Q&A with Elaina Athans, reporter at ABC11-WTVD

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Elaina Athans is a reporter for ABC11-WTVD, a North Carolina TV station that covers Raleigh, Durham and Fayetteville. A graduate of Hofstra University, Athans previously worked at stations in New York and Maryland. In this interview, conducted by email, Athans discusses her job, including how she uses social media in her work.

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

A. I’m a general assignment reporter, and all in all, my day is hectic!

I usually come in around 9:30 in the morning and pitch stories I’d like to cover that day or I think would play well on social media. After getting assigned around 10:00 or 10:30, I’m out the door.

I’ll make calls in the car driving to a story and research my piece. I could be live in the noon show, which means there’s a tight window to gather information. I will try to grab interviews as soon as the car is parked and then will flip the sound around for noon.

After the midday show, I have the next few hours to continue gathering, tweet and grab new elements for our evening shows. In between writing my stories for broadcast, I will write a separate web version and send that along to our web department to post online.

Once I’m done with my on-air duties, I’ll also send along a “Night Note” detailing all the information I’ve collected throughout the day and important contacts I’ve made. This is meant to help my colleagues who might be assigned to a follow-up story down the road.

Q. In addition to being on air, journalists at stations like yours also write for the web. What are the challenges of working across formats?

A. I think it can be overwhelming at times, and it’s hard to pace yourself. I have to prepare stories for broadcast and push information out on social media at the same time.

Balance is key. You can’t go hard in one area and wane in the other.

Q. You are active on Twitter, and you have a professionally oriented page on Facebook. What role does social media play in your reporting?

A. To start with, I turn to social media to find stories to pitch. It’s the only place I go for enterprise pieces, to be honest. Folks are always sounding off about what’s going on in their communities or cool things that are happening around town.

I also use it for news gathering. I will incorporate tweets or Facebook posts into my stories. If I’m covering a political story, for instance, the first thing I’ll do is check is Twitter to see if the Senate leader, House speaker, governor or other elected officials are commenting.

When I first started in this business, you had to go through a press rep to get comment on every issue. That is not the case any more.

Q. What advice do you have for student journalists interested in breaking into broadcast?

A. Watch the markets or cities you aspire to work. If your dream is to be in Los Angeles, watch how the reporters in that city are telling stories and then mold your style around that.

Follow Elaina Athans on Twitter and on Facebook, and read her stories on the WTVD website.

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Q&A with Matt Brooks, food digital editor at The Washington Post

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Matt Brooks is food digital editor at The Washington Post. He previously worked at the Post as a sports reporter, blogger and editor. In this interview, conducted by email, Brooks discusses his role as a food editor, his transition from sports and some of his favorite things to eat.

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

A. As the digital editor for The Washington Post’s Food department, my role is a hybrid between an assignment editor, a web producer, a digital project manager, a social media strategist and a liaison between Food and the rest of the newsroom. Of course, digital strategies and responsibilities are constantly evolving here, so by the time this publishes, there’s a chance everything I’ve said will be moot.

What do I do all day? Eat.

Well, that’s part of my day. I always start my morning by checking web traffic reports from the day before and scheduling out a few early tweets on our @WaPoFood account before I head into the office. Once there, I open way too many Google Chrome tabs and check real-time traffic to see how our stories are performing in search and on various social media platforms.

I’ll scan buzzy food news websites and Twitter and pitch a few quick story ideas to our writers, then work on editing newsy posts or restaurant reviews. In this role, I’m often the ambassador to the editors who run our national homepage and the main Post social media accounts, so whenever we publish a story, I’m pitching editors on appropriate platforms to get promotion beyond our own Food channels.

We have a few weekly meetings where we analyze stories that generated significant traffic and try to figure out why others with potential didn’t perform as well. In Food, we have a weekly brainstorming meeting to generate more ambitious story ideas.

And about that eating: We have a food lab where our recipes editor and other members of the team are constantly testing recipes and cooking up all kinds of fun stuff. Tuesdays are food lab photo shoot days, which means there’s always a ton of tasty food for the offing. I never pack a lunch on Tuesday.

Q. You previously worked in sports at the Post. What are the similarities and differences between covering sports and covering food?

A. The food is the biggest difference. There are always snacks in Sports, but in Food, it’s gourmet, restaurant-quality, composed dishes. Not a bad perk.

The pace is very different. I spent nearly 10 years either frantically filing (as a reporter) or frantically editing (as an editor) live-event stories with hard nightly deadlines for the web and our three print editions.

Sports also has its own full copy desk, so the workflow is rapid — because it needs to be. On either end of that workflow, there’s a substantial adrenaline rush associated with those deadlines, no matter how seasoned you are.

In Food, we’re always working ahead, since the Food section is a weekly in print, and we’re not as tied to events. That generally affords more time to consider when and how to publish a story, who our intended audience is, and how our designers and photo editors can work with us to make our bigger pieces resonate.

Our content is wide-ranging, from recipe-driven columns to long features and enterprise stories to newsy blog posts about the craziest new fast-food trend. There’s a calendar rhythm to covering and editing sports. In Food, things can be very different week to week.

The jargon and style are also quite different. I went from three-pointers, RBIs and 5-under par rounds to pâté, cronuts and frosé.

Q. You are a 2007 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What skills you learned there do you use today, and what new ones have you picked up?

A. I could ramble on about everything I learned inside Carroll Hall (the building formerly known as the School of Journalism and Mass Communication), but here are two things that really stuck with me:

  • Never stop asking questions, because the next one you ask will be the one that makes your story. When you’re reporting a story, always seek out one more source. Get one more person to confirm the account your original source provided, ask smart follow-up questions and make sure you’re providing an opportunity for the other side to be heard. When you’re working on a story that’s competitive, being first is important, but if you’re able to provide more depth and context while also considering the all-important question of “Why should people care about this?” your story will resonate with a wider audience. As an editor, always ask your reporter that extra question to make sure the facts are air-tight and that he or she has covered all the bases before you publish.
  • Be nimble and capable of adapting on the fly. A key component of my reporting class with Paul O’Connor involved him lobbing scenarios at us to see how we’d react on the spot. (“So you’re the new metro reporter in Red Wing, Minn. You have no friends, until you start dating the mayor’s daughter. Life is good. Then you find out the mayor is embezzling money with the help of the mob. What do you do?”) I never made it to Red Wing, but that type of thinking has come in handy more times than I can count. You never know what’s going to happen on a reporting assignment, and as an editor, you have to be prepared to deal with people missing deadline, technology crashing and all manner of disasters. On one of my first deadline football game coverage assignments for The Post, my CCI-issued laptop battery crapped out, and I didn’t have the right key to get into our satellite bureau in the Northern Virginia suburbs. So I ended up filing two game stories for two different zoned editions of the paper while sprawled out on the floor of a gas station. You just never know.

As for key skills I’ve learned since graduating … building relationships across a newsroom is paramount. No matter the size of the publication, people up and down the chain need to be able to communicate effectively and efficiently and share ideas to execute high-quality journalism. Reporters and editors shape the written content, but our collaboration with designers, graphics editors and developers is what takes a great story and turns it into a memorable visual experience on your desktop, cellphone, Instagram, Snapchat and so many other platforms.

Understanding and valuing your audience is another skill we’re constantly trying to hone. When we come up with a story idea, we consider whether we’re targeting search or social audiences (or both), and that helps us choose an appropriate headline. Should it be SEO-driven or fun and conversational?

Engaging with those audiences is also critical. David Fahrenthold’s incredible series of stories about Donald Trump’s charitable giving (or lack thereof) was fueled by Twitter crowd-sourcing, and his followers helped him uncover information that ultimately resulted in a Pulitzer Prize.

I’ve also learned how to be flexible and willing to get outside my comfort zone. I always wanted to be a sports columnist, so I covered and edited sports for The Daily Tar Heel and applied to dozens of sports jobs after college. When I didn’t land any, I worked as a temp in classified advertising at The Post for a few months, then wrote about sports for a hyperlocal website at (the then-separate) washingtonpost.com, then served as the editor of a several blogs, then worked as an SEO specialist and national sports aggregation blogger. I applied for a job as the high school sports editor on a whim, was stunned when I got it and spent the next five years working crazy hours and learning how to run my own department.

If you’d told me six years ago that I’d be an editor in the Food department, I wouldn’t have believed you. But here I am, and I love it.

Q. What is your ideal meal?

A. In this job, I’ve had the opportunity to eat some incredible meals and try several creative, funky dishes. I recently reviewed a gnocchi dish with kimchi ragu; zucchini bread topped with a foie gras spread and bee pollen; and a burger slathered with pimento cheese and topped with a fried green tomato.

But as yawn-inducing as this might sound, I will never turn down a good pulled pork sandwich — Eastern North Carolina style, of course — and the couple of times a year I’m able to get back down to Chapel Hill, my first stop is always at Allen & Son or Bullocks.

We just published our annual D.C.-area barbecue rankings, and while there are some very solid Texas-style shrines to smoked meat here, it’s nearly impossible to find a top-notch chopped pork sandwich. (Perhaps addressing that void will be my post-journalism calling.) So give me a proper pulled pork sandwich with a peppery vinegar sauce, crunchy coleslaw, hush puppies and fried okra, and I’ll be content.

I’m also a sucker for perfectly seared sea scallops and Peking style duck.

Follow Matt Brooks on Twitter and connect with him on LinkedIn.

Q&A with Karen Willenbrecht, editor at S&P Global Market Intelligence

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Karen Willenbrecht is associate coal editor at S&P Global Market Intelligence. She previously worked as a copy editor at newspapers such as Stars And Stripes, The Denver Post and The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, Willenbrecht discusses her job at S&P Global and her transition from newspaper editing.

Q. Describe your work at S&P Global Market Intelligence. What is your typical day like?

A. Our teams are divided up by the industries we cover. My team covers coal and is fairly small: We have two editors, two U.S.-based reporters and a reporter based overseas.

Our day starts at 8 a.m., and my boss, the industry editor for coal, scours news sources for story ideas, assigns stories and checks in with the writers to form a coverage plan for the day. If he’s out, I handle that. Throughout the day, I edit stories as they come in and post them to our site. I also do some writing.

Q. The S&P office is in Charlottesville, Virginia, and you live in Raleigh, North Carolina. What is it like to work remotely?

A. Working remotely has benefits and drawbacks. I’ve found that people collaborate better when they’ve met face to face, and I’m grateful that my training was held in one of the main offices so I could meet most of my colleagues in person. Communication is obviously vital, and we use chat apps constantly. I also found it helpful to set up office space in my spare bedroom and not go in there when I’m not working, so I don’t feel like I live at work.

The biggest drawback for me is that I’m a fairly social person and I miss having people to joke with and bounce ideas off of. I’ve partly solved that by joining a co-working space, which has the added benefit of much better Wi-Fi and coffee than I have at home. I usually co-work two or three days a week and spend the other days at home. I’ve tried working from coffee shops, but the Wi-Fi is often unreliable or too slow. Plus, I wind up spending too much money and eating too many baked goods.

I also have two cats, who love it when I’m home all day. I have to be honest, though — they’re terrible office mates. I often tell them I’m going to file an HR complaint over their failure to respect boundaries.

Q. The company has a policy of paying $50 when a reader finds an error on the site. How does that affect the work of writers and editors there?

A. I was a newspaper copy editor for years and watched sadly as paper after paper decided that editing wasn’t important, so I was excited to work for a company that still valued editing and accuracy. And I like things to be right, so I enjoy being surrounded by people who feel the same and strive for that.

Our culture is all about transparency and accountability — every time an error is found in a published story, it’s logged and everyone responsible is notified, even if it’s caught internally. Part of our annual bonus is based on staying within our department’s budget for errors that result in a payout, so accuracy is a team effort.

Q. You previously worked at The News & Observer and other newspapers. What has the transition to a digital-only organization been like? What advice do you have for editors looking to make a similar change?

A. Transitioning to digital-only was easier than I thought it would be, in part because the N&O had shifted to a digital-first strategy, so it wasn’t a huge jump from “print is not our priority” to “print doesn’t exist.”

One nice thing, as an editor, is that there’s no extra work for converting a story from print to digital, since it was never set up for print. So, for example, there’s no need to write a print headline and a web headline.

I also find that the writers think differently about timing — no one has the holdover idea that they’re working toward a print deadline and don’t need to file before 6 p.m. Stories are filed as soon as they’re written, and the writers do things like inserting links to related stories that are often done by editors or web producers at a newspaper.

That would be my main advice for an editor looking to make that transition: You have to let go of the mindset of working toward a fixed deadline and adjust to a real-time environment. I still sometimes miss that adrenaline rush of racing against deadline and the wave of relief once everything is done, but it’s probably better for my blood pressure that I don’t do that anymore.

Riding Cuba’s new wave

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Journalism student Veasey Conway lines up a shot in Havana, Cuba. He and other students spent spring break in the country. (Photo by Peyton Chance)

This semester, students in a multimedia course at UNC-Chapel Hill traveled to Cuba. Their mission was to document changes there, with a focus on the country’s young people.

Back in Chapel Hill, students in Advanced Editing pitched in by working with the writers of five feature stories and suggesting headlines and subheads. It was a fun and fruitful collaboration between classes.

The result is Cuba’s New Wave, a multimedia website developed from scratch. It examines the country’s post-Castro evolution. The students do that in words, video, still images and interactive graphics.

I encourage you to take some time to explore the site and to follow Cuba’s New Wave on Instagram and Twitter. You will be impressed by where this wave takes you.

One-and-done digital news

This week, I visited the website of the Louisville Courier-Journal for the first time. I did so via links on Twitter to a couple of its stories about a passenger being dragged off an overbooked United Airlines flight.

The newspaper covered the story extensively because the flight was bound for Louisville and the roughed-up passenger lives in that area of Kentucky. A follow-up article that looked into the criminal past of that person drew heavy criticism: What did drug-related offenses from 13 years ago have to do with the incident on the plane? Here’s how the newspaper tweeted about that story:

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The Courier-Journal’s executive editor defended the story as newsworthy to a local readership and as a part of the newspaper’s overall coverage of the airplane incident. He also said this:

We didn’t account for the fact that some people might just hit on that piece, and we didn’t put the necessary context for a national or international audience to understand. We’ve since done that.

Editors need to understand how readers get to news on their sites. Readers do that largely through social media and search engines. Those paths lead directly to individual articles, not home pages.

People like me are clicking on a link, reading the one story it leads to and moving on. It’s a different experience from picking up a print publication and seeing a set of related stories. If newspapers are to survive in the digital era, journalists must recognize that reality and edit accordingly.

Student guest post: The editor’s edge in breaking news

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 10th of those posts. Sara Salinas is a senior majoring in journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill. Originally from Maryland, Sara has previously worked with The Daily Tar Heel, Baltimore Business Journal and Indianapolis Star. She will move to Boston after graduation for an internship with The Boston Globe.

News is getting faster, but reporters really aren’t.

To no fault of training or dedication, reporters are struggling to keep up with the digital demands of a constantly breaking news cycle. You hear a tip, read a blurb, scroll past a vague tweet, maybe, and the starting gun fires.

Who can you call to confirm it? How quickly can you get a story up? How much context can you throw in? Which outlets have already beat you to it?

In an industry more concerned with speed than ever, editors can keep the breaking news from breaking their reporters or their reputations.

As a breaking news reporter at The Indianapolis Star, I spent most night shifts listening to police scanners and waiting for an emergency run worth reporting. The waiting could very quickly turn into scrambling if the right call came in — and that’s when our online producers shined.

The Star’s producers monitored local TV channels and news outlets for updates or confirmation, tweeted initial reports and photos, and published a basic outline of the story to be updated.

In top priority breaking news situations, producers pulled information from reporters’ tweets to update the outline as the story developed.

The added eyes and ears on a breaking news story relieved the need to scramble and made our coverage more streamlined, more accurate and more complete.

Producers used the official Star Twitter account and retweeted reporters on their personal accounts, so there was never any redundancy or confusion — just the opposite. There was clear delineation from the reporter on the scene to the larger outlet.

Though our online producers had a slight edge over the average editor in that their regular task was exclusively digital, any editor can adopt the same practices and strategies to alleviate the chaos of reporting breaking news:

  1. Designate one or two reporters to tweet developing information. If more than one reporter is updating, do your best to assign each one an angle or focus, so information isn’t repeated and time isn’t wasted.
  2. Retweet the most important information from the publication’s account. Pull a photo if the reporter has taken one. (Bonus: using the same photo repeatedly, as long as it’s representative of the full situation, can be a visual cue for continuing coverage — but don’t overdo it.)
  3. Update the online story with information from the reporter’s tweets. The work is already done, why wait to flesh out the breaking shell?
  4. Pull context from related stories and link in the breaking story. Context is the first casualty of breaking news, and including background will give the story legs and increase engagement.
  5. Keep watching your competition. If your local TV station runs with new information you don’t have yet, you know you’re behind on your reporting and, more importantly, you know what to confirm next.

We like to say journalism is a public service — and I do believe that’s still true — but it’s also becoming increasingly market-driven. Traffic to online content is both what nearly killed the industry and what’s going to save it.

And speed in breaking news situations can be one of the biggest defining factors for which news outlet gets traffic over another.

Streamlining breaking news to be useful, accurate and complete demands more than a single reporter. The editor’s edge is a digital-driven curation of updates in a situation where getting the news is just as important as how fast you do it.

Q&A with Courtney Rukan, multiplatform editor at The Washington Post

Courtney Rukan is deputy multiplatform editing chief at The Washington Post, a job she has held since 2010. She previously worked as a copy editor in the sports and features departments at the Post. In this interview, conducted by email, Rukan discusses her job and her transition from print journalism to digital.

Q. Describe your job at the Post. What is your typical day like?

A. In my job, I help oversee a team of 50 copy editors. I typically arrive between 8 and 9:30 a.m. (depending on the day and/or circumstances)

Monday: I try to start the week off by dipping into our editing system and handling a few web files, to get the week started off right. My boss and I meet after the daily 9:30 morning meeting (the daily planning meeting for digital and print) to catch up on business. We talk about what’s happening that day, as well as short- and long-term projects we’re undertaking and any other things we need to deal with.

If I don’t have any emails that are of pressing concern, I make a pass around the room to get details about what was talked about at the morning meeting and what might be brewing for the Sunday paper. I also make sure to stop by to say hi to my copy editors who work in the morning, because it’s always a good thing to know how everyone is doing.

Then I make assignments for our weekly Real Estate, Sunday Arts and Sunday Business sections before turning my attention to overseeing the daily print product. On Mondays and Tuesdays, other copy editors in my department “run the day” because we want to make sure folks in our department get a chance to take on leadership roles. (I’ll detail the print duties on Wednesday, which is the day I run.) In between making sure everything is running smoothly, I will handle any other matters with respect to production, personnel, etc.

Tuesday: In the morning, I turn my attention to doing a weekly schedule, which takes about an hour. I walk the floor quickly to get a handle on what’s coming that day.

This is the regular day for our weekly enterprise meeting, at which we find out about the big projects we’re working on for that week or farther out. My boss and I try to marry the right copy editor to the right enterprise projects based on timeline, skill level, interest, etc. Then I connect the assignment editor, designer, copy editor and any other interested parties in an email to coordinate the project. After that, I oversee print production.

Wednesday: I make the final assignments for our weekend sections and coordinate with the Weekend section editor on our proofing strategy for the day. Then I try to squeeze in whatever administrative duties and additional meetings I can before the print cycle starts.

This is the day I run print instead of supervising it: Prep for the print product includes greeting each editor as they come in (if possible), parsing our booking process for what will run in print and what is online-only content, communicating with assignment editors and copy editors, checking our messaging system for changes, making assignments, slotting when necessary, determining which pages we will proof early (before deadline), assigning the remaining pages to proof and assigning and late-moving files. Once we’re in a good spot (typically between 6:30 and 8 p.m.), I head home where I monitor email until about 9:30 p.m.

Thursday: My boss and I slot Real Estate, Sunday Arts and start slotting Sunday Business. We coordinate with the section editors to ensure smooth closure. Then we have our weekly meeting with the managing editor in the afternoon. I make sure our weekend enterprise plans are moving in the right direction before turning my attention to print.

Friday: This is the day I’m my boss, who’s off Fri-Sat. So I attend the morning meeting, make my rounds, coordinate everything for the weekend while making initial plans for the following week. Then I slot most of Sunday Business, attend any necessary meetings, get print started for that night, attend the afternoon A1 meeting (at which A1 is debated and our digital stats are parsed), and finish off Sunday Business once the market stats come through. Once print is under control, I leave around 6:30 p.m.

Any number of things can interrupt the normal flow of my workday because curveballs pop up all the time, but that is what a typical week should look like.

Q. You started your career as a print journalist. How have you made the transition to digital?

My transition to digital was gradual from 2004 until 2010, at which point I worked in the sports department and we were a guinea pig for washingtonpost.com. During those six years, our digital education mainly consisted of learning the needs of the digital world. We evolved slowly, reverse publishing some content from web to print. Then after a couple of years, we started to write SEO web headlines. But since 2010, the transition has been much quicker.

From 2010 to 2013, we started writing our own web heds with digital summaries and learned how to pull photos for digital presentation in Methode, our CMS. Then we added editing in WordPress in 2013 as a complement for the bloggers and for special digital presentation.

We also have special systems and build-outs for databases, graphics, video, design, etc. This year we rolled out ARC, which allows us to publish copy to the web in a more streamlined way, which has continued our unofficial “new year, new tool” pace.

I think the transition from print to digital is more a mind-set more than anything: Typesetting and publishing content have never been easier, and yet new tools can throw people off-balance, so it’s important to remember all of the tools we’ve worked on in our careers and how much harder those tools were when it was print-only work.

ATEX required editors to hard-code headlines, captions and text; the new systems only require us to make sure everything is right within the code that is provided for us. We do have more steps to worry about now, but if you can keep things organized in your head you can succeed easily in the digital world.

That said, we provide a lot of training for anyone who needs it. Personally, I think we should embrace change and continue to do so. Evolution is necessary to succeed over a 30-plus-year career.

Q. The Post uses a “content testing tool” called Bandito to assess headlines and other elements on its site. How does that affect how human editors do their work?

Bandito allows for dissent and certainty, which is great for editors and journalism. If two or more people have different ideas about the direction a headline should go it, you can use Bandito to prove which one is the best.

We get a lot of guidance on how our voice should sound on web heds, and there is a lot of discussion about digital presentation in various channels in Slack. And sometimes the best headline might just be one that has more of a “print” sensibility.

Bandito allows us to take it right to the source, our audience, to see how we can best proceed. So I don’t think it affects how human editors do their work so much as it helps us by opening a world of possibilities that are proved or disproved in real time; Bandito gives us the chance to think both inside and outside the box.

Q. Editing at the Post sounds like a cool job. What advice do you have for students who are interested in that kind of work?

Working at The Post is great, and we try to create a collegial and supportive working environment. I’ve never had a desire to do anything else because of the feeling that we’re making a difference each day and my excitement when I’m in the newsroom.

Even on my worst day at work, I have more fun at work than a lot of my non-journo friends have on their best day at work. We work with so many intelligent and funny people, colleagues who care about the state of the world and the state of the people in the newsroom.

But working at a major daily newspaper isn’t for the faint of heart: The hours can be long and unpredictable, there is a lot of stress associated with the unpredictability of the news cycle, and working nights and weekends can be part of the job for many years. Case in point: I worked 15 years before getting a traditional Saturday-Sunday weekend, and although my shifts are mostly days now, there are still instances when I’m at the office until 9:30 or later (excluding big-event nights like an election). And for 10 of those 15 years, I had a midweek weekend and worked past midnight.

We have more opportunities for daytime work now, but anyone who wants to work at a newspaper needs to think about unusual hours and days off and whether they can sustain that life for a decade or more. But doctors, lawyers, nurses and so many more people have strange hours, too, so if you really love journalism you should do it.

Passion is what matters most: How passionate are you about the First Amendment and the press’s role in it? The answer to those questions will guide you.