Q&A with Andrew Dunn of the Charlotte Agenda

Andrew Dunn is editor-in-chief of the Charlotte Agenda, a digital news organization in Charlotte, North Carolina. Dunn previously worked as a reporter at The Charlotte Observer, covering business and education. In this interview, conducted by email, Dunn discusses his job at the Agenda as well as the rivalry between Charlotte and Raleigh.

Q. What is the Charlotte Agenda?

A. We are a start-up news organization that has become a must-read among Charlotte’s young professional community. We focus obsessively on the things that impact our readers’ lives, with the goal of making Charlotte a smarter, more human city.

Q. Describe your job as editor-in-chief. What is your typical day like?

A. No day is the same. I’m responsible for all of the content on our site, so I spend a lot of time evaluating story ideas, reading drafts, discussing pieces with our reporters, deciding our daily lineup and copy editing.

I also try to take a 10,000-foot view of what the most important issues are in Charlotte and how best we can explain them to our readers. I report one or two stories every day, and I’m working on getting a mix of quick-hit daily stories and long-term enterprise.

Q. How do headline writing and story editing work at the Charlotte Agenda?

A. Headlines are one of the most important things we do. As an online publication, they’re sometimes the one time we’re able to convince somebody to read. We aim for a more conversational style. Most of the time, the writer of the story will suggest a headline. Sometimes I will tweak it to better fit our style.

Story editing at the Agenda works in two basic parts. I’ll usually do a first read when the story is submitted, where I’ll look at the story thematically, analyze it for any major holes and evaluate its potential. This will determine what level of revisions need to be made and story placement. As we get closer to publication, I’ll do a line-by-line edit for word choice, style and grammar.

Q. You previously worked as a reporter at The Charlotte Observer. What is it like to make that transition?

A. It’s been a whirlwind, but it’s been a lot of fun. I have nothing but love and respect for the Observer and all the people who work there. But I’ve really enjoyed being on the ground floor of something that’s building and growing every day. It’s really forced myself to think about the best way to tell a story.

Very little of what we do would fit the model of a standard newspaper story, which has certainly been an adjustment. We put a premium on experimentation. Sometimes we try something new, and it flops. We move on. But more often, we try something new and it resonates with our readers, and it’s so rewarding.

Q. On a lighter note: Raleigh and Charlotte have a rivalry of sorts. Care to comment?

A. Oof. That’s a tough one. I grew up in the Triangle (Apex, the Peak of Good Living!) and always kind of made fun of Car-lot. But over the past four years, I’ve come to love Charlotte and its aspirational ethos and really never want to leave. We bought a house here a year ago, so I guess we’re pretty serious about it.

I’ve honestly thought a whole book could be written about the Raleigh vs. Charlotte relationship and rivalry. The stereotype is that business runs Charlotte, and government runs Raleigh. Charlotte is buttoned-up culturally, and Raleigh has more of a techie-startup undercurrent. But there’s a creative class in both cities that’s growing rapidly, and it’s such a good thing for North Carolina.

From headline to hashtag

In recent years, politics in Raleigh, North Carolina, have been pretty polite. Elections for City Council and mayor have rarely seen negative campaigning.

That changed this week when this full-page advertisement with a provocative headline appeared in two community newspapers owned by The News & Observer.


The impetus for the ad is a debate regarding outdoor drinking at some bars. Earlier this year, the City Council narrowly passed an ordinance to address concerns about noise and crowded, dirty sidewalks. Bar owners said the ordinance has failed to address the problems while cutting into their business.

What struck me about the ad is how quickly it became the topic of conversation on social media. The hashtag #DrunkTown began trending almost immediately. There’s already a T-shirt.

The hubbub prompted local media organizations, including The News & Observer itself, to write stories about the ad. Other stories included a look at Raleigh’s “besotted past.” The ad even inspired an Onion-style bit of satire.

The “DrunkTown” campaign has since expanded to radio and direct mail. But it started in print.

It’s interesting that even today, with revenue for newspaper advertising in steady decline, an ad in print would become the talk of the town. The newspaper is sometimes still a conversation starter. I imagine that publishers will make a toast to that.

Q&A with LaToya Evans, VP of communications at Bank of America

LaToya Evans is vice president of communications at Bank of America in Charlotte, North Carolina. She previously worked at Wal-Mart as a senior manager for corporate communications. Evans started her communications career while a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, writing for magazines such as People, Glamour and Cosmopolitan. In this interview, conducted by email, she discusses her job at BOA and her transition from journalism to public relations.

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

A. I am a vice president of communications at Bank of America’s corporate office in Charlotte. I do both reactive and proactive media for the company, specifically covering the Northeast region and also some smaller markets throughout the U.S.

My typical day starts fairly early, and one of the first things I do is check my email, calendar and social media as that can dictate what my morning will look like. I spend a lot of my day pitching media, counseling executives and local banking employees about media initiatives or issues, discussing strategy and giving direction to the PR agency that I work with on a daily basis. I also spend a good amount of time writing and chatting with reporters about potential story angles.

I’ll work on something in New York in one hour and something else in California the next. It could be an issue at a local bank in one of the geographies that I cover or it could be the company donating a mortgage-free home to a veteran. Sometimes, I’ll go to media events in the evenings or other events that the bank sponsors, whether they be conventions or formal events. It’s a sincere range of things that never gets boring or old.

Q. You previously worked in public relations for Wal-Mart. How is it different working in the financial sector? Are there similarities?

A. I’ve worked in a variety of industries as it pertains to PR – business to business technology, consumer technology, retail and now banking. In my opinion, the skill set in PR doesn’t change much because it comes down to having the ability to ask the right questions to understand a reporter’s true motive and story, build relationships, manage difficult situations, work one on one with senior and c-suite executives, establish trust and be strategic enough to not necessarily get the most coverage, but the most meaningful coverage that pushes ahead a company’s reputation.

So there are many similarities, but I would say as an organization, I covered six different areas of business at Wal-Mart. So if there are any differences, it’s only because the subject matter has changed.

But Wal-Mart was a great experience that taught me a lot about crisis and reactive media because of the nature of the business and also that it is a company that people frequently wanted to attack. That makes for the best training ground for PR professionals – the more difficult the climate is, the more you really learn in the long run.

Q. You started your career writing for magazines such as People and Glamour. What was it like to make the transition from print journalism to public relations?

A. It wasn’t as tough as it probably could have been, looking back on it. I came out of undergrad during the financial crisis. I was very fortunate to receive offers from magazines, PR agencies and also client-side corporate communications.

I chose to go to IBM for corporate communications, and within a few months, I was also doing media. I think the company took the chance on me because the original role I took was very writing-intensive, which I had the background for. But having the media knowledge and the contacts helped me early on when I didn’t necessarily know PR yet, but knew what stories worked where.

In the beginning, I wasn’t sure that I’d ever love PR as much as I loved seeing my name on bylines in places like Cosmopolitan as a writer. Seeing my name in print gave me chills.

But when I got into PR, there were television interviews and spokesperson duties, which also gave me chills. My career is one of the most rewarding things in my life, and I am genuinely in love with my profession.

Q. What advice do you have for college students considering a career in public relations? What are your keys to success?

A. I’d have quite a few pieces of advice. Strengthening your writing skills will help you across the profession in general, and internships are a must.

When assessing internships, consider paid and unpaid opportunities, because it’s the value of the experience that counts and not the money. If finances are an issue, there are plenty of grants and fellowships that will help you pay for living expenses while doing unpaid internships.

Start defining what your personal brand is right now, and don’t let your in-school status stop you from achieving your goals. I started my freelancing writing business when I was 19 and still a student at UNC. Had I listened to naysayers, I might have passed up a lot of good experience.

Also, it’s great to understand social media, too, but I always caution students to learn traditional PR practices as well, mostly because someone can easily find themselves pigeon-holed into jobs that are only about social media. It’s certainly not a bad thing, but because social media PR roles are so new, a path to advancement in those areas hasn’t necessarily been built yet in a lot of corporations, making it harder to get to do other things or get the first promotion.

Lastly, it’s important to build and nurture your relationships. I’ve been fortunate enough to make a lot of friends at Bank of America, and it’s made working there that much more fun. Across the public relations industry, it’s important to remember that everyone knows everyone. So the industry becomes very small, very quickly.

Follow LaToya Evans on Twitter and connect with her on LinkedIn.

Q&A with Kelly Poe, reporter at AL.com

Kelly Poe is a business reporter at AL.com in Birmingham, Alabama. She previously worked at the News & Record in Greensboro, North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, Poe discusses her job, social media and the job market in journalism.

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

A. My typical day starts with checking my email (usually in bed on my phone) and checking in on a group news chat to see if there’s anything that needs immediate attention. Usually there’s not, so the day starts with a statewide morning news meeting.

I’m the only dedicated business reporter and Birmingham is about the size of Raleigh, so I’m never searching for things to do. I write everything I’d do if I had unlimited time on a to-do list, prioritize and cross off as much as I can in a day. Sometimes I only write one story a day; sometimes I write six.

Occasionally, I write about country music too, just because that’s a thing that I like (and that Alabama likes) and we have an incredible amount of freedom to write what we want here.

Q. In Greensboro, you worked for a daily newspaper. In Birmingham, you work for a publication that goes to press three times a week. How has that change affected your job as a reporter?

A. The number of days we go to press has had little to no effect on my job, as my responsibility first and foremost is to our website — and that is something very different from the other places I’ve worked. We post news as soon as it’s ready, and I actually rarely know which of my stories go into the print editions until I read them. Since we only print three times a week, it’s only a fraction of our content.

In a daily paper, you worry about length a lot more. You’re told by an editor to make something 12 inches and sometimes it would be best at 10, but you fill in those last two inches anyway. When you’re writing for the web, length is rarely a consideration — a story gets exactly what it needs, no more, no less. I also write my own headlines on the Web, something I never did for the print paper.

Q. You are active on Twitter. How do you use it as a journalism tool and resource?

A. Twitter is actually how I got this job!

While in Greensboro, I needed a phone number for a developer I couldn’t find online. So I followed an AL.com reporter who had written about him before, and when he followed me back, I direct-messaged him and asked him for the developer’s phone number, and he gave it to me. A few months later, the reporter contacted me to let me know about a job opening, and now I’m here! Twitter is a fantastic networking tool for journalism jobs.

As for how I use it in reporting, I often use it to gauge local interest in a story – I like to ask my followers if they think something is worth a story or not. I also use it to promote my own content, and I’ll frequently embed tweets for quick reaction posts to big news.

But Twitter’s just the tip of the social network iceberg. While Twitter has been the most valuable for professional networking and self-promotion within the journalism world, Facebook and Reddit have been far more valuable for me in news gathering.

Q. The job market in news is tough. What advice do you have for student journalists on how to break into a competitive field?

A. Introduce yourself to people who work where you want to work. When I was in college, I hated the concept of networking – but get over it, because if you’re not good at networking, you probably won’t be terribly good at reporting.

Introduce yourself to every professional journalist you’re ever in the same room with, and stay in touch, because the people you know will be your most valuable resource in job hunting. I promise it gets less weird, and especially if you end up covering something like business, introducing yourself to strangers in a room full of people in suits is a valuable skill for news gathering.

Learn at least one skill that most people don’t have. I know that when I was first looking for a job, I had great luck in getting interviews in Texas because of my Spanish. That didn’t help me everywhere, but it definitely made me stand out in certain markets.

Be willing to move. It’s a lot easier to get the job you want if you’re not restricting yourself to a certain geographic location. And look outside of the big cities, too!

I can’t tell you the incredible amount Birmingham has to offer 20-somethings, and I never considered moving to Alabama until the opportunity fell into my lap. Keep an open mind, and don’t rule out a job just because you don’t know much about the location – it could end up being the best place you’ve ever lived.

Let’s celebrate the First Amendment

This year's First Amendment Day T-shirt
This year’s First Amendment Day T-shirt. You have the right to wear one without fear of persecution.

First Amendment Day at UNC-Chapel Hill is Tuesday, Sept. 29. Here is what it’s all about:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

For journalists, that means we can gather news, write an article or blog post, edit it and put a headline on it without fear of going to prison.

There are limits — we can’t commit libel, for example, without legal consequences. And we can face criticism for what we say and write. Even so, journalists (a word that I define broadly) enjoy freedoms in this country that their counterparts in others do not.

The First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of expression deserves a day of recognition and celebration. The events on campus this year include a reading of banned books and a discussion about student-athletes and social media.

All sessions are free and open to all. I hope to see you there. If you can’t be, you can follow the fun on Twitter with the hashtag #uncfree.

Why I still teach editing

“If newspapers are laying off so many copy editors, why do you still teach editing?”

It’s a fair question that I hear on occasion. It is true that many newspapers have downsized or even dismantled their copy desks. In North Carolina, half of the state’s biggest newspapers do not have copy editors and page designers in their newsrooms. Those jobs have gone to “editing hubs” in other cities and states.

Yet I still teach editing because those skills are still a part of journalism — even if the job title “copy editor” is endangered. Story text still needs to be edited and links added. Headlines and captions still need to be written. Facts need checking.

The journalism jobs that are out there require people to have those skills and more. The era of specialization is over.

Here’s an example: Michael Lananna is an editor and writer at Baseball America. His primary task is reporting on college baseball. But Lananna is also using editing skills that he learned and practiced as a student journalist:

Our in-office editorial staff is a relatively small group, so everyone gets their hands dirty when it comes to editing. For the pages you’re assigned, you’re responsible for copy-fitting and writing headlines, subheads, captions and any other required maintenance. And when you’re done with the page, you print it out and hand it off to someone else in the office to proof.

We have our own style guide, so we edit for style as well as content and grammar. Headlines, for the most part, are written in a newspaper style — present tense with a subject and a verb. Our online headlines often differ at least somewhat from those in print for SEO purposes.

As an instructor, I want to serve students on similar career paths. I am aware that few of my students will become full-time copy editors at news organizations. But as long as editing skills are part of their jobs, I’ll keep teaching them.

Q&A with Nick Niedzwiadek, Dow Jones News Fund editing intern

Nick Niedzwiadek is a student at UNC-Chapel Hill who is a double major in journalism and political science. He has been a reporter and editor at The Daily Tar Heel. In the summer of 2015, Niedzwiadek was a Dow Jones News Fund editing intern, working at The Houston Chronicle. In this interview, conducted by email, he discusses his internship.

Q. Describe your internship experience. What was your typical workday like?

A. Typically I worked Tuesday-Saturday from 3-11 in the afternoon. The first hour was usually the slowest and was mostly spent waiting for the news director to decide what should get pulled off the wire and start planning out the pages for tomorrow’s newspaper. The first things that I would work on was usually the opinion page, and then wire stories about the Middle East and Asia because those were usually in well before the local stories would trickle in.

My internship covered most of the typical copy-editing basics: trim for length, write headlines, ensure AP style. I did some page design work, but the Houston Chronicle was in the process of revamping a lot of its workflow so the design team ended up taking over much of the design work that had typically been done by the copy desk.

The biggest change I saw was the push for the copy desk to add more online components to its responsibilities. There were training sessions to get the copy desk and editors how to work with HTML code and the WCM, which most people who have used WordPress would pick up very easily but was challenging for some of the longtime copy editors.

I also often moderated the comments section on stories on the free site, Chron.com (Houstonchronicle.com was reserved for subscribers), which I enjoyed but most of the regular people found very depressing, especially since it was a busy summer in Houston because of Sandra Bland’s death, the Supreme Court decisions, Jade Helm and the 2016 presidential race.

I would bounce between basically every section except features, which are done earlier in the day, but I would mostly only work on the sports section during weekends when the regular sports copy ranks were thin.

Q. What was the biggest challenge of the internship, and what was the greatest reward?

A. This was my first real experience being a copy editor and maintaining that attention to detail. I’ve been a reporter or an assistant desk editor in the past, and you touch on many of the same responsibilities, but there is always a backstop.

Being that last line line, especially at a major newspaper like the Chronicle where no one is there to hold your hand, was a constant challenge. You can get so caught up in writing a good headline in a tight space that you forget to properly format the photo caption and you have to go back into the story to fix it when you need to be moving on to another story in the rim.

A second challenge was that unlike The Daily Tar Heel where we CQ names and facts as much as possible, the Chronicle largely entrusted its reporters to be accurate and the copy editor mostly relied on past stories and Google to catch any inconsistencies. For the most part it works fine, but when a question does pop up, it can take a while to work its way back to a reporter to clarify, particularly later in the workday when reporters may have already gone home for the night.

Having said that, catching a significant error and saving both the reporter and the newspaper from an embarrassing correction is one of the moments that I always felt pride in. That and writing a strong headline package that made its way past the page-proofing stage and makes it out to print.

Q. What advice would you give to students considering applying for a Dow Jones News Fund internship?

A. Anyone considering considering the DJNF should make sure they have the previous internship experience that it requires because they are very strict about their application criteria.

Second, they should not take the application test lightly. Studying usage situations is very important, not just simple ones like its/it’s or there/they’re/their but the more obscure ones like canvas/canvass or Canada goose/Canadian goose. The test I took was the first one to start integrating online questions, so be sure to be comfortable with basic terms like SEO, WCM, entry-level HTML tags and some of the differences between editing for print and online.

Besides the great newspapers like the Chronicle, L.A. Times, Sacramento Bee and any number of great newspapers people from my workshop session at the University of Texas at Austin went to, the workshops offer a great opportunity to meet people from across the country who are interested in many of the same things you are and are facing the same challenges. In my workshop, we formed a pretty close sub-group on the first day and had a lot of fun around Austin. Once we went off to our various internships, we had a group chat and kept in touch throughout the summer and now the fall. Hearing about other people’s internship mishaps or successful job interviews can make the internship a lot less isolating, especially if you are like me and go to a city so far away from where you grew up or know people.

Q. Congratulations on completing the internship. What’s next for you?

A. I’m graduating in December, so I’m mostly focused on putting together my writing portfolio and resumé, and lining up applications for jobs (I’m from upstate New York, and I plan on moving to New York City after graduation so I’m focusing on the tri-state region).

In the meantime, I am finishing up the final few classes I need to graduate and then continuing to work at the DTH as a senior writer on the Investigations team as well as writing for the State & National desk. I’m mostly working on long-term projects for the I-team as well as blog posts and my personal reporting whims for the State & National desk.

I’m open to any number of jobs in journalism — except being a PR flak. Just the thought of writing a press release or saying the words “no comment” chips away at my soul, one piece at a time.