Q&A with Bret Strelow, sports communicator at Appalachian State

strelow
Bret Strelow, right, at the New Orleans Bowl in December 2018. Appalachian State beat Middle Tennessee, 45-13.

Bret Strelow is director for strategic communications in the department of athletics at Appalachian State University. He previously worked as a sportswriter at several newspapers in North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, Strelow discusses his job at App State and his transition from news to public relations.

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

A. My title says I’m a director of strategic communications, so I should probably be better at communicating what I do for a living, right? Essentially, for the App State Athletics Department, I play a big role in planning and producing information that is communicated both externally to the public and internally.

That includes but is not limited to working with our athletics department administrators on bigger-picture matters (construction projects, proposals to various boards at the state or campus level), our fundraising arm (the Yosef Club on fundraising initiatives, membership drives, ticket/parking/benefit updates for members), our ticket office (season-ticket releases, etc.), our marketing department (department-wide and sport-specific promotions), our facilities personnel (for event planning), our Learfield IMG College employees (on sponsored content and events) and certainly, last, but not least, our coaches and student-athletes in terms of game operation (staffing of and running stats for home events) as well as coverage of their games/accomplishments on our web site, social media and through press releases, publication design/editing and maintaining/updating their team web pages.

That part involves written content, graphics, photography, working with our video production team (for creative content and live streams) and media relations for newspapers, television stations, radio stations and other outlets that are covering App State independently.

The best answer I can give about a typical day is that every time you begin a day with a plan for what you want to work on, very quickly new, unexpected things jump on your to-do list where prioritizing the most urgent or important items is vital. With requests from administrators, coaches, the Yosef Club, ticketing, our marketing department and other entities all coming in, that can be a delicate balance to strike of what to tackle first, but we are all working together with the hope that our efforts serve a greater good for the university as a whole.

I typically am in the office Monday-Friday starting around 8 or 9 a.m. and am working until at least 5 p.m. each day, often longer in the office or at home in the evenings, and definitely longer when there are night games on the schedule. Obviously, in sports, that means working a lot of weekend days and nights, and in certain seasons, it’s working every day of the week.

In football season, for instance, a Monday would focus heavily on game notes for the next weekend’s game and the content for the souvenir game program if it’s a home game, as well as setting up/covering a coach’s press availability. In the past, our Tuesdays and Wednesdays involved open practices for the media at the end of days in which you’re doing a lot of other work from 9-4. Each day you’re trying to produce football-related content, and in the case of a road game, you’re probably traveling on a Friday.

Later in the week is when you’re dealing with credential/parking requests and press box set-up with your game notes, or creating/printing the big flipcards that have info on both teams. My (often frustrating) relationship with printers has increased exponentially since switching from newspapers to the SID side.

Game day involves being there several hours early and working several hours after the game on recaps/photo galleries/stat submissions to your website, the NCAA, your conference. By Sunday morning, there are awards submissions, and often work must begin on game notes/game program items Sunday in order to have a shot at finishing it Monday given the nature of having weekday meetings and other responsibilities.

At App State, we have five or six people available to handle 20 varsity sports, so my sport-specific responsibilities have been being a primary SID or contact for football in the fall (I’m actually No. 2 behind my boss, but football requires a lot), wrestling in the winter and baseball in the spring. Baseball plays more than 50 games a year, often on Tuesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, so it’s handling those game events in addition to the regular Monday-Friday office schedule.

I promise this will be my longest answer. I do type words for a living.

Q. How do story editing and headline writing work for the Appalachian State sports website?

A. For most of the day-to-day, sport-specific writing (game previews, recaps, notes), the person in charge of his or her sport basically self-edits, because there’s just not time for everyone to read over everyone else’s work. Given my background as a sports writer, I am the most involved in our department in checking over some of those other stories for typos/clarity. Additionally, my boss (the head of our six-person staff) and I are definitely involved in the editing of bigger stories for each sport, like a coach hiring, and the two of us write a lot of the content for bigger-picture matters involving the athletics department and personnel.

Headline writing is done mostly with the space confines of the website template in mind so that it’s not too long but still includes the most important, search-triggering info of who and what. With so many stories on our site, naming by sport instead of school or as some combo of the two can be a bit tricky so as not to be redundant with everything including App State but still reading in a smooth way.

Q. You covered Appalachian State as a sportswriter for the Winston-Salem Journal and the Fayetteville Observer. What was it like to move from reporting on the school’s sports programs to working for them?

A. The changes are more subtle than drastic, but there are differences. With my football coverage, I probably do try to write in more of a “beat writer” way than most SIDs with creative, detailed ledes and more color. And working in features for our site and game program is one of the reasons I’m in this role at all — to beef up our storytelling.

On the flip side, certainly I’m focusing on the positives, and I also write with an idea of what the coaches value. Football game stories tend to focus on the scoring and offense, for instance, but making sure to give a good defensive performance its due and include defensive items high in a story are things I’ve learned quickly based on how my story is perceived by the people with whom I work on a daily basis. And if a team I’m covering suffers a one-sided loss, that’s going to be a pretty short, matter-of-fact recap.

Q. It’s “talking season” in college football. What is the word on the Mountaineers this year?

A. It should be an exciting year. App State is coming off an 11-2 season in which it won its third straight conference title and improved to 4-0 in FBS bowl games.

The Mountaineers lost only one offensive starter and four defensive starters from the 2018 team, but there are plenty of new faces at the top and among the staff with head coach Eliah Drinkwitz replacing Scott Satterfield. How the new-look staff comes together with a talented, accomplished foundation, both in terms of personnel and program identity, is the question we’ll figure out an answer to as the 2019 team develops its own identity with a system that is, in some ways, different for everyone.

Is that a good enough PR answer? With a Sun Belt schedule that includes road games against some of the better teams in the league, plus a nonconference schedule that includes two Power Five opponents in North Carolina and South Carolina, there are definitely reasons to dream big but proceed with an awareness that past success doesn’t guarantee anything this year.

Visit the App State athletics website and follow Bret Strelow on Twitter.

Q&A with Kaarin Vembar, editor at Retail Dive

Kaarin_Headshot Kaarin Vembar is an editor at Retail Dive in Washington, D.C. Vembar has also worked as a fashion consultant, and she is co-host of the podcast Pop Fashion. In this interview, conducted by email, Vembar discusses her job at Retail Dive, including how headline writing works at the site. 

Q. Describe your job at Retail Dive. What is your typical day like?

A. My day starts by gorging on news. I read as much as possible first thing every morning (Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Reuters, CNBC, CNN, WWD, Business of Fashion, Tech Crunch, Seeking Alpha, Bloomberg, etc.). I’m also reading the wires, checking news that is emailed to me, reading Twitter and checking in on what other business reporters are chatting about on social media.

Then I move into either writing or straight into editing. I edit for between three to four hours in the morning. In the afternoons, I help decide what stories we are pursuing for the next day, and then I work on editing longer features.

My favorite part is collaborating with reporters and freelancers on large stories ideas. We get together and brainstorm and work through a story’s angle, potential sources and how to build it out. I typically have a couple of longer feature articles that I’m writing as well. That means doing research, calling sources, reading for background, conducting interviews and writing.

Throughout the week, there is a smattering of meetings to work on editorial planning, larger projects and pitching ideas.

At the end of the day, I do a round of reading SEC documents. Then at home I continue to read, read, read business news that happened during the day outside of my industry. Then I go on a walk and usually think of a story idea.

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

A. We go through multiple rounds of edits for each story.

Headline writing is first done by the reporter, but then is refined through the editing process. Many times we workshop headlines with another editor or as a group.

I’m a big advocate for sending headlines into a pun round. That means throwing it out to the group and seeing who can come up with a headline that contains a pun or doing a version that makes everyone laugh. The pun version rarely makes it to final copy. However, it is a fantastic exercise that helps us think creatively and gives us room to play with words. The one-upmanship always gets us to a more interesting place.

After a story is published, I see how other news organizations have worked their headlines and assess ours. Could we have worded it better? Positioned the story in a different way? My objective is to continually sharpen the language, the angle.

Q. You’ve also worked as a merchandising manager and fashion consultant. What is it like covering a profession that you’ve worked in?

A. Oh my goodness, it’s so freaking fun. It’s. So. Fun.

I’ve worked in retail in some form on and off since I was 17, and I’ve always enjoyed it.

As a fashion consultant, I started seriously following industry news, and it slowly became an obsession. Retail news is better than anything you will watch on TV. You see companies rise and fall. You follow audacious c-suite personalities and their decision making.

The stakes are high because there is so much money on the line. We are living through a huge time of change with retail, so following the business of it is all drama all the time.

My time as a fashion consultant and in merchandising directly informs my reporting and continually feeds ideas for pitches. That work gave me a practical understanding of trade relations and tariffs. Of margins. Of supply chain. Of  dealing with consumer frustration.

It also gave me discipline. I used to get up at 5:30 a.m. to go merchandise a store and think, “Now why am I doing this?” The grind of being in stores every day gave me a sharp eye for the reality of retail. It was an amazing education.

Q. What advice do you have for journalism students interested in internships and jobs at Dive sites?

A. Oh, dear goodness — apply! Apply!

It never occurred to me when I was in school that business-to-business (B2B) was a type of journalism that I could pursue. But B2B is a blast because you get to go deep on a subject matter. You get to nerd out and are surrounded by people who are just as into it as you are.

Industry Dive has lots of publications including Marketing, BioPharma, Banking, Food, MedTech, Restaurants and Smart Cities. I’m a cheerleader for this company because I’m surrounded by smart, passionate co-workers and leadership that believes in the power of great journalism.

Follow Kaarin Vembar on Twitter and explore career opportunities at Industry Dive.

Q&A with Jamie Hancock, editor and internship coordinator at the Dallas Morning News

Jamie Hancock portrait

Jamie Hancock is assistant politics editor at the Dallas Morning News. She also serves as the coordinator for the newspaper’s internship program. In this interview, Hancock discusses DMN’s approach to covering politics and what it looks for in interns.

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

A. Part of why I love working in journalism is that no day is typical. But I do start each morning with a meeting with other news editors to discuss what we’ll have for that day’s digital presentation and the next day’s print edition. I also check our political reporters’ digital metrics every day to see how readers responded to their stories.

Throughout the day, I’ll edit any daily or enterprise stories our reporters file. All of them except one work in Austin and Washington, so we mostly use Slack to communicate with them about their work. Two days a week, I write Political Points, a newsletter we started this year to engage with readers and help them reach our content.

My role as intern coordinator changes over the course of the year. With our summer interns in the building, I’m available to answer any questions they have and make sure they know when and where their weekly brown-bag sessions are held.

Last week, we toured our printing press in Plano. This month, I’ll start making plans to recruit our 2020 class and visit campuses for interviews, including UNC. Applications are due Nov. 1.

Q. Politics is a subject as big as Texas. How do you and your colleagues decide what news takes priority?

A. We view the news through a Texas lens. Reader metrics have shown that our Dallas audience wants us to provide political news with a local bent. They want to know what their elected officials are doing in Washington, so we don’t focus on every piece of news that comes out of the White House — only what directly affects Texans.

We adopt a similar approach with the Texas Legislature, writing stories about our North Texas senators and representatives and the legislation they’re introducing, as well as how the big bills working their way through the chambers will affect North Texans. This year, the legislative session was all about property taxes and school finance.

Q. You are a 2005 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What skills and concepts that you learned there do you use today? What new ones have you learned during your years in Dallas?

A. The journalism school and its excellent professors gave me the foundation I needed to succeed the moment I left Carroll Hall.

I learned the finer points of editing from Frank Fee and Bill Cloud, and I loved my sports journalism classes with Mick Mixon that taught me how to conduct a great interview. The fundamental reporting and editing skills I learned in college are still critical, even as the industry has experienced momentous change.

But with that change comes new responsibilities and areas of focus, such as interpreting reader metrics and audience behavior. It’s one of the most fascinating parts of my job, and it’s vital to our business strategy.

I’ve been fortunate to have great mentors in Dallas who have helped me develop leadership and management skills. They’ve seen potential in me when I didn’t necessarily see it in myself, and I’ve tried to pass on the confidence I’ve gained and the lessons I’ve learned to younger journalists in the newsroom.

Q. What do you look for in interns for the Dallas Morning News? Any tips for students looking to apply?

A. We look for interns who are inquisitive, eager to learn and from a wide variety of experiences and backgrounds. We treat them like full-time staffers from their first day, so typically they’ve had strong experience interning for another professional publication. Our reporting interns have the skills to conduct interviews and write stories, sometimes under deadline pressure, and we also have interns in photo, audience, copy editing and digital design/data.

As a a digital-first news organization, we’re looking for interns who are armed with social media expertise and knowledge of story metrics and online performance. Students looking to apply should pay attention to detail in their application packets and make sure they submit error-free résumés and cover letters. We expect our interns to work hard, but they have a lot of fun, too.

Follow Jamie Hancock on Twitter and subscribe to the Political Points newsletter.

Don’t pass me by

2019apstylebook

The AP Stylebook plays an important role in my editing courses at UNC-Chapel Hill. Students use it to take quizzes and complete assignments, and they may consult either the print or online version of the stylebook.

My goal is not for students to memorize style entries but to have them learn how to identify potential problems and use a reliable resource to resolve them. Everything is open stylebook.

In class, we discuss how and why style guidelines evolve. Each year, the stylebook changes. One of the signature events of the national conference of ACES: The Society for Editing is the announcement from AP editors about new, deleted and revised entries.

The headline-grabbing updates this year included a new entry on race and a change from percent to % in most uses. These changes, which went into effect immediately, were topics of conversation at the conference and on social media.

I overlooked one update, however, and it affected my class, at least in a small way.
Shortly after the conference, my students edited and posted stories to the Durham VOICE website, which covers news in a section of Durham, North Carolina. One of the stories mentioned “passersby,” and I docked the student editor a few points for not making it “passers-by,” as the stylebook has long recommended.

After class, the student asked me about the grading of her assignment. She showed me that the freshly updated digital version of the stylebook has “passerby” as one word. My print edition of the 2018 stylebook still had it with a hyphen, of course.

The student and I weren’t on the same page anymore. After verifying that the AP editors had made this update, I refunded the points to the student and thanked her for pointing out the change.

Here’s a rule to remember: Don’t let your stylebook pass you by.

This post also appears in the summer 2019 edition of Tracking Changes, the quarterly journal of ACES: The Society for Editing. The journal is one of the many benefits of ACES membership.

How I am spending my summer

It’s summertime. As I’ve noted in the past, this time of year for faculty members is not a three-month vacation. The pace is certainly slower, but there are plenty of things to get done.

Here’s what I have been up to so far this summer:

  • Reviewed applications for UNC-Chapel Hill’s certificate program in digital communication.
  • Reviewed applications and graded comprehensive exams for students in an online master’s program in digital communication.
  • Advised a student in that program on his master’s thesis.
  • Updated my IRB ethics training as required by the university.
  • Prepared and taught a one-day workshop for journalists at Industry Dive in Washington, D.C.
  • Prepared and taught the journalism component of the UNC Summer Jazz Workshop.
  • Helped revise the journalism school’s usage and grammar test.
  • Wrote posts and conducted interviews for this site.

Here’s what I have planned between now and the start of the fall semester on Aug. 20:

  • Update the stylebook of the School of Media and Journalism.
  • Prepare and submit a nomination for the Robinson Prize, awarded by ACES: The Society for Editing.
  • Assist with orientation for the master’s and certificate programs in digital communication.
  • Attend two faculty retreats and other pre-semester meetings.
  • Review and update course materials for the three courses that I will teach.

I hope you are having a great summer!

Dealing with data

data-startrek
Data is a character who appears in “Star Trek” TV series and movies. People differ on whether the noun “data” should take a singular or plural verb.

A colleague recently expressed surprise that the latest edition of the AP Stylebook recommends using a singular verb with the word “data” in most instances. He asked: Isn’t that word plural? Is AP wrong?

The short answers are yes and no. Let’s take a look at the data.

Merriam-Webster defines “data” as “factual information (such as measurements or statistics) used as a basis for reasoning, discussion, or calculation.” The dictionary’s entry for the word notes that it is technically a plural form for the word “datum” but singular or plural in construction. M-W says “data” may take a singular or plural verb.

Stylebooks help writers and editors decide what to choose when we have such options. That guidance builds consistency whether we are working on a book manuscript, a magazine or a company website. It would be distracting to see “data is” in one paragraph of a news story or press release and “data are” in the next.

Here’s what the entry in the 2019 AP Stylebook says about “data” and verbs:

The word typically takes singular verbs and pronouns when writing for general audiences and in data journalism contexts: The data is sound. In scientific and academic writing, plural verbs and pronouns are preferred.

Most, but not all, U.S. news organizations use AP style. Some have their own style.

Regarding “data,” The Washington Post uses the singular verb: “Their bipartisan bill would also require the companies to regularly disclose the ways consumers’ data is being used.” The New York Times does likewise: “The data shows how personal it is.”

Beyond journalism, the Chicago Manual of Style says either verb is fine with “data.” I asked my Twitter following, which consists mostly of editors and writers from an array of disciplines, what they recommended. Here are the results of that informal poll:

twitter-data

A few responded: “It depends.” That’s essentially what the AP entry says too.

If the use of singular verbs and pronouns with “data” bothers you because of the word’s plural heritage, consider other English words imported and modified from Latin. “Agenda” comes from the singular “agendum.” Today we apply a singular verb to it without a second thought.

In my editing classes, I share with my students a love of language and a recognition that words and meanings evolve. Sometimes, there is no right or wrong. As we write and edit, we should consider the context of the piece and use resources such as stylebooks and dictionaries to make smart choices.

So it is with “data” and other matters. That’s my agenda.

Book review: Dreyer’s English

cover of Dreyer's English

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. New York, NY. Random House, 2019. 279 pp. $25.00. ISBN: 978-0-8129-9570-1

Many people, including journalism students, want firm rules on how to write and edit, but English is messy with gray areas and endless debates over commas. That’s where stylebooks and other usage manuals step in, offering clarity and guidance.

“Dreyer’s English” isn’t a stylebook that represents an organization as The Associated Press Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style do. It certainly has the characteristics of one, with sections of advice on punctuation, word choice, redundancy and other matters that writers and editors care about.

What sets this book apart from others on writing and editing? As indicated by its title, “Dreyer’s English” is a style manifesto of one editor: Benjamin Dreyer.

Dreyer is copy chief at Random House, and he has edited writers such as E.L. Doctorow, Frank Rich and Shirley Jackson, author of the short story “The Lottery.” He has worked at Random House since 1993 in nonfiction and fiction.

Editing those writers (among others) makes Dreyer ideally qualified to take on the task of writing this book, which offers a look at the inner workings of a publishing house. His background, coupled with a sense of humor, makes “Dreyer’s English” feel like an AP Stylebook with wicked one-liners. In a section on word choice, for example, Dreyer takes on business jargon: “It feels like a terribly short walk from ‘onboarding’ a new employee to waterboarding one.”

Like any editor, Dreyer has strong views on many language topics. Among them:

  • He still takes “literally” literally, calling it the “Intensifier from Hell.”
  • He is holding on to “whom” despite talk of its decline: “Until someone can come up with a better word, we are stuck with it.”
  • He is an advocate of the Oxford comma: “Only godless savages eschew the series comma.”

Yet Dreyer is a flexible editor, and he cheerfully acknowledges that his preferences may not be yours. He is all right with “alright” on occasion. He suggests that “enormity” can mean more than “monstrous evil” but advises avoiding it in positive contexts such as “the enormity of her talents.” He’s getting more comfortable with the singular they.

The section on punctuation, presented in a list format, neatly describes how using a comma, semicolon or period can alter the pace and tone of writing. Dreyer also offers a helpful tip for students who struggle with appositives with a guideline he calls the “only” comma. And he illustrates the difference between an em dash an en dash.

Dreyer also provides helpful guidance on fact checking. Journalists and public relations practitioners will want to turn to his lists of frequently misspelled names, companies and organizations. Apocryphal quotes from famous people, a bane of journalistic writing, are also addressed. Be wary of words of wisdom attributed to Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Dorothy Parker and Mark Twain, among others.

In a chapter on editing fiction, Dreyer goes in depth on the need for continuity of characters and timelines. Street names, historical references and vocabulary must match the time period. Readers will notice such errors.

As in journalistic writing, redundancy can weaken fiction. Dreyer warns against “the angry flaring of nostrils” and “the quizzical cocking of the head,” among other wordy constructions. And he once encountered this doozy: “He implied without quite saying.”

So where does all of this guidance take us? In Dreyer’s view, editing is about serving the writer. It’s a collaboration for the benefit of the reader. He writes:

An attentive copy editor should become attuned to and immersed in the writer’s voice to the point where the copy editor has so thoroughly absorbed the writer’s intentions that the process turns into a sort of conversation-on-the-page.

“Dreyer’s English” would work well in a variety of courses in journalism and English departments. For example, in a class on book publishing, “Dreyer’s English” would be perfect in tandem with Carol Fisher Saller’s “The Subversive Copy Editor.”

Beyond the classroom, “Dreyer’s English” will appeal to writers and editors alike. It is a worthy addition to the library of any lover of language.

This review also appears in the Summer 2019 issue of Journalism & Mass Communication Educator.