Q&A with Megan Paolone, deputy copy chief at BuzzFeed

Megan Paolone is deputy copy chief at BuzzFeed. In this interview, conducted by email, she discusses her job and BuzzFeed’s approach to story editing, headline writing and stylebooks. 

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

A. As BuzzFeed’s deputy copy chief, I monitor BuzzFeed.com for spelling, grammar and style errors. My day-to-day consists of editing of basically any type of post that goes up on BuzzFeed (news stories, features, fun posts and lists, service pieces, etc.); fielding grammar and style questions from writers and editors; and helping to run the copydesk Twitter account we started a little less than a year ago, @StyleGuide.

My workday 99.9% of the time starts with checking my email as soon as I wake up, just to make sure there hasn’t been anything that’s come in overnight that needs our immediate attention. Our global copydesk is now seven people (three in New York, including me and our copy chief, Emmy Favilla; two in our London office; and two in Los Angeles), and adding the U.K. team that signs on around 5 a.m. ET along with those L.A. editors who are on later has put us close to a 24-hour copydesk — and alleviated a lot of the stress we used to have when there were just two or three of us.

Once I’m at the office, I’m alternating between checking email and Gchat (to answer questions, check on any drafts that editors have sent in for a read, etc.), editing in our CMS, keeping an eye on Twitter and Slack (to answer questions, pick up posts for backreads, and bounce questions/style stuff off the rest of the copy team), and monitoring the site and our live stats for trending posts that need edits. There’s a lot of “Does this sentence read strangely to you?” conversation happening among the copydesk throughout the day as we’re all working on different edits, as well as our ongoing fights about whether we should hyphenate or close up certain words.

We aim to be really accessible to everyone. Weekly we send out via email copy roundups (addressing common issues from the previous week and additions to the style guide) and copy Q&As (answering questions we’ve been asked over the last week).

We recently added a “guest editor corner” to our roundups where we let writers and editors talk about their biggest word pet peeves, and that’s been a really fun way to get the staff involved in what we do, which can probably seem tedious if they’re not interacting with us regularly. Typically once a month we hold copy classes and refreshers for the staff in the offices where we’re based (and sometimes virtually), as well as copy quizzes to test people’s skills and to see if they’re paying attention to the style guide.

Q. How do story editing and headline writing work at BuzzFeed?

A. At BuzzFeed, we put a lot of trust in the individual writers. Everyone has an editor whom they report to, and, especially in longer reported stories and features, who will give feedback throughout the writing process. We actually have a built-in commenting function in our CMS, but a lot of back-and-forth is also done via email, Slack, etc.

Especially for shorter one-off news stories, writers are responsible for their own headlines and deks, though there’s generally input and suggestions from their editors, and sometimes from us on the copydesk if we’re taking a look at a story before it’s published. Because so much of our traffic is social, and not search-based, we typically don’t worry about squeezing a lot of buzzwords into headlines for SEO purposes. This gives us a little more creative breathing room in headlines sometimes, because we can write a really short, two- or three-word hed, and then throw more important information in the dek. Especially for stories coming from BuzzFeed News, more descriptive headlines have also become less important for us as more and more people share “screenshorts” (not a typo!) of text on Twitter, which often contain a few sentences with the meat of a story.

We also do a lot of headline optimization and testing of different headline – thumbnail combinations, to see what shares best, what’s getting the most clicks, etc. It’s often just a really simple tweak (e.g., TK Struggles Only Copy Editors Understand vs. TK Things You Understand Only If You’re A Copy Editor). Our social and data teams have done a great job creating really easy-to-use optimization tools that work across editorial, whether you’re in the News, Buzz or Life divisions. “Optimized” heds that have been tested with these tools are always more successful, and that success can sometimes translate into tens of thousands of more views.

A lot of what we do is reading posts after they’ve already been published (i.e., backreads) and we prioritize breaking news and posts on the BuzzFeed.com homepage, as well as stories that are going viral and trending in our live site analytics. Because our team is pretty small compared with the rest of BuzzFeed’s edit staff, we prioritize whatever’s going to get the most eyes on it.

We do, however, always do at least two reads before publishing on longer, reported news and features pieces — usually anything that’s more than 1,000 words. Our edits on these longer pieces are sometimes done in Google Docs, but more often than not, we’re editing directly in our CMS, and sending along comments, concerns and questions to the editors/writers once we’ve finished our edit.

Q. BuzzFeed has its own style guide. How is it different from the Associated Press Stylebook, and how do you decide when to add or edit entries?

A. We like to say that the BuzzFeed Style Guide is a style guide for the internet. A lot of our style is based on AP and we still follow a lot of the AP guidelines, but our guide is really internet-specific and deals with words and style and issues that AP and even Merriam-Webster (which is our house dictionary) don’t delve into. It’s our attempt to standardize a lot of the slang and weird web terms that live in places like Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook and Reddit.

Beyond styling internet-y words like “Vine-ing” (as a verb, though “post a Vine” is preferred) and “hacktivist,” we also have pretty extensive language guidelines. Our LGBT section, for example, is really wide-ranging and inclusive. We borrowed a lot from GLAAD’s media guidelines (which we credit), but so much of it comes from conversations we’ve had and continue to have with BuzzFeed editors, as well as occasional input from readers. We’ve also just added a section on commonly misspelled names of celebrities and well-known public figures, and that’s been really helpful for our sanity, especially regarding weird contrived celebrity nicknames like J. Law and Kimye.

As for adding new entries, we do it when it’s necessary — usually if there’s a place where we differ from both AP and Merriam-Webster and is worth noting because it’s a term we use regularly. As I mentioned earlier, we’re all constantly chatting about how we’re using different terms, and if there’s a word we’re seeing a lot that hasn’t been in the guide and isn’t standardized anywhere else, there’s a pretty good chance we’ll add it. We recently added “thinkpiece,” and decided to close up “afterparty” (we’d had it hyphenated previously, and were seeing the one-word use was a lot more common).

Q. Editing for BuzzFeed sounds like a good gig. What advice do you have for journalism students seeking similar jobs or internships?


A. So my job actually started as an internship right after I graduated j-school from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. I think the single most important piece of advice I can give is to get as much diverse experience as possible, both writing AND editing via internships, college student-run publications and even freelancing.

I started as a copy editor and writer at my college paper in undergrad and got of a lot of diverse experience doing news and entertainment reporting and writing, as well as a crash course in AP style. Once I got to Syracuse, I blogged and edited for a few of the student-run magazines and websites (writing a few features and a lot of entertainment-type blogs and reviews), as well as interned as a breaking news reporter for the regional newspaper there, the Syracuse Post-Standard and Syracuse.com.

Copy editors specifically have to be incredibly detail-oriented, and must know their AP Style and grammar stuff inside and out, and I’m a firm believer in continuing to do your own writing and reading to practice these skills. Reading a lot of good writing is really important because it helps you start to recognize what works and what doesn’t, and teaches you how to think critically about what you’re reading — which is among the most important skills to have in any type of editing that you’re doing. One of my favorite things about my job at BuzzFeed is that I get to read and edit so much different content (both in style and subject), so I try to keep my personal reading habits just as diverse to keep up with what other sites like BuzzFeed are doing.

And, finally, everyone’s favorite: networking. It’s how I got my internship that’s turned into a job I really love and feel continually challenged by. Reach out to the writers and editors whose work you love, via Twitter, via email, etc. But have a reason (i.e., you loved a piece that they recently published), and don’t ask for a job, or for them to look at your résumé immediately. Personalize your emails and cover letters — people can recognize a form letter a mile away. Show you’ve done your research and you’re familiar with their work or the place where they work, and be specific; there’s nothing more frustrating than someone writing, “Tell me about BuzzFeed.”

Don’t stress! Job searching seems really daunting, but as long as you stay organized and do your research, you’ll be OK. Good luck!

A new name and a new style

Over the summer, the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill changed its name. Farewell, School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Hello, School of Media and Journalism.

The change prompted me to revise the j-school’s stylebook. It’s a supplement to The Associated Press Stylebook, with a focus on the campus, Chapel Hill-Carrboro and North Carolina generally.

For example, the stylebook discourages using “Raleigh-Durham” in references to the Triangle region of North Carolina. It has an entry about barbecue. And it advises that “He’s Not” is acceptable on second reference for the bar He’s Not Here.

In addition to editing and adding entries, I moved the stylebook to WordPress. The previous edition, posted in 2012, was a PDF of an InDesign document. Before that, it was a booklet.

Thanks to graduate student Pressley Baird for her assistance in revising the stylebook and to Bill Cloud and Margaret Blanchard, my predecessors as its editor.

I hope you enjoy the new style. Let me know what you think.

Cooking with style

With the spring semester at UNC-Chapel Hill behind me, I am turning to tasks for the summer. One of the items on my to-do list is to update the stylebook journalism school and move it to WordPress.

The stylebook is a supplement to The Associated Press Stylebook. Its focus is the university, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area and North Carolina generally.

For example, the revised edition of the stylebook will have an updated entry on the name for the journalism school. It will no longer be the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Say hello to the School of Media and Journalism.

A new entry is inspired by a conversation this week on Twitter. It will address an important topic in North Carolina: barbecue. The entry will be a deviation from the AP stylebook, which describes “barbecue” as a noun or verb, as do most dictionaries.

In North Carolina, using “barbecue” as a verb is the mark of an outsider. To say, “let’s barbecue this weekend” will bring about puzzled looks and heavy sighs. Here, “barbecue” is a noun, but not elsewhere.

I asked Elizabeth Hudson, editor of Our State, how her magazine handled the word for her North Carolina readership. Here’s her reply:

That works for me. Here’s how the entry will read in the j-school’s stylebook when it is posted this summer:

Do not use as a verb. In North Carolina, barbecue typically refers to a pork dish, although it can be prepared with other meats or even tofu.

Yes, purists will insist that “barbecue” is pork and pork only. I’d ask them to try the turkey plate at The Pit and get back to me.

UPDATE: Based on comments here and on social media, I have deleted the entry’s reference to tofu. A win for carnivores!

Who’s that? That’s who

Earlier this week, this tweet from The New York Times generated a discussion about style and grammar:

Here is the question from Kelly Flincham, who teaches journalism at Hofstra University: Shouldn’t it be “a teen who vapes”? Isn’t there a rule that says use “who” for people and “that” for objects?

Patrick LaForge, an editor at the Times, responded with this link from Grammar Girl’s website, suggesting that the two words are interchangeable, at least grammatically. LaForge said later that the NYT stylebook prefers “who” in those situations, although such guidelines are more loose on Twitter.

As the Grammar Girl post discusses, stylebooks differ on “who” vs. “that.” Several recommend “who” when talking about people and, on occasion, animals.

I’ve had my own experience with this question. When I was wire editor at The News & Observer in the early 2000s, I met with a group of readers concerned about coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In their view, the Raleigh newspaper’s news judgment, story placement, headlines and word choice were biased against the Palestinians and in favor of the Israeli government.

One of the readers said that we had published “Palestinians that …” constructions on occasion. She said that using “that” instead of “who” was a way to indicate that Palestinians are not people. I did my best to assure the reader that there was no such intention and that I believed that Palestinians and Israelis are humans who deserve fair treatment in the news media.

Since that conversation in the N&O newsroom years ago, I have held fast to this distinction between “who” and “that” on stylistic grounds. So if you say you want to talk to a teen that vapes, I won’t question your grammar. It’s correct. But to be on the safe side, I’d make it “who.”

Student guest post: Respect your subjects — and their pronouns

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the fourth of those posts. Mary Alta Feddeman is a senior journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill with minors in women’s and gender studies and creative writing. She is from Chapel Hill, and she is interested in alternative education rooted in youth empowerment and sustainable food production, particularly in underserved communities. She likes writing essays and articles about queer politics, media representation, mental health and intersectional feminism. She also writes poetry and bikes a lot.

Recently, the mainstream entertainment media has become completely preoccupied with the gender identity of Bruce Jenner, the former Olympian and ex-spouse of Kris Kardashian, matriarch of the Kardashian clan. (Note: I will be using “they” as the pronoun referring to Jenner, but more on that later.)

As Janet Mock explained on her MSNBC show “So Popular,” the mainstream media’s coverage of Jenner’s transition—eventually confirmed by their family members—has been horrendous. Here’s a brief but representative list of Jenner-related headlines from some mainstream news outlets:

  • “Bruce Jenner To Reveal New Name As A Woman — See What He’s Been Considering” (Inquistr)
  • “Bruce Jenner confirms he’s taking hormones to look more like a woman” (The Washington Times)
  • “Transitioning from male to female: Bruce Jenner, ‘He is finally happy.'”(People)
  • “The Transition of Bruce Jenner: A Shock to Some, Visible to All” (The New York Times)

All of these are problematic, as are the stories they headline, for several reasons. First of all, the voyeuristic lens through which these publications are scrutinizing not just the life of Jenner, but the deeply personal aspects of so many lives, is insulting and needs to significantly calm down. Second, the boiling down of someone’s gender identity to hormone use, body parts and surgery is reductive, and not at all the narrative that does justice to the complex and whole lives of trans people.

But what I’m concerned with in this particular piece is the misgendering of Jenner, by way of their pronouns. These articles all use the pronoun “he,” as do the articles of every other publication that I came across in my extensive Googling. Mock explained on her show: “Pronouns may not seem like a big deal, but to trans people, they are yet another minefield to navigate in our gender binary-obsessed culture.”

Jenner’s transition has now been confirmed by their family members, but Jenner has not yet spoken to the media directly about their transition, their pronouns, or whether they wish to be called by a different name — despite what many of these publications would lead readers to believe. It’s rumored that Jenner’s interview with Diane Sawyer about their transition will be broadcast in the coming weeks, but until then, we do not have Jenner to rely on for answers.

So, what’s the respectful — and correct — thing to do as editors? Become more flexible with our adhesion to style guides in this particular category and use “they” pronouns until Jenner has personally made a statement on the matter. Referring to Jenner with “he” pronouns is not only blatantly rude to the subject of these articles. It is also, now, fundamentally incorrect.

Janet Mock and I agree on this subject, and it’s surprising to me that more publications did not consult with members of trans or queer communities before writing these pieces, in addition to consulting their stylebooks.

Mock summed up her response beautifully, saying, “What I don’t understand about the Jenner story is this: The media is making every effort to proclaim that Jenner is living as a woman. However, the media refuses to call Jenner ‘she’ or even ‘they.’ If we’re going to report on Jenner’s identity as a woman, we should be vigilant in ensuring we use gender-inclusive language, starting with ‘they’ until Jenner — the only source that actually matters — tells us otherwise.”

Student guest post: Language and perception in coverage of Paris march

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the first of those posts. Jordan Bailey is a senior majoring in journalism and anthropology. She is from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She enjoys studying the effects of media and is particularly interested in how minority groups are portrayed in the mainstream media. Other interests include traveling, writing, reading, cooking and eating.

As a student of both anthropology and journalism, I am interested in how language and word choice work together to affect how a story is received by its readers.

A reader’s reaction to a news event is likely to be heavily influenced by how that story is presented to them. The use of certain words and phrases typically triggers specific reactions by readers, and those reactions will vary depending on the language used. This is why it is imperative that journalists are conscious of the language choices they make.

In order to illustrate this point, I will compare aspects of two news stories — both of which cover the march in Paris that took place on Jan. 11 in response to the attack on the office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. One article is from The New York Times, and the other appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

In the first paragraph of The New York Times article, the march is described as “the most striking show of solidarity in the West against the threat of Islamic extremism since the Sept. 11 attacks.” By immediately connecting the Paris attacks to Islamic extremism and the events of Sept. 11, the article is priming the reader to think negatively about the Islamic faith.

In contrast, The Wall Street Journal calls the march a “display of unity against the terror attacks that tore through (France’s) capital.” By not instantly identifying the attacks as an act of Islamic extremism, The Wall Street Journal shifts the focus from the faith of the attackers to the individual instance of tragedy that inspired the march.

The two articles also differ in how they describe the U.S. participation in the event. More than 40 presidents and prime ministers from around the globe joined the marchers in Paris.

However, neither President Barack Obama nor any other top U.S. official was present. To relay this information, The New York Times states: “Mr. Holder did not participate in the rally and march; the United States was represented by its ambassador to France, Jane D. Hartley.” The Wall Street Journal writes: “Neither President Barack Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden made the trip. But on the sidelines of Sunday’s rally, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve convened a meeting of senior security officials from both sides of the Atlantic, including Attorney General Eric Holder to address terror threats.”

It is interesting to note that The Wall Street Journal explicitly mentions the absence of Obama and Biden, while The New York Times does not. Highlighting their lack of attendance might cause readers to think more critically about the U.S. participation, while The New York Times article likely would not.

Language is powerful in that it can both foreground and background certain elements of a story. Influencing the way a reader is likely to perceive the event. I feel that editors should strive to be conscious of this and work to eradicate language that compromises the neutrality of the story.

That’s not my problem

Imagine that I did a small favor for you such as making change for a $20 bill. You say: “Thank you.” I respond with “no problem.”

Would you find my reply to be ungrammatical? Would you consider it rude? According to this list of grammar gripes on the NPR site, some people would.

A couple of things about that item in the list surprised me. First, that NPR would include it as matter of grammar. Second, that people continue to edit casual conversation, including personal email.

To my ear, “no problem” is fine between friends or family members to acknowledge gratitude for a minor task. It doesn’t break a grammar rule to say it or write it.

You’re welcome.