How I am spending spring break

UNC-Chapel Hill is on spring break this week. It’s a needed respite for students and faculty alike.

Although I am not teaching any classes this week, I have plenty to keep me busy. Here’s how I am spending my spring break:

  • grading midterm exams and other assignments
  • preparing presentations and assignments for class for next week
  • reviewing applications for an online master’s program in communication and technology
  • submitting reviews for the Tankard Book Award
  • preparing for sessions at the national conference of the American Copy Editors Society

Spring break isn’t all work, though. Last weekend, I spent a long weekend with friends at a lake house. This weekend, my son and I will attend NCAA Tournament games in Raleigh. In between, I had lunch with a longtime friend whom I don’t get to see often enough because of geography and work schedules.

I’ll be back in class first thing Monday morning. When colleagues and students ask whether I had a good break, I am certain that the answer will be yes.

How you can help editors write better headlines

The national conference of the American Copy Editors Society is only a few weeks away. This year’s gathering is in Portland, Oregon, from March 31 to April 2.

I am organizing and moderating a discussion on headline writing. For this session, we are inviting everyday people to give spontaneous feedback on a set of headlines and tweets. There will be no right or wrong answers. We’re just curious what real readers think of real headlines.

It’s a reprise of a session at the 2014 ACES conference in Las Vegas. Alex Cruden, a former editor at the Detroit Free Press and winner of the ACES Glamann Award, came up with the concept years ago. He hoped a dialog between editors and readers might result in better headlines.

If you know someone in Portland who would like to serve on this reader panel, please contact me. I am also taking requests for headlines to include in the session, which will take place at 2 p.m. on Friday, April 1.

For more about the ACES conference and a full list of sessions and events, check out the official site. I’d love to see you there.

Student guest post: Objectivity and its murky future

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the sixth of those posts. Kevin Mercer a reporting major from Chapel Hill. He is on the sports desk with The Daily Tar Heel, and he also writes for Southern Neighbor

It was Saturday, Feb. 13, and my friends and I had returned to our dorm at UNC-Chapel Hill from a night of ice skating in time to see the Republican debate on CBS News. Donald Trump, leading most Republican primary polls, said prominent Republican politicians should not allow President Barack Obama to appoint a new, ostensibly liberal, justice to the U.S. Supreme Court after Antonin Scalia died earlier that day: “It’s called delay, delay, delay.”

Some in the dorm room were liberals, some conservatives. Some argued for the president’s obligation to appoint a new justice when a seat is vacated. Some argued that such an action would work counter to the president’s role as a representative of the American people. Neither debate solved much of anything. The dispute still rages.

For the rest of the night, I saw liberals and conservatives spar on Twitter and Facebook about the issue, using as ammunition news articles that align with their beliefs. An objective summary of the facts of Scalia’s life and death or of the appointment of new Supreme Court justices were not the articles getting shared, and therefore read.

It is no secret that the field of journalism has changed and continues to change. Traditional print media has lost favor with some, and social media is here to stay. Qualities that journalists used to hold dear — like the importance of specialization — are being pushed aside because of the evolving demands of media. Is political objectivity the next to go?

Don’t get me wrong. The importance of objectivity has been ingrained in me during my time in the School of Media and Journalism at UNC-CH. There is still plenty of objective news in every journalistic medium, but increasingly there is a shift to subjectivity in favor of objectivity. Think of Fox News and MSNBC on television or “The Rush Limbaugh Show” on the radio, or The Progressive in print.

And it makes sense. The business model used by traditional media began to become less viable. Media organizations needed to adjust – and they have – but they now find themselves in a hyper-competitive field vying for consumers’ attention.

Media organizations have discovered that people are drawn to news presented in a way that reinforces their beliefs. A study from Ohio State University suggests that consumers spend more time with media that support their opinions. Media organizations have had to appeal to as many readers as possible or else get pushed to the wayside by the many news outlets more than willing to provide consumers with what they want.

Call me a cynic, but I think the journalism profession collectively would sacrifice almost any enduring tenet to remain profitable. The thought of sacrificing accuracy seems incomprehensible to every journalist I know.

But we’ve largely done away with objectivity.  Decreasing objectivity can increase readership temporarily, but how will someone trust any media organization if the stories they tell of the truth are distorted by political opinions?

Consumers will become disillusioned with media generally and eventually flee.  I think, however, there is a way to reconcile objectivity with the way in which media are now consumed.

News publications would disassociate themselves completely from individual journalists. Writers and videographers would build their own unique brands and market themselves to publications as freelancers, embracing and disseminating a political ideology.

To reach more of an audience, The New York Times, for example, would hire a known liberal writer and a known conservative writer to both cover the same story. The Times would maintain its objectivity while consumers would still get the slanted news they crave. An average person would read The Times’ brief synopsis of every pertinent fact of a breaking news story, but the synopsis would direct the reader to the longer and subjective material he or she would undoubtedly want to read.

Whether it’s practical or not is uncertain, but I believe something has to be done to curtail the abundance of biased media sources we have now.

What I am teaching this semester

The spring semester at UNC-Chapel Hill starts on Monday, Jan. 11. Here are the syllabuses* for what I am teaching:

You can see syllabuses for all courses at the journalism school on this page at the Park Library website. Best wishes to faculty and students on a successful semester.

* I follow AP style and Language Log on the plural of this word. But if you say “syllabi,” I’ll know what you mean.

Q&A with LaToya Evans, VP of communications at Bank of America

LaToya Evans is vice president of communications at Bank of America in Charlotte, North Carolina. She previously worked at Wal-Mart as a senior manager for corporate communications. Evans started her communications career while a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, writing for magazines such as People, Glamour and Cosmopolitan. In this interview, conducted by email, she discusses her job at BOA and her transition from journalism to public relations.

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

A. I am a vice president of communications at Bank of America’s corporate office in Charlotte. I do both reactive and proactive media for the company, specifically covering the Northeast region and also some smaller markets throughout the U.S.

My typical day starts fairly early, and one of the first things I do is check my email, calendar and social media as that can dictate what my morning will look like. I spend a lot of my day pitching media, counseling executives and local banking employees about media initiatives or issues, discussing strategy and giving direction to the PR agency that I work with on a daily basis. I also spend a good amount of time writing and chatting with reporters about potential story angles.

I’ll work on something in New York in one hour and something else in California the next. It could be an issue at a local bank in one of the geographies that I cover or it could be the company donating a mortgage-free home to a veteran. Sometimes, I’ll go to media events in the evenings or other events that the bank sponsors, whether they be conventions or formal events. It’s a sincere range of things that never gets boring or old.

Q. You previously worked in public relations for Wal-Mart. How is it different working in the financial sector? Are there similarities?

A. I’ve worked in a variety of industries as it pertains to PR – business to business technology, consumer technology, retail and now banking. In my opinion, the skill set in PR doesn’t change much because it comes down to having the ability to ask the right questions to understand a reporter’s true motive and story, build relationships, manage difficult situations, work one on one with senior and c-suite executives, establish trust and be strategic enough to not necessarily get the most coverage, but the most meaningful coverage that pushes ahead a company’s reputation.

So there are many similarities, but I would say as an organization, I covered six different areas of business at Wal-Mart. So if there are any differences, it’s only because the subject matter has changed.

But Wal-Mart was a great experience that taught me a lot about crisis and reactive media because of the nature of the business and also that it is a company that people frequently wanted to attack. That makes for the best training ground for PR professionals – the more difficult the climate is, the more you really learn in the long run.

Q. You started your career writing for magazines such as People and Glamour. What was it like to make the transition from print journalism to public relations?

A. It wasn’t as tough as it probably could have been, looking back on it. I came out of undergrad during the financial crisis. I was very fortunate to receive offers from magazines, PR agencies and also client-side corporate communications.

I chose to go to IBM for corporate communications, and within a few months, I was also doing media. I think the company took the chance on me because the original role I took was very writing-intensive, which I had the background for. But having the media knowledge and the contacts helped me early on when I didn’t necessarily know PR yet, but knew what stories worked where.

In the beginning, I wasn’t sure that I’d ever love PR as much as I loved seeing my name on bylines in places like Cosmopolitan as a writer. Seeing my name in print gave me chills.

But when I got into PR, there were television interviews and spokesperson duties, which also gave me chills. My career is one of the most rewarding things in my life, and I am genuinely in love with my profession.

Q. What advice do you have for college students considering a career in public relations? What are your keys to success?

A. I’d have quite a few pieces of advice. Strengthening your writing skills will help you across the profession in general, and internships are a must.

When assessing internships, consider paid and unpaid opportunities, because it’s the value of the experience that counts and not the money. If finances are an issue, there are plenty of grants and fellowships that will help you pay for living expenses while doing unpaid internships.

Start defining what your personal brand is right now, and don’t let your in-school status stop you from achieving your goals. I started my freelancing writing business when I was 19 and still a student at UNC. Had I listened to naysayers, I might have passed up a lot of good experience.

Also, it’s great to understand social media, too, but I always caution students to learn traditional PR practices as well, mostly because someone can easily find themselves pigeon-holed into jobs that are only about social media. It’s certainly not a bad thing, but because social media PR roles are so new, a path to advancement in those areas hasn’t necessarily been built yet in a lot of corporations, making it harder to get to do other things or get the first promotion.

Lastly, it’s important to build and nurture your relationships. I’ve been fortunate enough to make a lot of friends at Bank of America, and it’s made working there that much more fun. Across the public relations industry, it’s important to remember that everyone knows everyone. So the industry becomes very small, very quickly.

Follow LaToya Evans on Twitter and connect with her on LinkedIn.