Pushing the news

Each semester, I ask students in my courses at UNC-Chapel Hill how they get their news. I encourage them to be honest, and I tell them that there are no right answers.

As in recent years, several mentioned The Skimm, an email newsletter. Others said they regularly read CNN.com and the digital versions of The Washington Post and The New York Times. A few said they still like to get news in print via The New York Times or The Daily Tar Heel.

No one mentioned regional newspapers such as The Charlotte Observer. Same for radio and television.

Several students said that they rely on push notifications on their phones. In previous semesters, I had never heard that answer. Those students said that they relied on the notifications to let them know about big news. They catch up on other things later.

Like a headline, a push notification should match the tone of the news and the tone of the organization. Editors must use news judgment to decide when and how to send such notifications. Too many can be overwhelming.

I will keep an eye on how news organizations are exploring how to push news in this way, perhaps incorporating that into my editing course. If students receive news that way, they should know how to send it.

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What I am teaching this semester

The fall semester at UNC-Chapel Hill begins today. Here’s what I am teaching this term at the School of Media and Journalism:

  • Two sections of MEJO 157, News Editing. This undergraduate course focuses on fact checking, story editing, caption writing and headline writing for print and digital media, with a dash of social media. Each section has 18 students; the class meets twice a week. Here is the syllabus for the course.
  • One section of MEJO 711, Writing and Editing for Digital Media. This graduate-level course is part of a certificate program and a master’s program, both of which are taught online. This asynchronous course covers different types of digital writing, including blogs, headlines, newsletters and social media. It has 14 students, and it meets all the time online. Here is the syllabus for the course.

Feel free to adapt, revise or ignore the materials here. You can also browse syllabuses from across the journalism school here.

Best wishes to all on a successful semester!

Q&A with Ryan Wilusz, reporter at the Morganton News Herald

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Ryan Wilusz is a breaking news reporter at the The News Herald in Morganton, North Carolina. He is a 2017 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. In this interview, conducted by email, Wilusz discusses his job reporting and editing at the News Herald.

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

A. I will describe my job for you, but I don’t know how much of it will be typical. In the two months I have been a breaking news reporter with The News Herald, I have reported from funerals and emergency rooms, and I have witnessed multiple car chases, a water rescue and a large warehouse fire (just to name a few things). Each day is completely different, and that’s why I love what I do. But there are some routine parts of each day.

As soon as I wake up, I turn on the police scanner if it’s not still playing from the night before. I have it playing in my car, and it will continue playing throughout the day as I work. It’s just something you have to get used to.

Another typical part of my day is going through the arrest and incident reports on the local law enforcement websites. If I find anything notable, I follow up during the day.

I also make sure to load the software we use to track our stories as soon as I get in the office. It’s very important to know your audience, and the software allows us to see how many people are viewing our stories at any given time and how they are accessing them.

Once these programs are loaded and these tasks are completed, the rest of my day is up in the air unless I have a meeting or event I already plan to go to. You have to be prepared for anything that might come over the scanner. That means having multiple changes of clothes and shoes, a safety vest for roadside stories, a full charge on your phone, an SD card for your camera and a plan to send content back to the office from the field.

You never know what you might have to cover, and you never know how long you’ll be out of the office.

Q. How do editing and headline writing work at the Morganton paper?

A. All editors are different, and I am lucky enough to have an editor who believes in giving the writer a say when it comes to editing. Each story is submitted to our editor through the program we use to place content in the physical paper.

At the top of our document, we write a suggested overline and headline. We also include our own subheads and cutlines, too. The story is then edited and placed in the “ready” folder. As long as the headlines and overlines are not terrible, they are usually returned with minimal changes. A lot of times, the headline will be bumped down to a subhead in the physical paper for space purposes.

After the story is returned with edits, we place it online ourselves. We are also in charge of linking and placing photos and other content on the website.

Students are always taught that being a journalist is a collaborative process. My editor understands that collaboration not only happens between reporters but between editors and reporters, too. When it comes time to decide on story placement in the paper and what should be a primary photo for a story, my editor always asks what we think. And no matter what, she has our backs for whatever feedback we may receive from the public.

Q. While at UNC, you wrote for the College Town website. How did that experience help you start your journalism career?

A. I don’t believe that any one form of experience is good enough to help you start a career. Luckily for students at UNC-Chapel Hill, there are plenty of opportunities to gain real-world experience before the job search begins. I say it is best to dip your toes in as many areas as possible.

College Town helped redefine my idea of what can be considered “news.” As I stated before, it is very important to know your audience. Readers were not going to College Town for breaking news. They were visiting for news that was fun and different but also informative. So I was encouraged to craft themed playlists, stories about campus jogging routes and a Q&A with my own mother about me moving away. But this background wouldn’t land me a job at a newspaper alone.

The Durham VOICE helped me step outside my comfort zone and write stories about people very different than me and about issues I never experienced. My internship at the Statesville Record & Landmark helped show me what an actual career in journalism was like and helped me gain multiple bylines in a professional setting.

My editing classes at UNC-CH taught me how to write headlines and how to be a more precise and concise writer. My audio/video/photography classes at UNC-CH helped me find new ways to be a creative storyteller outside of just words on paper.

The journalism industry is changing, newsrooms are shrinking and employers are looking for candidates who can do it all. And if you want to land a great job, you have to have experience across the board.

Q. What skills that you learned in the journalism school are you using in your job in Morganton? What new ones are you picking up in your newsroom?

A. Literally every skill the journalism school taught me is being put to use at The News Herald.

I’ve often heard students talk about how useless a class may be because in their minds, the skills being acquired have nothing to do with they want to do as a career. But I have found that some of the skills I have learned are coming to use in unexpected places.

I had no plans to be an editor coming out of school. But I ended up landing a job at a place that encourages writers to take on some of those editing skills such as headline writing. I may be a breaking news reporter, but my creative sportswriting class taught me how to think outside the box (or the pyramid) to tell an intriguing, detailed and creative news story. I may not have had plans to be a photojournalist, but I am at a newspaper without a full-time photographer. My photography skills have helped us have compelling centerpieces on what may seem like dull news days.

I will say there are some skills that I wasn’t able to acquire at UNC-CH that I have been forced to pick up along the way. I would love to see a breaking news or crime reporting class in the journalism school. A lot goes into working a breaking news event or a crime scene. Safety of the reporter is always an issue. You also have to know how to work well with law enforcement officers.

There’s a certain amount of give and take between reporters and police officers, and you want to make sure you get your photo and information while avoiding confrontation with officers and bystanders. Breaking news can be hectic, and you don’t want to add to it.

With that being said, however, don’t let anyone influence you or your job. Know your rights! And that kind of goes into the other big skill I have picked up while on the job.

When you are in school, all that’s really on the line is your grade. But when you are reporting sensitive stories about death and about crime, you are the target of a lot of frustration. People will be upset when you report on them or their family members (especially if they are a minor) and will often feel you are the cause of their ruined reputation.

You have to know how to take those phone calls from upset readers and subjects. And trust me, there are a lot of phone calls!

You have to know how to firmly justify and stand by your decisions, but you also have to show some level of compassion because those people who are calling are the same ones who subscribe. Just always remind people that you don’t make the news, you report on it.

Guest post: Why that ‘furry’ headline isn’t funny

 

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Forrest Brown is an editor who has worked at numerous news organizations, including CNN.com, The Charlotte Observer and the Greensboro News & Record. This essay, shared on Facebook, is reposted here by permission.

What’s easy: To get on Facebook or Twitter and make fun of this headline.

What’s not easy: To go into work every night in what’s probably the most high-pressure, least-appreciated job at a newspaper these days — editing stories and writing headlines.

I imagine the person who wrote that headline is probably doing an amount of work that was likely spread among five or more people back around 1995. And you’re flying without a net. After all, you are the net.

He or she may have gotten that story just a few minutes before deadline. The editor may have been past deadline by a minute or two and just had to shove the page on out from a pub center hundreds of miles away.

He or she may have caught numerous typos and mistakes the very same night that a double “r” was typed in haste. I’d imagine the person knows the difference between “fury” and “furry.”

I loved copy editing, but it can be a downright vicious job at times. Your many triumphs are never noticed. Your rare mistakes are paraded out for mockery, including by — and especially by — other journalists. And most especially by journalists who tend to turn in mistake-laden copy themselves. The sloppiest ones really do seem to be the people who pile on the most when there’s mocking to be had.

You’re on a team that’s always first in line when they’re sharpening the ax for the next round of cuts. Do well, and no one ever notices you. Do poorly, and you will get noticed.

It’s probably the only newsroom job where you never, ever want to be noticed. At all. Which is why your team is first on the chopping block for cuts because all they know about you and your team is you mortified the paper six months ago one time.

Copy editing is — at best — a zero-sum game these days. The very best you can hope for: Don’t screw up big. Because you can wipe out a thousand good deeds with an extra R.

And I’m pretty sure when the publishers and managers do the post-mortem, they won’t be looking in the mirror when they ask how this can happen.

Resorting to print media

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The “newsstand” at the Club Med Cancun Yucatan.

I recently spent five days on vacation in Cancun, Mexico. It was my first time at an all-inclusive resort. At one price, I got food, drink, lodging, activities and air fare.

The price also included news in the form of a mini-newspaper available each day in the resort’s lobby. There were editions in English, Spanish and French. Each was eight pages, printed front and back on notebook paper.

The USA Times consists of news from The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse. It has the trappings of most print newspapers, including a crossword puzzle and baseball standings. Here’s the front page from the Sunday edition:

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The newspaper has no bylines or staff credits. It has no advertising. At the bottom of the back page, a textbox notes that it is produced by KVH Media Group. The company is based in the United Kingdom, and it edits such newspapers for hotels around the world.

In an age of smartphones and social media, I don’t know how long USA Times and its sister newspapers will be a part of the all-inclusive experience. But at a resort with weak WiFi, I appreciated getting some news from it during my stay.

Q&A with Colin Campbell, editor of The Insider

Colin Campbell is editor of The Insider State Government News Service, a website and newsletter in Raleigh, North Carolina. He previously worked as a reporter at The News & Observer, covering state politics. In this interview, conducted by email, Campbell discusses his role as editor and The Insider’s operations.

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

A. When the legislature is in session, I’m usually juggling a bunch of committee meetings and floor votes, writing short items for the newsletter. Outside of session, most of the stories I write are enterprise stories following up on state government news that didn’t get much attention initially.

Our newsletter comes out at midnight, so I typically log in from home around 10 p.m. to give it a final proofread once our production crew has put everything together. On Fridays, we record our weekly podcast with the N&O political team, and I write a weekly column on politics that’s syndicated to papers across the state.

Q. How is The Insider different from The News & Observer and other media that cover state government?

A. The Insider publishes news items from a wide variety of sources to ensure our subscribers get a comprehensive view of the day’s state politics and government news, so we have partnerships with WRAL, The Associated Press and others to use their coverage, as well as the N&O’s stories. That means the Insider’s original reporting can and must go beyond the breaking news of the day that the N&O will be covering.

Our subscribers are lawmakers, lobbyists and business leaders, so we don’t have to focus on topics of interest to a general audience and can instead delve into wonky policy stuff that other outlets typically ignore. We can also be somewhat of a community newspaper for the Legislative Building, looking at minor things like new furniture purchases and building security that are of interest to people who work here often.

Because the Insider is owned by the N&O, the N&O periodically publishes our stories after they appear first in the newsletter.

Q. You and your staff members are frequent users of Twitter. What role does social media play in your coverage?

A. The North Carolina political world is heavily plugged into Twitter, so it’s an invaluable tool for reporting. I frequently find story ideas by browsing the #ncpol hashtag and the people I follow.

It’s also been a helpful way to connect with the political world and establish ourselves as experts, to drive traffic to the N&O’s website, and to promote the Insider newsletter to potential subscribers.

Q. What advice do you have for student journalists interested in covering state government in North Carolina and elsewhere?

A. Be prepared to start small by covering town or county government — that’s the best way to learn how state and local governments operate. Jobs covering state politics are hard to find these days, so experience at a community newspaper is often the best way to start (for UNC students, Jock Lauterer’s community journalism course is the best available for that career path).

It can also be helpful to specialize, as North Carolina and other states have a number of subject-specific start-up news organizations like N.C. Health News and EducationNC, so knowledge in those subjects can be helpful. Keep an active social media presence to make connections and catch the eye of fellow reporters and editors.

Follow Colin Campbell on Twitter and learn more about The Insider in this short video.

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.