Caroline McMillan Portillo is a reporter for the website Bizwomen.com. She previously worked at The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, Portillo discusses how reporting and editing work at Bizwomen.com, and how majoring in journalism prepared her for her career.
Q. What is Bizwomen about? What are the site’s objectives?
A. Bizwomen is a national news website about and for women in business. We cover everything from the women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies to leading entrepreneurs in the startup scene. Just this week, I had an exclusive interview with billionaire fashion designer Tory Burch, which was really cool.
The site was launched in April by American City Business Journals, a company that owns nearly 45 different business journals around the country (including the Triangle Business Journal). So we’re a young publication with a well-established brand behind us, which has been a nice extra boost.
Q. Describe your role there. What do you do on a typical workday?
A. Right now, the reporters on the Bizwomen team are each posting about three stories a day. The goal is to get to four.
I come into the office around 9 a.m. (ACBJ is headquartered in Charlotte), and usually leave around 7 p.m. When I come in, I immediately start combing other sites and Twitter for any big news in the world of women in business. This could be earnings for a Fortune 500 company with a female CEO, a tech giant’s diversity report or buzz around a high-profile controversy. These early-morning posts are quick hits, and it’s OK if they’re short. The goal is to make sure that we always have fresh content and are staying on top of the biggest stories.
Around 10:30 a.m., we have our morning editorial meeting, where we discuss what we’re working on, including what we expect to file that day and any longer pieces we’re working on. Right now, our official Bizwomen team is quite small — just me, another reporter and our editor — but we also have freelancers and can pull stories from all of the ACBJ publications around the country for our site. It’s similar to how newspapers can use wire copy from other papers in their chain.
That doesn’t mean we’ll never cover those stories ourselves. But if another market already has a story written on a topic we’re covering, we can post it and then figure out another way to extend the story in a different way, often getting multiple posts out of the same story line.
For example, when a bunch of girl-power ads came out around the same time, everyone was talking about how resonant they were. So I called Always and Pantene — the companies that produced the most popular videos — and did a piece on “The 7 things you didn’t know about those girl-power ads from Pantene and Always.” Then I spoke with two advertising and marketing experts (including one from UNC) to talk about the strategy behind the videos, which didn’t really have anything to do with the products the companies sell. With their insight, I did another post about whether these ads make good business sense.
Q. How does story editing work at the site?
A. The editing process works like this: I write the story, as well as a headline for the website, one for SEO (lots of keywords) and one for mobile devices. This is all done in our content management system.
I send it along to my editor, and she combs through the story and headlines. She’ll make changes and then will talk with me if she sees any holes in the story or wants to approach it from a different way. Depending on how much work it needs, we’ll either resolve it side by side, or I’ll work on it more and resubmit.
Q. What about headline writing?
A. Lately in our editorial meetings, we’ve been pitching stories by the headline. It was a little weird at first, but it makes for a more efficient meeting and helps us reporters focus a story before we sit down to write. Then we can massage the headline and story angle as a team.
I heard an editor at Quartz speak at the 2014 conference for the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, and he said they ask their reporters to think of their stories in terms of tweets. It took a little getting used to, but it’s actually a great strategy, particularly for a digital-only publication.
People won’t see our great content if we don’t have great headlines to draw them in. And on the Web, there’s a lot of competition.
Q. You graduated from the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill five years ago. What skills from your time there are most important in your work?
A. A few months after graduating, I was hired as a reporter with The Charlotte Observer — first as a community news reporter and then as the paper’s small business and entrepreneurship reporter. When you work for a daily newspaper, you’re expected to write a lot, to write fast and not to make mistakes while you’re doing it. The years I spent in the j-school were so critical in helping with all three.
In News Writing and News Editing, I learned how important it is to read and re-read your story, looking for typos, grammatical errors and misspelled proper nouns. Editors always have suggestions for how to make a sentence better, and they enjoy working with you on that. But if you make them spend time correcting dumb little mistakes, you could have a fantastic story and still lose some of their confidence in your ability.
I still remember getting a 50 on a news writing story because I spelled “Hillary Clinton” with only one “l.” I thought it was really harsh at the time, but now I get it. And if a mistake somehow gets past your editor and makes it on the paper or online, rest assured, you’ll get some vitriolic emails from readers. Then you’ll have to write an embarrassing correction that will be read by even more people.
The j-school also taught me about storytelling — how to ask for details that reward the reader for choosing your story — and why it’s good to spend time reading stories by writers you admire. Tommy Tomlinson, a former beloved Observer columnist and Pulitzer finalist, has been a great mentor for me, and I used to search through the archives just to read old stories and columns he’d written.
And I still think about little tricks of the trade Paul O’Connor taught me in my first reporting class, such as “draw a line down the middle of your notepad and write in columns.” (It’s faster because your hand doesn’t have to travel all the way across the page.)
Q. What skills have you had to learn since then?
A. The biggest thing I’ve had to learn since is how to really build a beat. When you first start, editors will feed you stories, but once you’ve been on the job for a little while, they expect you to find the majority of your stories. And you better not miss big news on your beat.
When I covered south Charlotte as a community news reporter, I was responsible for breaking news on school controversies, road projects, rezoning proposals and politics. So I really had to build sources, which is much harder than it sounds. It’s not like it was when newspapers were the only source of news people had, and thus the only place people sent tips to.
These days, you have to work hard to earn those story tips. People have to like you, they have to trust your abilities, and you have to keep in touch with sources regularly so they know that you care about them and not just the information they give you. That’s the only way you’ll get information first.
I used to get breakfast with some big figures in the south Charlotte community, including the city council representative, every single Wednesday around 7:30 a.m. So early. But so necessary.
When I became a business reporter, I had to get used to asking people about finances, which can be incredibly personal. How much did you lose when your business went under? How much did this investor give you to get started? What mistakes did you make that led you into bankruptcy? How much do you have to spend on x, y and z? It’s touchy stuff, but those details make your reporting stronger.
Read Caroline McMillan Portillo’s stories on the Bizwomen site and follow her on Twitter.