Covering the aftermath of Hurricane Maria

Each spring, journalism students from UNC-Chapel Hill create a multimedia project that focuses on a place and topic. Last year, students covered trends among young people in Cuba.

This year, another group of students visited Puerto Rico to document the island’s struggles after Hurricane Maria hit in September 2017. The result is Aftermath, a website that includes video, photography, story text and infographics to tell this important story.

Congratulations to the students and to my colleagues Pat Davison, Tamara Rice, Christa Gala and Kate Sheppard. Thank you for inviting students in my Advanced Editing class to contribute to the success of this project.


Show off your headline skills at #ACES2018


Hundreds of editors will gather this week at the Palmer House hotel in Chicago.

It’s ACES week. The national conference of ACES: The Society for Editing starts Wednesday, April 25, and ends on Saturday, April 28 in Chicago. I’ll be there.

The sold-out conference has an impressive schedule of sessions. I’m also looking forward to the silent auction, the spelling bee and keynote speech by linguist Lynne Murphy. If you can’t attend, you can follow the fun with the #ACES2018 hashtag on social media.

This year, I am organizing and taking part in a new session called “Sharpening Your Skills: A Headline Workshop.” My co-hosts are Vicki Krueger of BayCare Health System and Teresa Schmedding of Rotary International.

The session will be a “pop up” contest in headline writing. Here’s how it will work:

  • We will begin with a short discussion on what makes an effective headline for digital media. We’ll also talk about email subject lines and push notifications.
  • Next, we will give audience members three posts, including a news story and a press release. We’ll ask them to write a headline for each one. For the third post, we’ll add a subject line and push notification.
  • We’ll ask audience members to email their entries to us, and we will judge them during the session.
  • Writers of the best headlines, subject lines and notifications will win fabulous prizes.

I’m looking forward to a fun, informative conversation and competition. May the best headline writers win!

Student guest post: Lessons from both sides of the editor’s desk

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the 13th (and last) of those posts. Mimi Tomei is a sophomore majoring in journalism with a concentration  in reporting. She is a contributor for CollegeTown and works with the Yackety Yack, the UNC-Chapel Hill yearbook, as 2018 assistant photography editor and 2019 co-associate editor-in-chief.

This semester, I’ve had the unusual but rewarding privilege of simultaneously occupying both sides of the editor-writer relationship in my work in both John Robinson’s feature writing class and Andy Bechtel’s Advanced Editing course. In Advanced Editing, we edit some of the stories feature writing creates as classwork.

When I was finalizing my schedule at the beginning of the semester, I sent an email to both Professor Robinson and Professor Bechtel explaining that I had enrolled in both their courses explaining my situation. I thought it would be weird editing the work of my classmates.

But as the semester draws to a close, I’ve come to realize that my knowledge of the process of reporting and writing a feature helps me in my editing process immensely. It has its logistical advantages, because I have the opportunity to communicate with the writers I edit in person twice a week in class. In Professor Robinson’s course, I learn what makes a good feature story, which helps me look for these elements in the pieces I edit.

On the flip side, learning to edit has made me a better writer, too. Before I submit my feature stories to Professor Robinson, I devote time to running through my stories, checking AP style and catching as many small errors as I can. I want to let my editor focus on bigger picture things. Roy Peter Clark’s “55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer” formed part of our lectures in feature writing. Tools like #37, “In short works, don’t waste a syllable,” can be just as applicable to editing as they are to writing.

Sometimes our roles as editors and writers aren’t as clear-cut as in these two courses. When we as editors curate content on a Wakelet page, create a photo slideshow or even produce layouts for the Durham VOICE, we consider things like story structure and paragraph and sentence length that are crucial to putting together an effective feature.

And the value of this experience isn’t just limited to news professionals. As part of our midterm in Advanced Editing, we read Carol Saller’s “The Subversive Copy Editor.” On her website, the first line of her biography is “As both a creative writer and long-time editor on the staff of The Chicago Manual of Style, I’ve seen it all from both sides of the publishing desk” – note the italics this Chicago style aficionado uses. Saller is an editor for the Chicago Manual of Style, a style more familiar to book authors than news writers.

Of course, there are things as editors that we won’t ever be able to learn from writers. The writers who create the Durham VOICE have a deeper understanding of the community they cover, Northeast Central Durham, than I’ll ever have sitting in a classroom in Chapel Hill. And with features, as with pretty much anything else I or my classmates will edit, we won’t have been there for interviews. This means we don’t have the memory of the interview to help guide us as we help punctuate quotes, for example.

Learning to understand what the other cogs in the metaphorical wheel of news media do is especially important as the media industry continues to require us journalists to have increasingly multifaceted skill sets. Perhaps as we do this, we can learn to harness this expectation and allow these skills to complement, not confront, each other.

Q&A with Gabe Whisnant, digital editor at the Spartanburg Herald-Journal


Gabe Whisnant is assistant managing editor, digital, at the Spartanburg Herald-Journal/ in South Carolina. He previously worked as a news editor at The Shelby Star and sports editor at The Gaston Gazette in North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, Whisnant discusses his job in Spartanburg, news coverage of the Carolina Panthers training camp and the skills journalism students need to succeed.

Q. Describe your job at the Herald-Journal. What is your typical day?

A. I try to spend the first of the morning looking at our page views, visitors and other metrics over the last 24 to 48 hours via and Google Analytics. Whether our numbers are up or down, I check … Is the website fresh? Is there something that may be buried on the site that should be moved to a more prominent position? Are there stories or photo galleries on news partner sites that may be valuable or interesting to our readers? Are our social media pages fresh?

I keep an eye on the AP South Carolina wire to get the top state news on our site. The AP moves amazing photos, so I search and post regional and national galleries that may grab some attention. Being the first editor in the building, I also work closely with the morning crime/cops reporter on editing and posting breaking or overnight local news.

I try to spend the last half of the day looking at goals and objectives for the week and month ahead. We have in-house and corporate web/mobile traffic, video/audio and social goals we want to meet, so it pays to look at progress daily so we’re not playing catch-up.

I monitor our site and social media feeds on nights and weekends, but the goal is to have a plan in place where that is at a minimum. Our night/weekend editors do a great job and deserve a lot of credit for keeping the site fresh.

Q. You previously worked at newspapers in Shelby and Gastonia, among others. What was the transition to a fully digital job like?

A. Given the vast capabilities we have with web projects, video and audio – and the 24/7 power of social media and mobile – I am fortunate to be in a position to point my focus forward in web-first journalism. I do miss planning A1s and Sports fronts – there is something really special and sacred about that daily task – but digital news is the present and future, of course. I would like to think I was already working with a “digital first” mentality as a news and sports editor, but when you’re having to think about print and pages, that can be easier said than done.

During our 3 p.m. budget meetings – when the other editors are talking about print placement — I give a rundown of our page views for the day, thus far, and we discuss website placement and social media timing for articles and galleries.

Good place to note, the Herald-Journal works closely with Shelby, Gastonia and Hendersonville within a Western Carolinas cluster of the larger GateHouse Media Carolinas group. All of the above share and communicate regularly – from tagging each other’s sites on galleries to long-term projects like Travel in the Carolinas.

Q. Spartanburg is host to the Carolina Panthers training camp each summer. How does the Herald-Journal prepare and cover that event?

A. Last year was my first working, training camp experience, so I had a lot to learn and get up to speed quickly. Across departments, we start planning months in advance.

Our sports staff focuses on the X’s and O’s, roster cuts and press conferences at Wofford College. Before, during and after camp, the news side writes about the Spartanburg city/business/restaurant impact of hosting training camp as well as special fan and event features. Our photo staff stays busy shooting and creating galleries of all of the above.

Where I saw a small void in our camp coverage was a full saturation of social media, so I helped fill in that gap with Facebook live videos, Instagram posts and making sure everything we produced ran through our GoUpstate Twitter feed. With an event that draws over 100,000 people per year, we want to own Panthers camp from all local angles.

Q. What advice do you have for students interested in digital news?

A. Be diverse in your skills (but you probably already know that). Yes, you still need to be solid in information gathering and writing, but be prepared to know or learn how to do all-things reporting – photography, video, audio, special projects. If/when you find a niche in which you are more proficient or enjoy, follow it, but also stay well-rounded.

Don’t be hesitant to be a leader within your newsroom, even if you are a newcomer. If you’re picking up on a trend or something new for the web or social your newsroom needs to incorporate, talk to your editors. They will appreciate it.

Keep following other reporters and editors on social media – in and out of your market and of publications of all sizes and forms. We are in an industry that has a great ability with forums to learn from each other. Never stop reading and learning.

Student guest post: A voice other than our own

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the 12th of those posts. Allison Tate is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill specializing in reporting. A native of Caswell County, North Carolina, she has served as a staff writer and photographer at The Caswell Messenger and as co-editor of the Durham VOICE.

Pat and I stood in the old “backshop” of The Caswell Messenger, peering at the freshly printed proofs of the newspaper that would land in mailboxes tomorrow, Wednesday or next week depending on how the post office behaved.

The white-haired, longtime office manager of the Caswell County newspaper had become the principal photographer of community events. The page of photos in front of us was, if memory serves, of a concert held at the pavilion down the street.

While she had definitely seen more of life than I had, she had also seen more of Caswell, too. She was a veteran newspaperwoman; I was a bright-eyed newbie who had been interning at my hometown paper for two months.

I asked her what she thought of the page. Had I used the photos she had liked most? She smiled just as she always did when I showed her the B-section pages I designed. She said that I had. Then her voice lowered as she told me about a concern that seemed to hover over her whenever she ventured out with her camera.

Someone always seemed to be rubbed the wrong way come Wednesday, she told me. Someone would tell her that the quantity of the photos favored the community’s African-American population. Others would tell her that there were too many photos of whites.

Racism was a problem that plagued our little community newspaper in the rolling hills of rural North Carolina, and it played a part in how stories were presented.

As I’ve had time to ponder that afternoon and to look around at the media outlets that surround, I’ve realized that racism’s role in the media isn’t limited to America’s small-town newspapers. And its effects don’t just come in the form of self-conscious photographers. The effects of racism touch media outlets in our urban centers, too, and it affects what—and how—stories are covered.

Northeast Central Durham, home to the Durham VOICE, continued my education after that summer at the Messenger. The impoverished inner-city community, if you’ve heard of it, has a less-than-stellar reputation. Authorities refer to it as the Bull’s Eye for its criminal activity. Homeless men and women roam its streets. The houses that aren’t being gentrified are falling into disrepair.

And there we are, a cohort of mostly white UNC-CH students that switches out semester after semester, roaming the community and telling the stories that seem to have either been unseen or unacknowledged as newsworthy by the larger media outlets. While others have heard of Northeast Central, we get to know it.

To know it is to know Samuel Jenkins and why he decided to keep his barbershop on Alston Avenue.

To know it is to meet Wanda Boone and see her eyes brim with tears over the sadness of losing teenagers to overdose and the joy of seeing her mission to end overdose gaining ground in the community she loves.

To know it is to meet Phyllis Terry, the owner of J.C.’s Kitchen with a beaming smile who took charge of the restaurant after her sister’s death.

To know such a place is to love it and to learn from it.

Of the seasoned media professional I ask, what communities like this have you heard of, and what communities like this have you known? Of the journalism student who is fresh out of the gate I ask, what communities will you take at face value, and what communities will you immerse yourself in?

It would be a denial of the truth to say that race — which, unfortunately, touches every corner of our society — doesn’t affect the way the media informs and shares with readers. It is not a denial of the truth, however, to say that the issue of racism is here, that we can learn from communities like Northeast Central and that through learning and knowing we can make a difference in our profession that has long been overdue.


Student guest post: When words lose their power

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the 11th of those posts. Lily Stephens is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in editing and graphic design. She has interned at Chapel Hill and Durham Magazines and as a Dow Jones News Fund editing intern at Bay Area News Group (Mercury News and East Bay Times.) 

“I think the AP Stylebook says to capitalize formal titles directly before a name,” I say to my classmate. Actually, this is a lie. I know the Stylebook says this.

So why would I couch my statement with “think?” In J557, our Advanced Editing class, we spend a lot of time editing in teams. In these situations, I periodically catch myself making qualifying statements that aren’t strictly necessary. Generally, I’m considering someone’s emotions and trying not to hurt their feelings.

I know from experience that it can be pretty embarrassing when someone points out how many misspellings you haven’t caught in a one-page article. And sometimes being sensitive in those moments can keep your co-editing relationship on friendly ground. Like alerting your date to the fact that there is an entire spinach leaf wedged between his teeth, working collaboratively on a piece of writing is an art.

But it’s a thin line to walk between thoughtfulness and undermining your own credibility. Though I’m confident that my classmates feel comfortable working with me, I’m not so sure about their belief in my editing skills. The more I invite them to question me by couching statements with “I think” or “correct me if I’m wrong, but,” the less they trust me when I make a claim. And as I’ve run into this more and more, I’ve started to notice myself communicating similarly outside of the classroom, too. So why am I constantly using language that makes me sound less confident than I really am?

My research (read: several hours poring over Google search results) has been pretty enlightening. It turns out that as a female-identifying person, I’m more likely than my male counterparts to “soften” my communication.

In an interview about the themes of her book “Playing Big,” author and career coach Tara Mohr talks about the speech habits women in many cultures have adopted that are diminishing our words. She explains that we use words like “actually” and “just” to come across as more agreeable, but this often impedes the message we’re trying to get across. Mohr says: “I also believe that it’s because for centuries, women did not have the political and human rights to protect our safety if we spoke up and threatened or angered those around us.”

This reminded me of a saying I’ve often heard from women in my family, that “you have to let a man think he’s making the decision.” It’s always seemed like outdated advice, but that’s akin to what I’m doing when I say that I “think” the AP Stylebook says something. My classmate ends up looking it up and coming to that conclusion for themselves. It’s not something I do exclusively with male classmates, but it ends up affecting others’ perception of me and by proxy the gender group I identify with.

Tara Franks, who teaches courses on gender and communication at Arizona State University, explains: “If I’m unable to assert my opinion with the same authority that a man can and therefore, I’m not taken as seriously, and that’s repeated over time with multiple women in similar contexts, then what happens is women as a whole lose credibility in a particular space.” This, in particular, makes me think a little more seriously about whether I should change the way I communicate.

I should say that although the evidence is clear, it doesn’t mean that it’s every woman’s responsibility to police her language in order to undo centuries of socialization. Even typing that sentence was exhausting. However, I’ve found it really interesting to be a more aware of my communication style in light of this information.

Here are the steps I’ve started taking in my own life:

  • Try to be more aware of when I’m making qualifying statements.
  • When I notice that I’ve made one, I ask myself what the motive was, and whether it was good.
  • When I really know what I’m talking about, try to say it confidently. People can learn from my expertise (e.g. in Harry Potter trivia).

Of course being sensitive in our communication is useful, but I think the takeaway here is that in doing so we should strive to be intentional with our words.

Real editing in the real world

One of the goals in my Advanced Editing course is to have students work with as much real material as possible. For example, they edit stories throughout the semester for the Durham VOICE website.

Here are two other assignments from recent class meetings:

  • Create and edit a page on LocalWiki, a community-level encyclopedia site. Working with a colleague, pick a person, place or organization in our area to write about. Structure and edit the post based on these guidelines from Wikipedia. (Here is the assignment sheet.)
  • Post a story from the feature-writing course taught by John Robinson to Omnibus, a website of student work on various topics. Using WordPress, edit a features story that I assign to you for style, punctuation, grammar, word choice, story structure, fairness and accuracy. Write a headline and subheads. (Here is the assignment sheet.)

It’s my hope that these assignments will be more rewarding — and more fun — for students than working with canned content. Feel free to adapt or modify them for your own teaching.