Your ideas are intriguing to me, and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter

In addition to my usual courses this semester, I am overseeing an independent study. Kelsey Weekman, a UNC-Chapel Hill senior majoring in journalism with a minor in screenwriting, will examine the rise of email newsletters.

Kelsey came to me with the idea near the end of the fall semester. She said that she was interested in studying the voice, design, length and illustrations in newsletters such as The Skimm and The Charlotte Agenda. Here’s what she said in her plan for the independent study:

I’m passionate about newsletter writing, and a class that delves into it just doesn’t exist yet at UNC. In this independent study, I want to learn how industry professionals write newsletters, both personally and through researching the writing itself.

So this semester, Kelsey will create a blog dedicated to this topic. Each week, she will post an analysis of an email newsletter. She also plans to interview editors who put together such newsletters.

By the end of the semester, Kelsey will write a paper to provide an overview of her findings and create the prototype for a newsletter. I’ve invited her to talk with my Advanced Editing class about her findings.

I’m excited to get to work with Kelsey on this project, and I invite you to follow along on her blog. Let us know if you have any suggestions about newsletters that have intrigued you.

What I am teaching this semester

The spring semester at UNC-Chapel Hill starts on Monday, Jan. 11. Here are the syllabuses* for what I am teaching:

You can see syllabuses for all courses at the journalism school on this page at the Park Library website. Best wishes to faculty and students on a successful semester.

* I follow AP style and Language Log on the plural of this word. But if you say “syllabi,” I’ll know what you mean.

Q&A with Eric Garcia, reporter at Roll Call

Eric Garcia is a staff writer at Roll Call in Washington, D.C. He previously worked at National Journal. In this interview, conducted by email, Garcia discusses his job, journalism education and his recent article about living and working with autism.

Q. Describe your job at Roll Call. What is your typical day like?

A. I am on the political team, which is to say I cover campaigns on the presidential, Senate and House level.

That usually means just scrolling around for story ideas either through social media, reading other media outlets, going through FEC docs or talking to sources (which is something I am getting better at doing). If I come up with an idea or my editor does, then I usually jump on that idea and start reporting.

Q. How do story editing and headline writing work at Roll Call?

A. Typically once you finish a story, you file it to your editor, and they make any changes or ask you about anything you are unclear about.

What’s interesting about Roll Call is we typically write a normal headline and an SEO-friendly one, so that has definitely made me more conscious of how to write headlines for online. I always try to make sure to include search-friendly words or a candidate’s name in a headline so it’s better for people to search, especially if it’s a story about someone like Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, both of whom guaranteed to be more viral online. When I was at National Journal, I wrote mostly for online, so SEO-headlines were also extremely important.

Q. You recently shared about your experiences with autism. What inspired you to write about that article, and what was the reaction to it?

A. I kind of fell into writing the magazine story by a series of coincidental events. I was at a party and made an offhand comment about being on the spectrum, and a friend said something to the effect of I should write a story about being a journalist on the spectrum. I thought that’d be a cool story but felt I’d file it away until I got better as a journalist.

Then, when National Journal announced it was shutting down its print edition magazine at the end of last year, I tossed the idea around with the magazine editor, Richard Just, and he said he wanted it for the print edition.

I honestly did not expect the reaction I got, which was largely positive. I heard a lot from families of people with someone on the spectrum or even people I knew who said they had a loved one on the spectrum.

I have also met and spoken with a few people on the spectrum or with other disabilities who live and work in D.C. or elsewhere who are trying to live fulfilling lives, and that has been extremely satisfying. I love talking with people about their own individual experiences, but at the same time, I have noticed there are so many common strains among people on the spectrum.

Q. You graduated from the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2014. What skills and concepts did you learn there that you use in your job now? What have you learned since then?

A. Honestly, I still use a lot of the skills I learned both at the j-school and when I was at The Daily Tar Heel, which might as well have been a class in and of itself.

I took Paul O’Connor’s reporting class the semester that students reported on the N.C. General Assembly, and I really cut my teeth as a reporter that way. I learned how to talk to legislators, lobbyists and other people who influence policy. That came in handy when it came to reporting on members of Congress or candidates on the national level.

Ferrel Guillory taught me a lot about how to come up with story ideas or look at the news critically. I could not have written the magazine story on autism had it not been for taking Paul Cuadros‘ feature writing class. I learned the mechanics and rudiments of journalism like writing succinctly, ethics and editing skills, not to mention AP style. I think those values are pretty much the same anywhere you go.

Since graduating, I think I’ve learned a lot more about building source relationships, how to be tougher in my questioning when I am reporting and how to build stronger news judgment. What I think might be a good story may not be what readers want, and I am working on thinking like a reader.

Book review: ‘Founding Grammars’

In the summer of 2014, “Weird Al” Yankovic released “Word Crimes,” a sarcastic blast at what the song parodist saw as the decline of proper grammar, word choice and punctuation. Yankovic is a stickler on “whom” and “literally,” and he is an advocate of diagramming sentences. A link to the song’s video was widely shared on social media, and anyone who works as a writer or editor probably received an email from a friend or relative about it.

Not everyone enjoyed the song’s mocking humor, however. On the Language Log blog, linguist Ben Zimmer called it the “ultimate peever’s anthem.” Mignon Fogarty of the University of Nevada-Reno, perhaps better known as Grammar Girl, wrote on her website: “I don’t believe in word crimes, and I don’t believe in encouraging people to think about language that way.”

Such a battle between prescriptivists and descriptivists of language feels like a contemporary phenomenon. Certainly, the Internet has led to plenty of chatter about “they” as a singular pronoun as well as debates about serial commas, split infinitives and prepositions at the end of sentences.

foundgrammarsBut in “Founding Grammars: How Early America’s War over Words Shaped Today’s Language,” author Rosemarie Ostler shows that this conversation about language has been taking place since the founding of the United States. It is not new, but it is fascinating.

In eight chapters, Ostler takes the reader through grammar’s evolution in the United States. She does so in a roughly chronological way, from Noah Webster through Geoffrey Pullum. In between, Ostler covers the inside stories on “The Elements of Style” and the Merriam-Webster dictionary, as well as lesser-known works such as “The Institutes of English Grammar” by Goold Brown and “Every-Day English” by Richard Grant White.

“Founding Grammars” begins with an origin story. Shortly after the American Revolution, Webster sought to further declare the new nation’s independence via a distinctly American way of speaking and writing. He and others saw grammar knowledge as essential to the country’s success.

Grammar books and dictionaries were, as Ostler describes them, “the self-help manuals of their time.” These grammarians, however, did not always agree on the details, leading to the type of debates over language that we still see today.

Elsewhere, Ostler weaves issues of politics, ethnicity and class into grammar’s history. In the presidential election of 1828, Andrew Jackson was criticized for his “shaky spelling skills” among other language-based shortcomings. Abraham Lincoln faced similar attacks when he ran for the White House in 1860. Ostler explains the motive for such criticism: “Saying that Lincoln didn’t know how to use the language correctly was an indirect way of saying that he was from the lower classes and therefore unworthy to be president.” Yet both men were popular with the American public because of their plain-spoken manner, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address used what was considered the proper grammar of the era.

After the Civil War, the “verbal critics” emerged, dispensing advice on English as a way to raise and maintain a person’s social status. Some of these grammarians had a streak of bias in their guidance, disapproving of words such as “smithereens” and “hooligan” brought to America by immigrants from Ireland.

At the same time, the study of language took hold at U.S. universities. Academics such as Thomas Lounsbury of Yale University argued that English was constantly changing and that the elitist directives of the verbal critics were based on whim rather than science.

“Founding Grammars” includes debates about changes in spelling and word choice as well as grammar itself. A linguist and former librarian, Ostler leans toward the descriptivist camp. Maintaining a neutral tone, she tips her hand on occasion, describing “The Elements of Style” as “relentlessly conservative.”

But this is a history book, not a writing guide, and it’s a successful and entertaining one. Ostler’s level of detail is impressive throughout “Founding Grammars.” The reader learns, among other things, that Webster worked on his famous dictionary using a standing desk and that Davy Crockett inspired the phrases “kick the bucket” and “bark up the wrong tree.”

Ostler provides the background on not only how different grammar texts and dictionaries came about, but also how popular media reacted to them at the time. For example, The New York Times, Toronto Globe & Mail and The New Yorker were apoplectic in 1961 when Webster’s Third International Dictionary took what they saw as a permissive view on “ain’t.”

Throughout the book, Ostler’s writing is clear, concise and engaging. She connects the threads of the story of America’s English with grace and authority. Even Strunk and White would approve of the way “Founding Grammars” unfolds.

This review also appears in the Winter 2015 edition of Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.

Q&A with Samantha Harrington of Driven Media

Samantha Harrington is co-founder and lead writer at Driven Media. In this interview, conducted by email, she discusses the site and her role in it.

Q. What is Driven Media about? What do you hope to achieve?

A. Oh, man. That’s a big question.

Driven is a media startup that, at its most basic level, aims to put more relatable women’s faces and voices in the media. We did a bunch of market research — surveys mostly — to figure out what problems people had with the media. We didn’t just want to start blindly producing content without first making sure there was a bigger need we were solving.

So many young women told us that they wanted to see more relatable stories and more positive content. So that’s what we try to produce.

I think at a larger level, we’re sort of creating this community of women who can learn and grow from each other’s stories. There are so many studies that show the impact of media consumption on self-worth and questions of identity. Sometimes it takes seeing or hearing the stories of others to realize, “Oh yeah, I can do this too. I can be who I want.” We’re all searching for something so we might as well do it together.

Q. Describe your role with the project.

A. So on the business side of things, I’m a co-owner of Driven Media, LLC. There are four owners: Hannah Doksansky, Hrisanthi Kroi, Josie Hollingsworth and me. This role means doing everything from dealing with taxes and legal documents to keeping track of receipts and expenses.

On the content side, I’m Driven’s lead writer. In a multimedia organization, that means writing everything from long-form features, blurbs for graphics, video intros, blog posts, email newsletters and more. I also do a bit of the graphic design for Driven — Hannah and I trade off on that — and some of the basic web stuff — posting, SEO, etc. Hrisanthi and Josie do the more serious web dev.

Q. How do you decide what stories to cover, and how does the reporting and editing work?

A. So we’re working on a series about immigration right now thanks to a partnership with Beacon, a crowdfunding platform for journalism. Within that, we’re really focused on telling human-focused stories of female immigrants living in the U.S. There are a lot of other themes that we’d like to work on in the future, but immigration has been a really incredible way to start out.

We’re five big stories in on the reporting front at this point, and it’s definitely my favorite part of the job. Hannah and I are doing all the reporting, and we start out by making contacts in whatever way we can. Because we’re traveling and reporting in places that we’re not experts in, the first few days are always all over the place. We’ve gotten into cities and completely changed from we thought the story was.

Take Maine for example. When we got to Portland, we thought the story was going to be focused around the Somali community there. But the more conversations we had, the more we realized that the story we needed to be telling in that moment was about asylum seekers in the state. So we try to not be too stubborn about what we think we’re going to do write off the bat.

So we start out by contacting organizations mostly — cultural associations, resettlement agencies, university groups, business associations, etc. — and then we ask who they know that would be willing to share personal stories about their lives and go from there.

This was something we had a really big issue with in West Virginia. We went in knowing that, according to the most recent census, there was a relatively large Filipino population in West Virginia, but once we got there, no one knew what we were talking about. We called countless organizations, and they all responded, “There are Filipino people here?” So we started scouring Facebook and searching Twitter and cold-contacting people that way. Surprisingly, almost everyone responded.

Once we get in touch with people, we try to spend quite a bit of time with them. We like to spend as much time just hanging out and talking to our subjects like friends as we do interviewing them.

Editing varies depending on what kind of media we’re working with. If we’re writing something, I’ll usually put it together and then email it to Josie or another friend for a look-over. With audio and video editing, it’s a lot of conversation between Hannah and me trying to figure out what looks best and makes the most sense for the story we’re telling.

That’s a really long and meandering answer, sorry. We’re still getting into our groove.

Q. You are a 2015 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What advice do you have for those who will graduate in 2016?

A. This is hard because everyone is so different and is looking for different things.

For better or worse, I’m a live-in-the-moment kind of girl and am way too impatient to work my way up a ladder at a big organization.

I’ve always said that all I really want from a job is just to be happy in it. I don’t want to waste any time doing anything I’m not really excited about. For others, who are more patient, maybe more traditional jobs and career paths are perfect for them.

But I guess regardless of who you are and what you’re looking for, my advice is go get it. If there’s something that you want, you have to ask for it and work for it. Don’t just wait hoping that what you want might fall in your lap. Get out there and fight for it. You’ll be amazed at what you can do.

Also, a last piece of advice, more startup than personal, is just to aim to solve a problem with everything you create.

Follow Samantha Harrington and Driven Media on Twitter.

Ben Carson needed an editor

The rise of presidential candidate Ben Carson has led to increased scrutiny of his background. That’s a normal part of politics, though at times the news media fall short on asking relevant questions.

In the past week, news organizations have done stories on Carson’s claims of overcoming a violent childhood and being offered a full scholarship at West Point. Carson wrote about those experiences in his book “Gifted Hands.”

The Wall Street Journal looked into another segment from the book. Carson wrote about an unusual request from a Yale professor to retake an exam. Here’s how the Journal described it:

carson-wsjThis is where an editor could have helped Carson when he was writing “Gifted Hands.” If I had been working with his manuscript, here are two questions I would have asked him about this incident:

  • “Wow! What a remarkable story. And it was captured on film. Can we ask the Yale Daily News if we can include that photo in the book?”
  • “I’m not following the logic of the professor’s experiment. How does it demonstrate the honesty of the students? Maybe those who left were simply annoyed about having to retake the test. Can you revise this to make that clear?”

Perhaps if an editor had asked such questions then, Carson wouldn’t be facing them now.