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.

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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.

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.