Abbie Bennett is senior reporter at Connecting Vets, a news organization that covers “the veteran experience through stories of inspiration and perseverance.” A 2012 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, Bennett previously worked at North Carolina newspapers, including The News & Observer in Raleigh and The Daily Reflector in Greenville. In this interview, conducted by email, Bennett discusses her work at Connecting Vets, where she covers the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Defense Department and Congress.
Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like?
A. Every day is different for me, and since I cover the Hill, it really depends on what’s happening at the Capitol and at the VA, usually.
My early mornings start about the same no matter the day — checking emails (hoping to be surprised by a FOIA request return), Slack and Twitter. Since we are a national publication covering veterans and the military, we cover multiple time zones, and things can break overnight.
By about 8 a.m., I’m headed to the Metro either on my way to the office or more likely the Hill, especially if Congress is in session or hearings are scheduled. Sometimes I will stop on my way for a breakfast meeting with a source.
Around 9 or 10 a.m., depending on the day, our newsroom has its daily budget meeting, letting our editor know what we’re working on and what is expected to turn that day, along with coordinating social with our social media manager and appearances on our radio shows and podcasts. If I’m at the Capitol, I join via Slack or phone.
I spend the early parts of my day tracking activities on the Hill, including hearings, press conferences, votes and other scheduled events and planning interviews. Many of my interviews are done in our recording studios so they can be used in our podcasts and on our radio shows, so those take some extra planning. I keep a detailed planner and calendar to track all those moving pieces, and we have a shared team calendar.
I spend the rest of my day going to hearings, working on stories, either dailies — shorter stories that publish the same day — or long-form pieces.
I also help edit my team’s work, so I edit and socialize their stories, especially on days I’m not on the Hill.
Q. How do story editing and headline writing work at Connecting Vets?
A. When a story is ready, it goes through at least two phases of line editing.
The writer drops it in our “drafts” Slack channel with proposed social share text. Usually, another member of our team will read over the story, check all of the metadata and assets (such as photos and embed codes) and then post a Slack message letting an editor know it’s ready for a final read. After the second edit, the story is published to our site (or sent to a network of company sites) and is scheduled for social.
Headline writing is a collaborative effort sometimes, though I hope to make it more so. Every reporter is expected to put a headline on their story in our content management system, and editors can make changes. Our executive producer has final say. We also workshop headlines together either out loud in the newsroom or on Slack.
Q. You previously worked at daily newspapers. What differences and similarities have you seen between those jobs and the one you have now?
A. Connecting Vets is a national digital publication that was originally founded under CBS Radio. CBS Radio was later purchased and merged with Entercom, the second-largest radio company in the U.S. We still partner with CBS media, too.
So I’d say the biggest difference is that my work is much more multimedia than ever before. In addition to video and photo that is such a big part of the digital experience at newspapers, I’m also working on audio and am a regular on radio and podcasts produced by my company. At my newspaper jobs, I was sometimes called on to be a guest on radio shows like WUNC’s “The State of Things” or a call-in for national television for big stories, but it was never regular. I certainly wasn’t producing any audio content myself.
Other than that, much of the work is similar. I report and write for our website and network, and then I talk about my work on air. My work is no different in style, quality or standard than it was at my newspaper jobs — the internet is a big equalizer in that way.
I think that if this was the 1980s, I’d have difficulty imagining a switch from print to radio, but now everything is print, in a way. And yes, we still follow AP and our own house styles.
Working with a smaller, more specialized team also gives me the opportunity to work on my writing, which I never had much luck getting feedback on at my previous jobs, especially at newspapers where cuts meant a lot less one-on-one time with editors. Sometimes it felt like the emphasis was on filling the paper or the site with content and not necessarily helping writers find their unique style and voice, and I missed that. I always want to get better at what I do.
Q. What advice do you have for college students interested in reporting and editing at a specialized site like Connecting Vets?
A. You need to have a passion for your specialization. We report on many topics, but it all circles back to veterans and the military.
I grew up an Army brat, moving all over the country and outside it, and much of my life was shaped by that lifestyle and community. All of us on the team are connected to the service in some way — spouses, military kids, active service members and veterans — and it means something to all of us to be a part of a publication dedicated to providing timely, accurate coverage of issues that touch that community.
In my last reporting position, I was covering anything and everything. While that was almost never dull, I didn’t have a chance to build sources and work a beat as I had in past reporting jobs. When your entire enterprise is a specialty publication, you definitely have that opportunity.
Beyond enthusiasm for your subject, you have to be willing to be an authoritative voice on the subject. You have to be willing to learn every single day and build a breadth of knowledge that readers recognize and trust, or you won’t ever build an audience.
That’s especially true for editing. You can’t fact check a story full of military terms and culture if you don’t understand it. And you certainly can’t relate to an audience who understands it all if you yourself don’t.
Connecting Vets has only been around about two years, so we’re working to build that authority and find that voice. We’re growing by leaps and bounds every day, building an audience in the millions while shining light on issues of critical importance to the millions of veterans, family members and advocates in the U.S.
My advice would be to find your passions and stay open to opportunities to combine a love for journalism with those subjects or be willing to suggest them yourself. Speak up in budget meetings, don’t be afraid to make ambitious pitches and work to serve those stories that don’t get the voice you think they should.
Read Abbie Bennett’s stories on the Connecting Vets website, and follow her on Twitter.