Student guest post: Maintaining voice — the role of the editor in protecting a writer’s message

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the sixth of those posts.

Madeleine Fraley is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in reporting and psychology. She has previously written for The Daily Tar Heel, and currently writes preventative health articles for the UNC School of Medicine Department of Family Medicine. Following graduation, she hopes to pursue a career in mental health work or health communications.

Sunday night at the Grammys, Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover) won the award for Song of the Year and Record of the Year for his summer hit, “This is America.”  While Gambino co-wrote the song, performed the song and was the face of the song, he was a no-show to the night. When they called his name a second time for the song’s second award (after an awkward first non-appearance), his co-producer, Ludwig Göransson, accepted the award on Gambino’s behalf.

But even if Gambino had been there to accept his Grammy, his producer would still have been there by his side. Gambino wrote the song and it was his voice, but his producer ultimately helped to make the song what it was — adding needed sound, mixing the vocals and fixing what needed to be fixed.

In a night where producers of songs are given the most visibility to the general public who listen and stream their work, I began to think about how this relationship is similar to the writer-editor relationship in journalism.

Producers and editors very rarely get the byline. Some producers make their contribution clear — producer Benny Blanco did this recently on his hit “Eastside.” Halsey and Khalid perform the song, but Blanco’s name appears as the lead artist.

Most of the time though, we see “thank u, next” by Ariana Grande, while the producers — in this case, Tommy Brown, Michael Foster, and Charles Anderson — are in the fine print of the liner notes (if anyone my age or younger knows what liner notes are). And very, very rarely, when you read a column in The New York Times or a sports story in The News & Observer, do you see the editor’s name next to the writer’s.

While the song or the story is often the vision of the artist, writer or performer, the producer and the editor help that vision come to fruition — clearly, concisely and correctly. The artist, writer and reporter have the voice — whether singing or inscribing — but the producer and editor have a crucial role when it comes to that voice. Their job is to smooth over that voice, weave the words together, mix the sounds, secure the flow of the piece, and do so without taking away from the artist’s voice or message itself.

In “The Subversive Copy Editor,” author and editor Carol Fisher Saller advises other editors that when editing an author’s work, one needs to be clear, flexible and transparent, as well as generous — “keeping in mind that this writer may have a take on his readers that you don’t necessarily understand,” she writes.

Hollywood and the music industry are constantly churning out tales of producers and record labels that have tried to change artists — their message, their look, their voice itself. In the recent blockbuster, “A Star is Born,” one of the themes of the film is how once Ally became a star, the producers and record labels tried to change her voice and change what she had to say.

As editors in journalism, we mostly check for the basics: facts, style and grammar. But we are also sometimes faced with having to cut pieces of stories, make wordy sentences more concise and decide whether something is a poetic choice of syntax or just plain wrong. It can be tempting to over-edit in these situations, to write it how you would have written it. We especially see this when it comes to opinion pieces and editorials, where a writer’s voice is most prominent.

So in making sure writing is correct and clear, we can’t let the writer’s voice fade. Like a producer shouldn’t bury a vocalist’s natural talent underneath too many instruments or synthesizers, an editor should not take a writer’s piece and edit it to the point that it loses the unique way they are conveying a message.

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Student guest post: Subscriptions, not clicks, are what journalism must prioritize

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the fifth of those posts.

Brennan Doherty is a senior at the UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism. He covers UNC athletics for The Daily Tar Heel and recently served as a communications intern with North Carolina Football Club (North Carolina FC/NC Courage) in Cary. Doherty has covered high schools sports in North Carolina for four years, with his stories primarily appearing in The News & Observer. He previously served as the sports editor at The Daily Gamecock while he was a student at the University of South Carolina.

A few months back, I finally gave in and subscribed to The Athletic, eager to see what all the hype was about. Thanks to their student plan, I have access to in-depth beat reporting on my favorite professional teams (New Orleans Saints, New Orleans Pelicans, New York Mets and the Carolina Hurricanes) as well as a good selection of national coverage for just under $30 a year.

My experience with The Athletic has strengthened my belief that journalism in 2019 should be much more concerned with subscriptions than it is with clicks. Sure, The Athletic is a niche service, a site dedicated to hardcore sports fans. But I think the subscription model it utilizes should be learned from and applied to newsrooms throughout the country for coverage that goes beyond sports.

It’s well known that advertising revenue has traditionally powered print journalism. It’s also no secret that money from ads is harder to come by in the digital age with competition from the likes of Google and Facebook. In a class taught on community journalism by Jock Lauterer at UNC-Chapel Hill, he repeated the following line several times throughout the semester: “Print dollars, digital dimes, mobile pennies.”

When it comes to ad revenue, it’s not what it used to be – and probably never will be again. Yet, a visit to the average newspaper’s website will you remind you how keen news organizations are on trying to squeeze every last drop of ad money from a well that’s nearly dried up.

Attempting to read a story online can be like navigating a maze. Once you get past the banner ad, you’ll probably be distracted by a video you have no interest in. Providing padding on both the left and right ends of your screen will be more ads, possibly with moving text or other motion elements. Somewhere in between is the story – what this whole thing is supposed to be about, anyway.

Arguably the clearest difference between The Athletic and other sports sites it competes with is its minimalist, distraction-free design. There are no ads here because you’ve paid to make them disappear with your subscription. Instead, the reader is greeted with a layout that puts the story front and center and blocks out all the other noise. In a nutshell, reading is no longer a chore.

Personally, it’s refreshing to read a story about something I’m interested in like the Carolina Hurricanes and not have the story broken up by a highlight video of a random minor league hockey team I had never even heard of just because the video comes with an ad.

Web aesthetics and user experience aside, a pivot from an ad-centered strategy to a subscription-based model can bring about positive change in how news is covered while also fostering better long-term relationships with readers.

When you live and die by advertising, you’re beholden to the number of unique visitors your site attracts. Otherwise, advertisers wouldn’t be interested in doing business with you anyway.

An obsession with clicks can lead to the temptation of producing content that you think will draw visitors to your site, even if that means reporting on stories that aren’t worth covering or engaging in a cryptic game of cat-and-mouse on social media to get clicks in an age where most news breaks on places like Twitter anyway.

In local news, this can take away from reporting on what truly matters. An unfortunate reality is that a lot of the meaningful journalism making a difference in communities across America – work that costs a lot of money to complete, by the way –  does not lend itself to a ton of clicks. At least not at first.

But what can be harmful is choosing to bypass reporting on topics that matter just because the number of clicks they receive don’t validate their importance right away. It seems to me many newspapers in 2019 could benefit from patience in deciding what to prioritize. But it’s tough to be patient when you’re answering to advertisers.

However, getting paid up front – through a subscription model – might change this. Personally, there have been numerous times on Twitter when I’ve seen reporters from The Athletic share stories they wrote and they’ll mention how they never would have had the chance to write similar pieces at their past employers.

To use a sports analogy, money generated from subscriptions is like a good running game in football. It’s not the flashiest thing in the world, but it’s dependable and sustainable. I think subscriptions build relationships with readers and make them more inclined to engage with the news organization consistently, which makes sense. You’re going to want to use what you’re paying for.

Clicks, meanwhile, can be like a 50-yard passing play. Sure, you might have a story go viral and do numbers. But can you plan on doing that time and time again? Probably not.

There are success stories that can be looked at for guidance. For instance, Digiday reported that The Seattle Times recorded a 38 percent increase in digital subscribers in 2018 by encouraging reporters to report on topics more likely to lead to subscriptions, not clicks. The paper, Digiday’s Max Willens wrote, “is part of a broader movement among news publishers pivoting away from content that does not build habits or direct connections with their audiences.”

Persuading readers to pay for news when it’s mostly been posted for free on the internet since the 1990s will still be a tough sell. But devaluing the good work journalists do through a reliance on clicks and advertising is a poor alternative destined to fail.

Follow Brennan Doherty on Twitter and read his stories on the Daily Tar Heel site.

Q&A with Courtney Mabeus, military reporter for The Virginian-Pilot

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Courtney Mabeus is a reporter at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia. Her beat is the military. She previously worked at newspapers in Frederick, Maryland, and Fayetteville, North Carolina. Mabeus has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from UNC-Chapel Hill and a master’s degree from the University of Maryland. In this interview, conducted by email, Mabeus discusses the military beat and her recent trip to Puerto Rico, where she reported on recovery efforts after Hurricane Maria.

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

A. I cover the military, which likes to report to work early, an idea that seems to be anathema to most of us in the journalism world. Seriously though, my days are generally pretty close to 9-5 as they can get, with some variations.

We’ve got every branch of the services here in Hampton Roads, but the Navy takes up the biggest chunk of my time because of Norfolk Naval Station. The naval station is the largest in the world, but in the post-9/11 world you can’t just drive on, so a lot of my in-office time is spent working the phones, coordinating interviews, talking with NGOs, think-tanks, etc.

I also cover veterans, and Virginia has one of the largest populations of former service members. I read of lot of national and other local coverage, to try to distill things down to the local level or just have a better idea of the bigger issues.

I’m also in a market that’s competitive with smaller, local papers, military-related trade publications and television, so sometimes, you’ve got to hustle. As an example, it’s 10 p.m. and I just got home from filing a 35-inch story that resulted from a 400+ page waste, fraud and abuse investigation that I got through FOIA. It arrived in my inbox at 3 p.m.

Q. What makes the military beat different from others?

A. The military speaks its own language and has its own culture, but, that said, the services are a microcosm of our larger society. Each service is different, too, and has its own traditions.

As I mentioned earlier, you can’t just drive on a base to talk to those you need. You’ve got to source harder, dig deeper and FOIA a lot. Few people these days serve, too, which means fewer people understand the important role our military performs at home and internationally.

Also, you don’t get to get underway on aircraft carriers or ride on Army Black Hawks when you’re covering a city council (no offense to those reporters, as I know several who thrive from covering politics and do a darn good job of it).

Q. You recently spent a week in Puerto Rico, covering the recovery efforts after the island was hit by Hurricane Maria. What was that experience like?

A. Virginian-Pilot photographer Stephen Katz and I flew in commercial to San Juan on Oct. 2, so we arrived a little less than two weeks after the storm. The airport was sweltering and full of people trying to leave, so that’s what we walked in to: chaos. It pretty much remained that way for the entire time.

Some places relied on generators, but most were without electricity. Communication was nearly non-existent in places outside San Juan and, all across the island, you’d see people pulled over along highways where they could get cell signals. We saw people lined up for ice, for ATMs, etc.

We were on the island for about a week and crisscrossed it while covering our local Marines and sailors. You really get a sense of the devastation while flying above Puerto Rico and in the central mountain region, where we went to cover Seabees (sailors that work construction) and Marines who were clearing roads. All across the island now, you see trees that Hurricane Maria stripped, leaving them twisted, broken and brown. It looked like winter, even though it was 90+ degrees most days.

We had a rough idea of the stories we wanted to cover before we landed in Puerto Rico based on conversations we had with Navy public affairs officers in Norfolk who were in contact with those already on Puerto Rico. In a disaster area, things are going to be in constant flux so we learned to roll with story changes and communications and travel challenges, which were constant.

We were also on a budget and had to juggle that when figuring out our own day-to-day planning. We spent a few nights sleeping on cots and on the USS Kearsarge, a Norfolk-based Navy ship, and rented a car once, only because we needed to get from Ponce, in the south central part of the island, back to San Juan, in the northeast. Even when we did stay in hotels, those were difficult to find; most were only renting rooms to first responders.

Puerto Rico was a huge logistical challenge. It’s going to remain that way for residents for a long time. We didn’t bring a satellite phone, which would have made communications with our newsroom and filing stories and photos easy. Instead, I brought two phones with me, one Verizon and one AT&T. Near San Juan, texting was easy, but getting email or making a phone call was hit or miss.

You truly realize how dependent we are on technology for so many facets of life when you have to scramble to find an internet connection to file your stories and photos. It was nothing short of a miracle that we were able to get each and every one of our daily stories filed, and that was because we were at the mercy of connections provided by military.

For all the challenges, going to Puerto Rico was rewarding. There are a lot of stories there and will be for a long time. Stephen and I didn’t get to every story we wanted before it was time to leave. The Marines and sailors we cover deployed in late August/early September and are still there. Unlike a typical deployment, they don’t know when they’ll be coming home. With so many newsrooms tightening their belts these days — including mine — it was a great opportunity to go and shed a little light on what our local men and women were doing on the island and send those stories back home.

Q. What advice do you have for students who are exploring careers in reporting?

A. Absorb the sort of work that you want to create. Reach out to people who are doing now what you want to do some day. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, even if you think it makes you sound “stupid.”

It’s a complete cliché, but many people will be willing to spend the time to help you understand their lives/jobs/culture if you demonstrate the willingness to learn.

Follow Courtney Mabeus on Twitter and read her stories at PilotOnline.com.

Let’s meet in St. Pete for #ACES2017

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The Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront will be the site for this year’s ACES conference. The theme is “spring training for editors.”

The national conference of the American Copy Editors Society will take place March 23-25 in St. Petersburg, Florida. I’ll be there.

As always, the conference includes fantastic sessions that will appeal to editors across disciplines. We’ll learn who won the headline contest, enjoy a spelling bee and honor scholarship winners. It’s also likely that there will be Scrabble games in the hotel bar.

To get the early bird rate, you’ll need to register by Jan. 31. Registration ends March 9. If you cannot attend, you can follow the fun on Twitter with the hashtag #ACES2017.

So you’re telling me there’s a chance

The results of the 2016 presidential election have shocked many people. After all, the polls said that Hillary Clinton would defeat Donald Trump, right?

Not exactly. Many forecasts certainly said that Clinton had the better chance to win. For example, FiveThirtyEight reported on Election Day that she had a 71 percent chance of winning. That also meant that Trump has a 29 percent chance to win. And he did.

Meanwhile, in college football, three of the top four teams (Clemson, Washington and Michigan) lost on Saturday. ESPN reported that the chances of that happening were 0.3 percent. And it did.

All of this reminds me of something that Del Ossino, a copy editor in the sports department of The News & Observer, liked to say when someone expressed surprise at an upset: “That’s why they play the games.” Indeed, and that’s why people vote.

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.