Q&A with Samantha Harrington of Driven Media

Samantha Harrington is co-founder and lead writer at Driven Media. In this interview, conducted by email, she discusses the site and her role in it.

Q. What is Driven Media about? What do you hope to achieve?

A. Oh, man. That’s a big question.

Driven is a media startup that, at its most basic level, aims to put more relatable women’s faces and voices in the media. We did a bunch of market research — surveys mostly — to figure out what problems people had with the media. We didn’t just want to start blindly producing content without first making sure there was a bigger need we were solving.

So many young women told us that they wanted to see more relatable stories and more positive content. So that’s what we try to produce.

I think at a larger level, we’re sort of creating this community of women who can learn and grow from each other’s stories. There are so many studies that show the impact of media consumption on self-worth and questions of identity. Sometimes it takes seeing or hearing the stories of others to realize, “Oh yeah, I can do this too. I can be who I want.” We’re all searching for something so we might as well do it together.

Q. Describe your role with the project.

A. So on the business side of things, I’m a co-owner of Driven Media, LLC. There are four owners: Hannah Doksansky, Hrisanthi Kroi, Josie Hollingsworth and me. This role means doing everything from dealing with taxes and legal documents to keeping track of receipts and expenses.

On the content side, I’m Driven’s lead writer. In a multimedia organization, that means writing everything from long-form features, blurbs for graphics, video intros, blog posts, email newsletters and more. I also do a bit of the graphic design for Driven — Hannah and I trade off on that — and some of the basic web stuff — posting, SEO, etc. Hrisanthi and Josie do the more serious web dev.

Q. How do you decide what stories to cover, and how does the reporting and editing work?

A. So we’re working on a series about immigration right now thanks to a partnership with Beacon, a crowdfunding platform for journalism. Within that, we’re really focused on telling human-focused stories of female immigrants living in the U.S. There are a lot of other themes that we’d like to work on in the future, but immigration has been a really incredible way to start out.

We’re five big stories in on the reporting front at this point, and it’s definitely my favorite part of the job. Hannah and I are doing all the reporting, and we start out by making contacts in whatever way we can. Because we’re traveling and reporting in places that we’re not experts in, the first few days are always all over the place. We’ve gotten into cities and completely changed from we thought the story was.

Take Maine for example. When we got to Portland, we thought the story was going to be focused around the Somali community there. But the more conversations we had, the more we realized that the story we needed to be telling in that moment was about asylum seekers in the state. So we try to not be too stubborn about what we think we’re going to do write off the bat.

So we start out by contacting organizations mostly — cultural associations, resettlement agencies, university groups, business associations, etc. — and then we ask who they know that would be willing to share personal stories about their lives and go from there.

This was something we had a really big issue with in West Virginia. We went in knowing that, according to the most recent census, there was a relatively large Filipino population in West Virginia, but once we got there, no one knew what we were talking about. We called countless organizations, and they all responded, “There are Filipino people here?” So we started scouring Facebook and searching Twitter and cold-contacting people that way. Surprisingly, almost everyone responded.

Once we get in touch with people, we try to spend quite a bit of time with them. We like to spend as much time just hanging out and talking to our subjects like friends as we do interviewing them.

Editing varies depending on what kind of media we’re working with. If we’re writing something, I’ll usually put it together and then email it to Josie or another friend for a look-over. With audio and video editing, it’s a lot of conversation between Hannah and me trying to figure out what looks best and makes the most sense for the story we’re telling.

That’s a really long and meandering answer, sorry. We’re still getting into our groove.

Q. You are a 2015 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What advice do you have for those who will graduate in 2016?

A. This is hard because everyone is so different and is looking for different things.

For better or worse, I’m a live-in-the-moment kind of girl and am way too impatient to work my way up a ladder at a big organization.

I’ve always said that all I really want from a job is just to be happy in it. I don’t want to waste any time doing anything I’m not really excited about. For others, who are more patient, maybe more traditional jobs and career paths are perfect for them.

But I guess regardless of who you are and what you’re looking for, my advice is go get it. If there’s something that you want, you have to ask for it and work for it. Don’t just wait hoping that what you want might fall in your lap. Get out there and fight for it. You’ll be amazed at what you can do.

Also, a last piece of advice, more startup than personal, is just to aim to solve a problem with everything you create.

Follow Samantha Harrington and Driven Media on Twitter.

Q&A with David Forbes, editor of the Asheville Blade

David Forbes is editor of the Asheville Blade, a news website in Asheville, North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, he discusses the Blade’s objectives, its focus and its business model.

Q. What is the Asheville Blade? How did the site get started?

A. The Asheville Blade is a reader-supported online news site focused on Asheville. We emerged out of a union fight at Mountain Xpress, the local alt weekly, including issues many of us journalists and employees had with the ethical decisions of the paper’s management, especially when it came to covering issues involving business or landlords.

That situation revealed a need for a different type of news organization in our city, one that was backed directly by its readers and more concerned with the realities of a place we love but also has a lot of real struggles and challenges. So the Blade focuses on in-depth coverage of our city, from local government to issues like segregation, LGBT rights and labor. We also have a good deal of analysis and sharp opinion pieces.

Our work tends to be more in the long-form, news magazine-style than the traditional daily newspaper format. We usually have two to three such pieces a week.

The Blade officially launched our funding page on Patreon (patreon.com/avlblade) and full website around June 16 of last year. Since then, we’ve grown steadily, both in readership numbers and paying subscribers.

Q. Describe your role as editor. How do you and your staff decide what to cover?

A. Right now, due to the small size of our organization and resources, I run the organization as editor and do a fair amount of the reporting.

However, we’re fortunate to have numerous freelancers and contributors work with us, on topics ranging from immigration to the economy to science. Often I’ll consult with them about what to cover, especially as it pertains to their areas of expertise. We also have great communication, with many of them bringing topics and ideas.

This is also where our subscriber/reader base comes in handy. They tend to be very engaged people, and they’ll often bring story ideas and tips forward as well. Often if a topic is getting a lot of surface-level attention, we’ll take the time to do a longer piece that really delves into it and tries to present the bigger picture to the reader.

We especially try to focus on what people are talking about but isn’t getting much attention in the public discourse. In a city as focused around tourism and public relations as Asheville is, that’s quite a lot. So we’ll run pieces on stagnant wages, the history of redlining or the stories people pressured to leave the city because of the high cost of living, just to name a few topics we’ve highlighted that have often been ignored in Asheville.

Q. How do story editing, social media and headline writing work at the Blade?

A. We generally do story editing over Google docs, which is a really useful tool for a starting news site that works with a network of freelancers. I’ll usually communicate and work closely with our writers, first to see if any additional material or major changes are needed and then to dive in line-by-line. Because we do more in-depth, long-form pieces, we can manage our workflow to take the time and really hone a piece.

Social media’s also a major part of what we do at the Blade. Asheville has a very active community that follows and discusses local news over social media. We have Twitter and Facebook accounts, of course. Our Facebook community is particularly active, and our new pieces generally get a fair amount of traffic from that.

Also, we have live coverage of Asheville City Council meetings via Twitter (on the #avlgov hashtag), and that’s proven to be a pretty popular feature with our readers and the larger community, especially when paired with the in-depth local government articles we publish a few days after the meeting. It gives locals the option of following the immediate action, waiting for the larger story or getting some different insights from both.

As for headline writing, we take advantage of the larger space for subhead/summaries that using an online news site provides. Our main headlines will generally allude to an overall theme or situation in the story (e.g., “Shaky ground” for a recent analysis of wages in Asheville we did) while the subhead/summary space will offer more detail.

So far, it’s proven a successful combination: The shorter headlines prove memorable, and the longer subheads draw the reader in further. If we’re working with a freelancer or contributor, we’ll usually discuss the headline and subhead while we’re editing the piece as a whole, and I think this helps avoid the disconnect I’ve seen at some publications.

Q. News sites like yours solicit donations from readers. How do you see digital journalism becoming sustainable in Asheville and elsewhere?

A. I think reader-supported journalism has a powerful future, and one that’s not always appreciated. Services like Patreon, which provides a really easy monthly funding platform, have generally been used by artists, but they’re potentially strong funding sources for news organizations as well. There’s a plethora of really interesting crowdfunding tools out there, and some real potential to give independent media a desperately needed tool to survive and thrive.

I saw some of the potential for this freelancing for NSFWCorp, which asked its readers to subscribe for a really cheap amount per month to get full access. Their reader base paid, stayed engaged and was a really powerful source of support.

The Blade opted to have its pieces free to the public, but offering rewards and additional material for subscribers. We also chose to make the subscription affordable – ours start at $3 a month — to make them easily available to working people in Asheville.

There’s also an independence and simplicity in being reader-supported. The lack of ads certainly made our site far simpler to build and use from day one. We also don’t face the same potential pressure from advertisers, which can be a challenge for media organizations even if they’re trying to operate ethically and do good, hard-hitting journalism. Instead, our subscribers tend to act as a network of support in helping our publication succeed and keeping us informed.

Lastly, and this is very important for media in today’s changing world, it tends to be very stable. While we don’t see the swift gains some ad-backed publications do, we also don’t see the big declines. Our funding grows steadily each month, and there’s a lot of power in that.

Student guest post: How tone can make or break an email newsletter

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the 14th (and last) of those posts. Martha Upton is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in journalism and history. She is from Wake Forest and has called North Carolina home her whole life. Martha hopes to land a job editing and designing in the magazine industry next year and vows to return to Florence, Italy, in the near future where she spent a summer abroad.

After spending years feeling obligated yet reluctant to try to make it through more than one whole story in a print newspaper, I have been delighted recently by the email I find in my inbox promptly every weekday morning from a daily newsletter called theSkimm.

Without warning, news roundups and daily or weekly newsletters have become instilled in the rhetoric of the journalism world. You can even get your New York Times delivered as an email right to your inbox every morning. Lately it has become all about readability. How fast can I read this information and get the gist without having to take too much time out of my busy life? They don’t call it theSkimm for nothing.

With all the debriefing, I have to wonder if some of the value gets lost in translation. TheSkimm prides itself on its witty, and some might say sassy, approach to current events. There are pop culture references thrown in, which I especially enjoy, but is it OK to use the same style of writing when it comes to stabilizing Yemen’s government?

As an editor, I have become well versed in the concept of alternative story forms. I see the merit of using numbers to tell a story or making lists, either ordered or not. I was particularly enthused after finding a link to a guide theSkimm had put together differentiating the various terror groups that have been in headlines recently, something most people would be eager to learn. I quickly forwarded the guide to my mother before reading it myself because I knew she would be interested.

What I wasn’t sure of was whether my mom would understand what it meant for ISIS to be the P. Diddy of terror groups. Was my mom expected to search P. Diddy on the Internet to find out what meaning she should gather from that? (I Googled P. Diddy for you if you’re curious.)

As an editor, I understand that many publications, and now newsletters, have prided themselves on keeping a certain tone consistent throughout. However, I think editors should consider whether they want to limit their audience by making references only 20-somethings would understand.

Alternative story forms should be clear and concise, presenting the information in a way the reader can understand quickly. Not only is the topic of terror groups not exactly something that should be made light of, but also some readers may be turned away by the flippant tone used in addressing the topic.

My suggestion to fellow editors is if they want their newsletter to be the P. Diddy of newsletters (see link above), then consideration should be given to how tone can apply to different topics. In theSkimm’s case, it might have been more appropriate to take on their usual snarky attitude in the quick hit about ISIS’ latest terror, but be more straightforward in the guide. When effective communication is the goal, all the reader should have to do is skim.

Student guest post: “Breaking news” is broken

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the 10th of those posts. Mark Lihn is a senior journalism and political science major from Arlington, Virginia. He will begin pursuing a master’s degree in international relations next fall. 

In today’s media world, people get their news from a wide variety of sources, from television to the Internet to newspapers. While the print industry is struggling, it was never the ideal method of distribution for breaking news. However, the Internet and social media are perfectly equipped to spread the newest news, keeping people updated on their tablets, computers and smartphones.

But how long can breaking news be considered “breaking”?

The rise of the 24-hour news cycle in cable television and the Internet has had its advantages. News is more accessible across the country than ever before. If I want to know what is going on in the world, I simply have to check an application on my phone or turn on my computer or television. We generally learn breaking news long before I have to turn on a television or computer though.

The first time I hear a big news story tends to be through word of mouth or my smartphone. I either see the news on Twitter or my CNN app first, or I hear about it from a friend who learned about it a similar way. In today’s modern society, it seems safe to assume that most people who would turn to the Internet for their news get their breaking news this way.

The amount of time a story remains “breaking” is open to interpretation. It certainly seems safe to assume though that a story I have heard about three or four times already is no longer breaking news to me.

Why then do websites like CNN.com insist on having a breaking news story front and center 24/7? If a story broke in the morning, then in the afternoon, it is no longer “breaking.”

Such is the case with most of the major stories that CNN covers, like the recent tragedy of the plane crash in France. The crash of the plane was a breaking news story. However, the first story that the plane crashed keeps its timeliness far longer than any update to that story. The update that the co-pilot of the Germanwings plane was medically unfit to work broke this morning. At 4 p.m., the same update to a story that began three days ago is still labeled “breaking.”

The infatuation with breaking news on Internet news sites leads to the devaluation of breaking news. I have become immune to the monstrously large headlines and pictures of the lead pack on CNN’s site. They are always there, no matter what is going on the world, there seems to be a breaking news story.

News happens all of the time, which is why it is news. Simply because a story is new, though, does not make it a breaking news story.

Editors need to be more aware that they can wear out their audiences by overusing the categorization of breaking news. Breaking news stories can garner clicks, leading indirectly to increased revenue, but if editors are not careful, their audiences will become immune to their stories and their sites. It is something I have encountered with CNN, and it has led me to look for other news sources.

Student guest post: A farewell to the homepage

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the ninth of those posts. Paige Ladisic is a junior studying editing and graphic design and political science at UNC-Chapel Hill. But most of the time, she’s the online editor at The Daily Tar Heel, studying how to manage a print-first college newspaper in a digital-first world.

Every day, between 25,000 and 30,000 people view dailytarheel.com, clicking on links from Facebook, Twitter and the homepage. But every day when I open our Google Analytics panel, I’m noticing a trend — it’s just a little change for us, but at newspapers all over the country, it’s happening a lot faster and with far bigger numbers.

The modern homepage is dying.

That doesn’t mean people aren’t reading news, although seeing that The New York Times lost 80 million homepage visitors over two years is a scary statistic. That just means that people are getting to news in different ways.

Instead of treating a homepage like a digital copy of a newspaper, readers find news through social media referrals, Google searches and something analytics sites call “dark social.” Instead of readers reading the news online at certain times throughout the day, people are grabbing bits of information here and there.

At The Daily Tar Heel, our homepage’s death is coming more slowly than 80 million pageviews lost, but I’ve been watching the decline and getting ready for it.

What’s a student journalist to do?

My job every day is to make sure our website is produced with the reader and their experience in mind. I also oversee everything pushed to Facebook, Twitter and other social media channels.

Before, the goal of producing a website would just be to drive people to your homepage — but now, every social media post I write is a pitch to read that one story, to share it or to send it to your friends. People aren’t seeking out our news, because hundreds of articles are competing for every UNC student’s attention at any given time — we have to jump in the fray too.

When I open a story in our content management system, the first thing I do is write a headline — but instead of one headline, I’ll write two or three.

One is the normal newsy headline that will also be featured in the URL, one is a feature headline for the story page itself and the final headline is exclusively for social media sharing. I take advantage of that third headline to drive people from Facebook to the website, and the feature headline is important to keep people on the site once they click.

In the body text of the story, I link to everything I can — older stories with important context, profiles about key players in a story, topic pages and archives of related stories. And when it’s time to write the social media post, it’s more than just using all 140 characters — I have to take advantage of every single character to convince readers to click that link.

It’s all about getting people to the site, and once they get there, keeping them there.

RIP, homepage.

Q&A with Mebane Rash of EducationNC

Mebane Rash is CEO of EducationNC and editor of its website, which launched this week. In this interview, conducted by email, she discusses the project’s objectives.

Q. What is EducationNC? What are you hoping to achieve with this site?

A. EdNC is a nonpartisan online platform, providing data, research, news, information and analysis about the major trends, issues and challenges facing our schools. EdNC intends to surface ideas, success stories and statistics that will inspire us all to reconsider our assumptions about education.

EdNC intends to host a bipartisan conversation fueled with good information. We seek a statewide audience, including farmers and foundation staffs, leaders of religious organizations and political parties. We want EdNC to be read by public officials, parents and policymakers, as well as by teachers and school administrators.

Q. Describe your role with the site. How were you involved with its development, and now that it’s up and running, what is your typical workweek like?

A. I am the CEO and editor-in-chief, but I didn’t know very much about EdNC until July. I started in September, and I think we have had more than 150 meetings since then across the state.

I wanted to make sure we were building a website that people would actually use. I met with teachers, principals, students, administrators and parents. I talked to policymakers, the media and advocates.

Talking to people was my way of making sure EdNC was grounded in the lived experience of educators statewide. What we can promise is that we will monitor and adjust the content of the site based on user experience.

The only thing that is a sure thing about my day is that I get up about 5 a.m. so that I can post our news aggregation by 8 a.m. We only have three full-time staff so we all do whatever it takes to have a website with fresh content each day designed to maximize the user experience.

Q. EducationNC promises a mix of news and opinion. How will you balance that, particularly as a nonprofit organization that receives support from grants and donations?

A. I think our users will get use to our mix of content. We want to have something for everybody.

We have columns each day of the week. We have features — sometimes they will be research-based, other times they will be contributed by an education stakeholder. We have straight news. Sometimes we will have articles that express a point of view because we want the state to know the range of opinions that are influencing policy. We have maps that give people the opportunity to visualize data and interact with it. You can upload your ed events to our site. We have a crowdsourced EdLibrary with important resources. We will be live-streaming events – like the Triangle Startup Weekend on Education in February. Users can pick and choose what interests them.

I have editorial and content control. Our full-time staff are required to be unaffiliated voters – but they also need to be living nonpartisan lives personally and professionally. EdNC discloses when an article includes information about a board member or a financial contributor. Our funders know they can’t influence our content.

Q. North Carolina is a competitive place for news. How do you anticipate EducationNC will fit in with the likes of WRAL and The Charlotte Observer?

A. We know that for EdNC to be a success we need to have good relationships with legacy media.

We hope to provide an EdWire to the urban newspapers. We hope to provide explanatory journalism to rural newspapers. We try to package articles with all the assets a media outlet would need to run a story – photos, graphics, art, etc.

Each morning, our news aggregation drives traffic to national, state and local news stories. Our focus on education allows us to dive deep on this issue — an issue we happen to think is the most important issue facing North Carolina.

For more about EducationNC, visit the website, watch this video and follow the project on Twitter.

Q&A with Tracy Boyer Clark of Reportory

Tracy Boyer Clark is founder and CEO of Repotory, an online service that allows readers to create a daily newspaper based on their interests. She is also a senior marketing manager at IBM. Clark started her journalism career as a multimedia producer at The Roanoke Times in Virginia. In this interview, conducted by email, Clark talks about the origins for Reportory and how the service works.

Q. What is Reportory, and how did you come up with the idea for it?

A. Reportory is an à la carte news customization platform that allows readers to create a daily customized news digest based on what news sources they read, which sections they enjoy and any key terms they want to be sure not to miss.

The word “Reportory” is a mixture of “report” and “story” as we see our product being exactly that — a report of multiple news stories. It is also a play on words to repertoire, a collection of things.

I came up with the idea in 2008 while working at The Roanoke Times. I went on a delivery ride one morning and thought about how this model couldn’t exist much longer but that the personal touch of hand-delivering your news was something that readers valued.

Then, at an earnings meeting when I learned that people and paper were the two most expensive components of running the newspaper, I started to think about ways to remove the printed paper and reduce the people involved while still delivering the news in a packaged way — but with a new twist to use technology to customize the news for every person since readers only like certain sections. So now I still “deliver” customized news to readers, just into their inbox, not their doorstep.

Q. The site delivers the news primarily as a PDF. Why did you go with that format?

A. Glad you asked! When I started working on this business, I recognized the plethora of news aggregation apps out there already (Flipboard, News360, News Republic, Circa, Yahoo News Digest, etc).

However, those are just available on mobile with no other reading format. This works great for Gen Y, but I wanted to focus on the two generations before them who have been loyal print readers and are used to that personal news delivery. Not all of them use smartphones or are as comfortable with mobile technology as the younger demographic. So as they cancel their news subscriptions due to rising costs or other frustration, I wanted Reportory to fill this news void for them.

That all being said, even though the PDF digest is the “personalized newspaper” we were first and foremost working on, readers also receive a daily link to read their articles online in their own customized news portal. In early 2015, we will be releasing our iOS apps for phones and tablets where readers can access their articles on the go.

Q. The big question for any startup is how you plan to make money. What about that aspect of Reportory?

A. One of the main differences with Reportory and any other news aggregation site is that we do not use free RSS feeds to link readers back-n-forth across the web. Instead, we license 100 percent of the content in order to use the entirety of the articles to create this new product.

However, since our platform is totally customized in terms of the news it delivers to each reader, we do not pay editors or other journalists to hand-pick what the top news should be. Thus, at this point content licensing and technology development are our two largest costs.

All Reportory readers can receive 10 news articles a day for free, and we will be implementing some customized advertising to offset this cost. Then, for serious readers who want more content, we have a tiered pricing model where they can pay $4.99/month for 20 articles daily or $9.99/month for 30 articles daily.

We have plans to provide paying users with additional benefits such as a list of stock market data in their digest if they select business as a preferred topical section or a list of sports scores if they select sports. Our goal essentially is to recreate the newspaper from the ground up for these readers but only with the content they want.

Q. You’ve seen many twists and turns in your career in journalism and communications. What advice do you have for today’s students who want to go into the field?

A. I have indeed!

I dabbled in traditional newspapers right after college, then went back to graduate school during the economic crisis to receive an MSIS because I am fascinated with technology and an MBA as I love all aspects of business and marketing. During grad school, I interned at a startup and at Lenovo before finally landing at IBM and now working on my own startup. So I have truly stretched and explored a good deal over the past 10 years!

My biggest advice for students today is to experiment and explore as much as they possibly can. They should realize that their first job out of college is likely not their 20+ year spot as it may have been for their parents. Instead, they should push themselves to try a role that they might not have initially targeted or a company that wasn’t initially on their radar.

Each of my internships and jobs has taught me so much about myself — what inspires me, challenges me, bores me, etc. That self-awareness is so important to determining one’s career path … and one I am still learning as I continue to stretch and explore!

I love the saying, “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go” by T.S. Eliot. That is my biggest takeaway for people in their 20s: to heed this advice and take those risks in the early part of their career and never live their lives with “what ifs.”