolina’s House Bill 2, but there’s more to the law than that provision.

In North Carolina, two pieces of legislation have been in the news a great deal this year. News organizations commonly call one a “bathroom bill,” and they refer to the other as “a voter ID law.”

These labels are inadequate. Each law has numerous components:

  • House Bill 2, the “bathroom bill” passed by the General Assembly and signed by the governor in March 2016, requires that transgender people use public restrooms that match the gender on their birth certificates. But it also forbids local governments from enacting laws that protect LGBT people from discrimination in any form, including in housing and employment. HB2 also prevents those governments from raising the minimum wage in their communities. (It also stopped people from bringing any sort of discrimination claim in state courts. That piece was reversed this summer.)
  • The “voter ID” law, passed in 2013 and recently struck down by a federal appeals court, requires people to show certain types of photo identification at the polls. But among other provisions, it also reduced the number of days for early voting. The law also stopped same-day registration and out-of-precinct provisional votes from being counted. It ended a program that allowed teenagers to “pre-register” and vote when they turned 18.

These are complex pieces of legislation that present challenges to journalists who are writing about them. Including all of these elements in a headline or tweet is, of course, impractical.

But they could be included in story text or, better yet, as separate textboxes accompanying stories about these topics. That would better serve readers who want to get a full understanding of these laws.

Student guest post: 5 reasons why listicles are good for modern journalism

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 10th of those posts. Carly Peterson is a senior journalism major with a reporting specialization who enjoys music and the arts. She writes for the UNC-Chapel Hill branch of Her Campus, an online publication that targets college-age woman.

Just admit it, we all read listicles. They are everywhere you look — as you scroll through your Facebook feed, as you check today’s email newsletter, and as you spend endless hours mindlessly reading BuzzFeed. Listicles are the hot topic in today’s journalism.

Listicles have driven journalists to choose a side — either pro-listicles or anti-listicles. Journalists who are typically pro-listicles acknowledge that they are useful as an alternative story form for reporting and are not completely mindless, while journalists who are anti-listicles criticize them as uniformed and representative of bad writing.

As a descriptive writer, I have to admit I had to get use to writing listicles for Her Campus, but now I really enjoy putting a well-written and informed list together that will interest the website’s audience. I do not believe that listicles are the death of quality journalism, but they should be looked to as a viable option for an alternative story form.

1. Listicles are time-saving tactics for writers.

The journalism industry is a fast-paced business. A journalist’s goal is to get the story first and to send the story out to the public before another publication can. A journalist could probably write a couple of listicles in the time it takes to write and report one story. Even though the writing is short, listicles do not give journalists room to be lazy in their writing and grammar skills. A listicle should be informative but concise, which can be harder for descriptive writers like me.

2. Listicles are helpful for a busy audience.

In today’s world, everyone is on the go. The public has less time to sit down and read a newspaper front to back except for maybe on the weekends. Listicles are a great way to get a news or human-interest story to the public. The listicles’ best feature is that they are easy to scroll through. Since the story is essentially a list, they are easy to format for cellphones or tablets. The public spends a great deal of time on these devices.

3. Listicles already come with a headline.

The typical format for listicles is a number plus what the list is conveying to the reader. The nature of listicles incorporates attention-drawing headlines that capture the reader and encourage them to click to read more, which is termed “clickbait.” The reader automatically knows what this story will be about just from the headline for example this headline from BuzzFeed:

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4. Listicles draw attention and keep readers.

Listicles contain numbers that stand out automatically from all the other text-heavy articles. The list format helps to make the article easy and fast to read. Most use some sort of picture or GIF to go with each number listed. From my experience with listicles, I am drawn to the article because I am curious as to what the numbers are and then find myself reading the entire article when I just meant to skim it. I am sucked into the article anticipating what the next number will hold.

5. Listicles are great for social media.

The best part about listicles for a publisher is that they are easily shared on social media feeds such as Facebook and Twitter. I believe the listicles that draw the most traffic on social media are the ones that tap into human emotion and life experiences, or incorporate informative tips as seen here at BuzzFeed:

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Listicles do not have to be for everyone, but do not turn them down before you try them. As a writer, I was skeptical at first, but now I find listicles as a fun and easy way to engage with the audience. They can be timsaving tactics that come with eye-catching headlines. Readers will want to read the listicle because they can scroll through the article quickly while on the go. The list can be effortlessly shared on social media, which means more traffic to the publication’s website.

Guest post: 7 thoughts on clickbait from a student journalist

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the eighth of those posts. Alisa Pelaez is a senior reporting major at UNC-Chapel Hill who enjoys writing and playing music. This semester she’s working hard to launch The Internationalist, an undergraduate research journal with a focus on foreign affairs. 

Everyone’s scrolled through Facebook and seen those headlines: “I Left My Husband & Daughter At Home And THIS Happened! I Can’t Believe It!,” which leads to a video of a father and daughter singing a duet. Cute, perhaps, but not exactly what we were expecting. We’ve been clickbaited.

“Clickbait” is a huge buzzword among online journalism (or really online content creation of any type), such that it’s spurred parody sites like ClickHole that satirize the sheer ridiculousness of digital headlines. With a never-ending stream of headlines competing for our attention on our Facebook and Twitter feeds, what does clickbait mean in the ever-evolving world of online journalism?

1. Clickbait is almost impossible to define.

The Oxford Dictionary defines clickbait as “(On the Internet) content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page.” The problem with this definition is that there is very little, if any, content, written on the Internet or elsewhere, that is made to discourage attention or visitors from clicking on a link.

As editors, we’re taught about search engine optimization, writing headlines featuring key terms related to the subject of an article. Even the driest of local news stories are paired with headlines designed to entice readers, even if those readers may be limited to the area of geographic relevance. There must be another compounding element contributing to the creation of clickbait. Could it be banal content, the withholding of key information, deliberate misdirection, or some combination of the three?

2. Storytellers always ask us to mind the gap.

Content creators want us to view their content; it’s a fact of the industry. Sometimes they choose to do this by teasing with part of a plot to ensure we stay tuned to see the conclusion. This can be anything from heightened suspense before a commercial break (only to conclude that the problem was really just a clever misdirection), or teasing a new character after the credits of a superhero movie.

The Internet has become so inundated with these types of stories that Twitter accounts like Saved You a Click devote their whole feed to answering questions posed in headlines. Even movie trailers are just a more acceptable version of “You’ll Never Guess What Donald Trump Said to Marco Rubio at Last Night’s Debate” type headlines. So why is it that this strategy bothers us so much more in print?

3. Our real problem is misinformation.

James Hamblin of the Atlantic argues that our problem may stem from the misdirection of headlines more than the content itself. He compares headlines to carnival barkers, saying if he goes into a freak show expecting to see a man with three legs and instead sees a sword swallower, no matter how impressive the sword swallowing is, he’ll be disappointed because he came for the man with three legs. This is immediately applicable to stories like the father-daughter ukulele cover, where the headline would have been much less infuriating if it was marketed as an adorable sing-along.

4. Alternative story formats are actually more effective.

Another problem I frequently hear complaints about is the Internet’s saturation with list articles or “listicles.” While stories like “19 Pictures that Scream ‘Dad’” may seem superfluous, it has been shown that alternative story formats, including lists, infographics, ratings and timelines actually help us comprehend more information than traditional news stories. I also enjoy the natural stopping places that lists provide. When I only have a few minutes to read while waiting for the bus, it’s easier to know where to pick up again later.

5. Could “sharebait” be a better term?

Another term passed around regarding inflammatory headlines is “sharebait,” meaning the headlines are written to encourage people to share the stories on social media. Some say sharing can act as quality control, that only quality content will be shared enough to become viral. The jury is out on whether or not that’s true, but I know that one of the most popular conversation topics among my friends was “16 Things Lady Gaga Looked Like During Her Super Bowl Performance,” which isn’t exactly groundbreaking journalism.

6. Where does this leave us?

My working title for this article at its conception was “We don’t like it either: Why journalists don’t want to write clickbait.” While I maintain that no one gets into journalism to write banal stories about YouTube videos that only get attention because of misleading headlines, other aspects of “clickbait,” like enticing—but truthful—headlines and alternative story formats certainly do have their place in online journalism.

7. In conclusion.

I may have bit off a bit more than I can chew with this list, but I like the number seven better than six. Here’s your misleading clickbait story.

An alternative way to cover Europe’s refugee crisis

As the U.S. news organizations focus on a presidential campaign that’s more than a year from concluding, a refugee crisis is big news in Europe this summer. The latest news involves the deaths of 71 people in the back of a truck in Austria and as many as 200 people killed off the coast of Libya.

Here’s how The Associated Press wire story on those incidents was presented on page 15A of The News & Observer today:


The digital version adds a photo gallery and video. Neither version has a map.

This story is about geography. The AP story mentions Austria, Libya, Italy, Greece, Syria and other countries as well as the Mediterranean Sea. So let’s create a large map that shows what locations refugees are leaving and where they are trying to go.

This story is also about people and politics. Let’s address that in an FAQ format and discuss what’s behind the crisis. Why are people risking their lives to leave their home countries? Are they “migrants” or “refugees“? What are governments doing to address the situation? How can we can help? What’s next?

That approach to this news would make it harder for readers to turn the page or click to the next website, and it would make the story more memorable.

My favorite lists from “The Book of Lists”

David Leonhardt, editor of the The Upshot at The New York Times, recently wrote a defense of lists. Here is the post’s upshot:

As easy as it may be to mock listicles, they’re really no different from traditional articles, quotations, photographs, charts or statistics. They’re an extremely useful tool of expression that can be used well or used poorly.

Leonhardt cites the Ten Commandments, the Bill of Rights and Martin Luther’s 95 Theses as examples of effective lists. As an advocate of alternative story forms, I agree. And I’d add one more: “The Book of Lists.”

BookOfListsI encountered the book in the late 1970s when it was being passed around my elementary school. Its popularity there may have been connected to its chapter on sex. I was certainly intrigued to read about that subject, but I consumed the entire book. The list format allowed me to learn a great deal about a host of topics: history, sports, nature, language, etc.

After reading Leonhardt’s post, I decided to revisit “The Book of Lists.” (Yes, I still have a copy.) Although it was published in 1977, the book holds up pretty well. It has its shortcomings, of course. “8 Important Libel Cases” doesn’t include Times v. Sullivan. “Plan 9 From Outer Space” isn’t listed among “The 10 Worst Films of All Time.”

But the bulk of the book has aged well, and I enjoyed my reunion with it. “The Book of Lists” is still a fun and informative read, and it cleverly concludes with “The Lord Thy God’s 10 Commandments.”

So here are my “6 Lists From ‘The Book of Lists’ From 1977 That Caught My Eye In 2015.” Each of these would work well in this era of digital media:

  • 8 Cases Of Spontaneous Combustion
  • 7 Remarkable Messages In A Bottle
  • Norris McWhirter’s 12 Best Reference Books In The World
  • 8 Remarkable Escapes From Devil’s Island
  • Dr. Demento’s 10 Worst Song Titles of All Time
  • 15 Semordnilap Palindromes