Q&A with Suzanne Tobias, reporter at The Wichita Eagle

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Suzanne Tobias is a reporter and columnist at The Wichita Eagle. Her primary beat is covering the Wichita public schools. In this interview, Tobias discusses her job and the newspaper’s recent move, and she offers advice to aspiring journalists.

Q. Describe your job at the Eagle. What is your typical day like?

A. I cover education for The Wichita Eagle and Kansas.com, with a primary focus on the Wichita school district, which is the largest and one of the most diverse in our region. School finance has been a huge story in Kansas for the past decade or more, as the Wichita district and others have sued the state over education funding.

I enjoy the variety of stories on the education beat. On any given day, I could write about teacher contract negotiations, concealed-carry guns on campus, discipline in schools, refugee students or a new strategy for teaching math. When the Kansas Legislature is in session, I collaborate with our Statehouse reporters to cover education policy news; during the slower summer months, when teachers and students are out of school, I try to work on big-picture investigative or data-driven stories.

My typical day starts about 7:30 a.m. or earlier – partly because I’m an early riser and need to get my own kids to school, and partly because it meshes well with school schedules and allows me to better reach sources. I generally post at least one story to our website before noon, updating it throughout the day if need be, while also juggling weekend stories and at least one longer-term project. I check in with my editor at least briefly each day, either in person or via email.

Every other Monday I cover the Wichita school board, which meets in the evening, so I start a little later those days. I try to head home by 5 or 5:30 p.m., but I usually take my laptop with me in case news breaks and I have to cover that from home.

Q. The Eagle recently moved. What is it like to leave a newsroom behind and move into a new one?

Moving to a new building this past spring was exciting, exhausting and a little emotional. The Eagle had been at its previous location since 1961.

As our primary focus evolved from print to digital, we moved our printing operation to a sister paper in Kansas City and downsized significantly. That meant the old place had lots of unused, unneeded space. We moved just a few blocks up the street, but the new office has way more modern amenities and energy. It’s brighter, with balconies off the newsroom that overlook Wichita’s Old Town Square. Television screens throughout the newsroom broadcast breaking news or website analytics.

The move was a great excuse for a lot of us to ditch old junk and start fresh. The old building is being demolished to make room for a new business. While I thought I’d be sad – we posted a huge “-30-” on the out-facing windows when we left – I think the new place means progress for our company and the community.

Q. You are active on Twitter. How do you use social media as part of your work?

A. I began using Twitter in 2008, before most of my editors and colleagues really knew about it or realized what a great tool it could be. I have a loyal cadre of followers – mostly teachers and parents – who thank me for live-tweeting Wichita school board meetings so they can keep track of discussions and debates.

I regularly use Twitter and other social media to find or track down sources, to flesh out tips, to gather input and to share links to my stories. A few years ago, a random tip from one of my Twitter followers – that a Kansas student’s disparaging tweet about Gov. Sam Brownback angered the governor’s staff and landed her in the principal’s office – resulted in The Eagle’s No. 1 story of the year for online page views ().

Q. You have worked at the Eagle since graduating from N.C. State University in 1990. That’s unusual in a highly transient profession. What has kept you in Wichita?

A. It’s funny, because when I moved to Wichita from North Carolina, I swore to friends and family that I would be here for a couple of years and then try to get a job at one of the papers back home. Part of the reason I stayed is that I met my husband (an Eagle photographer) here, and we bought a house and started a family.

But more than that, this newspaper offered so many opportunities to try new things, cover various beats and keep things fresh. Over the years I have covered general-assignment news, city government, military and education. I tried my hand at editing, supervising a seven-member education team. (I learned that I much prefer reporting and writing.) I was part of The Eagle’s first foray into online journalism. I flew with the Blue Angels. And I started a weekly column on parenting and family life, which I still write.

I’ve been here 27 years, and I still love what I do because my job and our industry keeps changing. And have you seen a Kansas sunset? Seriously, they rock.

Q. What advice do you have for aspiring journalists?

A. First, don’t let the haters get you down. Journalism is a necessary and noble profession, and one that’s just as important now as it ever was.

It’s also a pretty awesome way to make a living – being nosy, getting the scoop, writing it down, telling all your friends and neighbors. No matter what your passion might be – politics, science, sports, movies, books, business, food – there’s some kind of job in journalism that will let you explore it. Also, journalists are some of the smartest, funniest people you’ll ever meet, and working around them every day is good for the soul.

Oh, and READ. That’s my primary advice for aspiring journalists: Read, read, read, read. Readers make the best writers.

Read Suzanne Tobias’s stories at Kansas.com and follow her on Twitter.

All that journalism

This week, I am stepping out of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill and spending my afternoons at the music department. I am one of several instructors in a one-week jazz workshop. It’s the second year that I’m participating in the program.

So what is an editor doing at a jazz workshop? I’ll work with about 15 students who want to learn about digital journalism as part of their workshop experience. Here are our topics and tasks for the week:

  • MONDAY: What makes a good post? Create a blog at web.unc.edu. Post your impressions and a photo of the evening performance at Wilson Library.
  • TUESDAY: Exploring alternative story forms and learning how to interview sources. Interview a workshop participant and post a vignette about them.
  • WEDNESDAY: Using social media to cover an event. Use Twitter (and more) to document the evening performance. The hashtag is #UNCjazz.
  • THURSDAY: Writing headlines and captions. Revise the headlines and captions on your earlier posts.
  • FRIDAY: Curating social media. Use Storify to document the week.

Thanks to Stephen Anderson, the workshop’s director, for the opportunity to work with these students. Now let’s turn music into words and images.

UPDATE: We had a great week. Examples of student work included a review of one of the performances, a profile of a bass player who plays in a Beatles cover band, and a Storify overview of the workshop.

The public editor, before and after

The recent news that The New York Times was cutting the position of public editor prompted me to think about my time at The News & Observer. I worked at the Raleigh newspaper twice: from 1992-97 as a copy editor and from 2001-2005 as wire editor.

For most of that time, the N&O did not have a public editor, a role also known as an ombudsman or reader representative. That changed in 2004, when the newspaper added that position and hired Ted Vaden, a longtime journalist who had served as editor of The Chapel Hill News, among other jobs.

Before Vaden’s hiring, I got feedback from readers via email, voicemail and phone calls. Some of these communications were hostile and unproductive, but some led to helpful conversations about how the newspaper operated and what we could do better. I also looked at letters to the editor for responses from readers on how we covered national and international news.

After Vaden was hired, I still received phone calls, voicemail and emails from readers. I also heard from Vaden, asking me why we covered a topic a certain way or why a story had not appeared in the pages of the N&O.

On at least a couple of occasions, I was interviewed by Vaden for columns that he wrote for the N&O addressing concerns from readers. One that I recall was about how the N&O had covered the Terri Schiavo “right to die” controversy. Some readers complained that we had approached it as a political story rather than a medical one. I told Vaden that I saw it as both and that our coverage had tried to address each angle.

His column suggested that we had fallen short. I disagreed with that assessment, but I appreciated how Vaden went about his work. He asked good questions and came up with conclusions based on evidence and analysis.

Vaden left the N&O in 2009, taking a communications job at the state Department of Transportation. The role of public editor at the N&O was lost amid a wave of layoffs.

I recently caught up with Vaden, who has left the DOT and has written columns on various topics for The Chapel Hill News in the past few years. In light of the news from The New York Times, I wondered what he thought about his time as public editor in Raleigh. Here are my questions and his responses:

Q. How did you approach the job of public editor at the N&O?

A. I suppose I tried to assume the role of “honest broker” between the readers and the paper, serving as intermediary to hear readers’ concerns, communicate them to the people inside the paper and explain the journalism of The N&O to the public. I felt that my first obligation was to the readers – to ascertain their concerns about the issues shoved into their consciousness by the paper, and to hold the paper accountable in areas of fairness, taste, ethics and professionalism.

I tried to do this in two ways – in a Sunday op-ed column that usually focused on the most controversial coverage of the preceding week and in a weekly report (I can’t remember what I called it) that I distributed by email inside the building relaying the issues large and small raised by readers during that week.

That inside column was distributed not just to the newsroom but to all 900-plus employees of the paper. I thought it was valuable for the entire enterprise to hear what the readers were saying about The N&O, and I was gratified to get a good deal of response, questions and ideas from non-editorial employees.

Q. You were public editor for five years. What did you learn doing that time?

A. I learned that it is a very difficult balancing act to straddle the divide between people out in Readerland and the journalists inside the paper. Journalists as a breed are very defensive about their work, and it was quite ticklish to bring the same kind of watchdogging to them as they did to the public.

I tried to rely on my instincts, but if anything, I erred on the side of being too critical of the paper, in order to maintain credibility with readers. Nevertheless, I’m sure I let my bias and identity as a journalist creep into my opinionating.

I believed independence was the most critical asset of a public editor, and I was fortunate that I was in the position of reporting directly and only to the publisher (Orage Quarles III), who created and appointed me to the position in the first place. He read every column before it was published. He occasionally disagreed with my conclusions, but in five years there was only one instance in which he directed me to change my column. Even then, we ended with a compromise (which I still didn’t like).

I felt that if there were not always some journalists inside the paper who were not happy with my columns, then I was not doing my job. I’m proudest that I took a critical stand early on over the N&O’s coverage of the Duke lacrosse case, even when that angered some editors.

But there were also instances of which I was less proud, when I wasn’t forceful enough. I still remember a comment from one reader that I wasn’t “tough-minded” enough. Ouch!

I thought it was very important for the public editor to stay in close touch with readers. Over those years, I developed a database of 300-400 readers whom I would survey regularly to get a sense of broader opinion of coverage that I could relay to the newsroom and discuss in the column. The newspaper also created a Reader Advisory Panel that met every month with me and different journalists from the newsroom. Both the journalists and the readers learned from those interactions. I think it still functions.

Finally, it’s a mixed legacy to say that I was the first and (presumably) last ombudsman of The News & Observer. It was bold of Quarles to create the position – to open the paper to regular criticism. But it was a sad commentary on the state of journalism even as early as 2009 that the role of in-house critic was one of the first positions to be determined to be dispensable.

I agree with Vaden that the role of the public editor was valuable. His presence in the N&O building was a reminder that it was the readers that mattered most. Unlike their emails or voicemails, he could not be ignored.

In lieu of a public editor, The New York Times says it will look to social media for reader feedback. It will certainly find plenty of it there, starting with tweets from the president. But how will journalists hear signals amid the noise? Will they fail to hear alarm bells as they tune out the trolls?

Q&A with Kelsey Weekman, writer at AOL

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Kelsey Weekman is a trending content writer at AOL. She has also written for Mashable, Reductress and Mediashift. In this interview, Weekman discusses how AOL approaches reporting, editing and headline writing.

Q. Describe your job. What does a “trending content writer” do on a typical day?

A. I spend the day looking for stories that I think will go viral, from animal videos to the latest odd political moment. I write anywhere from 5 to 10 in a day, but since January, it’s always been closer to 10. (Inauguration was in January, so, you can put the pieces together there.)

Q. How does story editing and headline writing work at AOL?

A. Writers write their own headlines, and there are three kinds:

  1. A main title, which shows up on the article page when you open it. We try to give lots of information and use SEO keywords.
  2. A social headline, which automatically shows up when shared on Facebook and Twitter. We try to craft a clever-yet-not-misleading tease here. It’s Clickbait Lite.
  3. A short title, which shows up on the app. We go for a similar tease but can only use 52 characters.

As for story editing, it’s not particularly thorough. I pass my stories on to a coworker on my level or above, and they proofread the article, then send it back. I make my own changes and publish my own work.

Q. You also edit an email newsletter called Keeping Up With The Content, and you’ve researched newsletters as part of an independent study. What do you like about the newsletter format?

A. I experimented with quite a few newsletter formats myself, but I found the one that works best for me, a content curator who pulls from a ton of different websites, is really just making a list of headlines divided by topic. I format it with fun colors and a trendy font to make it feel more like a zine than an email marketing tactic.

Q. You are a 2016 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What skills that you learned there to do you use in your job at AOL, and what new ones have picked up?

A. What I learned in the most basic news writing class has never left me. It drilled how to write a proper news article into my brain. My specialization was in public relations, which I realized about halfway through is not what I want to do, but having to be creative with words in any format was an invaluable exercise.

Most importantly, I learned to be scrappy. I learned that you have to be your own best advocate because the journalism world is wildly competitive. If you want to do something, do it, don’t wait for someone to create a way for you to accomplish it.

UPDATE: In August 2017, Weekman accepted a position writing for Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter.

Follow Kelsey Weekman on Twitter, read her stories and subscribe to her newsletter.

Q&A with Karen Willenbrecht, editor at S&P Global Market Intelligence

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Karen Willenbrecht is associate coal editor at S&P Global Market Intelligence. She previously worked as a copy editor at newspapers such as Stars And Stripes, The Denver Post and The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, Willenbrecht discusses her job at S&P Global and her transition from newspaper editing.

Q. Describe your work at S&P Global Market Intelligence. What is your typical day like?

A. Our teams are divided up by the industries we cover. My team covers coal and is fairly small: We have two editors, two U.S.-based reporters and a reporter based overseas.

Our day starts at 8 a.m., and my boss, the industry editor for coal, scours news sources for story ideas, assigns stories and checks in with the writers to form a coverage plan for the day. If he’s out, I handle that. Throughout the day, I edit stories as they come in and post them to our site. I also do some writing.

Q. The S&P office is in Charlottesville, Virginia, and you live in Raleigh, North Carolina. What is it like to work remotely?

A. Working remotely has benefits and drawbacks. I’ve found that people collaborate better when they’ve met face to face, and I’m grateful that my training was held in one of the main offices so I could meet most of my colleagues in person. Communication is obviously vital, and we use chat apps constantly. I also found it helpful to set up office space in my spare bedroom and not go in there when I’m not working, so I don’t feel like I live at work.

The biggest drawback for me is that I’m a fairly social person and I miss having people to joke with and bounce ideas off of. I’ve partly solved that by joining a co-working space, which has the added benefit of much better Wi-Fi and coffee than I have at home. I usually co-work two or three days a week and spend the other days at home. I’ve tried working from coffee shops, but the Wi-Fi is often unreliable or too slow. Plus, I wind up spending too much money and eating too many baked goods.

I also have two cats, who love it when I’m home all day. I have to be honest, though — they’re terrible office mates. I often tell them I’m going to file an HR complaint over their failure to respect boundaries.

Q. The company has a policy of paying $50 when a reader finds an error on the site. How does that affect the work of writers and editors there?

A. I was a newspaper copy editor for years and watched sadly as paper after paper decided that editing wasn’t important, so I was excited to work for a company that still valued editing and accuracy. And I like things to be right, so I enjoy being surrounded by people who feel the same and strive for that.

Our culture is all about transparency and accountability — every time an error is found in a published story, it’s logged and everyone responsible is notified, even if it’s caught internally. Part of our annual bonus is based on staying within our department’s budget for errors that result in a payout, so accuracy is a team effort.

Q. You previously worked at The News & Observer and other newspapers. What has the transition to a digital-only organization been like? What advice do you have for editors looking to make a similar change?

A. Transitioning to digital-only was easier than I thought it would be, in part because the N&O had shifted to a digital-first strategy, so it wasn’t a huge jump from “print is not our priority” to “print doesn’t exist.”

One nice thing, as an editor, is that there’s no extra work for converting a story from print to digital, since it was never set up for print. So, for example, there’s no need to write a print headline and a web headline.

I also find that the writers think differently about timing — no one has the holdover idea that they’re working toward a print deadline and don’t need to file before 6 p.m. Stories are filed as soon as they’re written, and the writers do things like inserting links to related stories that are often done by editors or web producers at a newspaper.

That would be my main advice for an editor looking to make that transition: You have to let go of the mindset of working toward a fixed deadline and adjust to a real-time environment. I still sometimes miss that adrenaline rush of racing against deadline and the wave of relief once everything is done, but it’s probably better for my blood pressure that I don’t do that anymore.

How I am spending my summer

Summer is already here, according to the academic calendar at UNC-Chapel Hill. As I’ve noted in the past, this time of year for faculty members is not synonymous with a vacation. Here’s what I have planned for summer 2017:

  • Teach MEJO 157, News Editing, during a condensed term called Maymester. We’ll cover an entire semester’s worth of material in less than three weeks.
  • Review applications for a certificate program in media and technology, and help those who are admitted get settled in for fall semester.
  • Grade comprehensive exams for students in an online master’s program.
  • Teach the journalism component of a week-long jazz workshop.
  • Host a book reading by my friend and former colleague Kathleen Flynn, whose debut novel was released earlier this month.
  • Teach a workshop on alternative story forms at the Chuck Stone Program for Diversity in Education and Media.
  • Update the stylebook of the School of Media and Journalism.
  • Review a manuscript for an academic journal.
  • Serve as a member of the ACES Education Fund on various tasks, including establishing a scholarship in honor of Bill Walsh, the noted Washington Post copy editor who died this year.
  • Attend two faculty retreats, including one looking at significant changes to the journalism curriculum.
  • Review and update course materials for the three courses that I will teach during the fall semester, which will begin in mid-August.

That’s plenty to keep me busy. Happy summer!

Q&A with freelance editor Heather E. Saunders

heathersaundersHeather E. Saunders is a freelance proofreader and STM editor who lives in Massachusetts. She edits material about mental health, aeronautics and cancer research, among other topics. In this interview, conducted by email, Saunders discusses her work, her new role at ACES and her viewpoints on the Oxford comma and the singular they.

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

A. As you might expect, a “typical” day is never guaranteed in the life of a freelancer. I have developed a general structure for my days and my weeks, but there must be an inherent flexibility to my schedule.

The morning is devoted to emails and house chores, and early afternoon is set aside for deep focus work. After a quick lunch and an extended puppy playtime, the rest of the afternoon is spent on lighter project work. I end the day with marketing, networking and follow-up emails.

I schedule new projects and check in on project updates early in the week and send invoices on Friday. I’ve developed a rhythm that ensures I have time for billed work, marketing for new work and professional development, even though those times might fluctuate a bit day to day.

Q. You were a journalism major as an undergraduate. How did you go from news to other types of editing?

A. During my studies, I fell in love with the copy desk. I started in journalism with a desire to write, but I found myself much more at home editing copy. Once I knew I preferred editing to writing, it was a just a matter of deciding what I wanted to edit.

Working in journalism actually helped me hone in on my passions; I learned very quickly which fields interested me, and I decided to pursue those right out of the gate. I’ve always been drawn to the sciences, and I studied astronomy and psychology as well as journalism. One of my first clients was an aeronautics journal, and from there I expanded to other areas.

Q. You were recently elected to the executive committee of ACES, the Society for Editing. What inspired you to run, and what do you hope to achieve as a board member?

A. I’ve loved being a part of ACES since I joined to attend my first conference in Las Vegas. I ran for the board so I could contribute to this organization that does so much for our field. I was the Boston chapter coordinator for the Editorial Freelancers Association for three years, so I felt prepared to offer my time and skills.

As a board member, I hope to help develop more training opportunities for intermediate and advanced editors as well as more opportunities to connect with colleagues, be that at local meetings, through mentoring, or at other events. There are many new things happening at ACES that I am excited about.

Q. What advice do you have to people interested in careers in editing similar to yours?

A. There is certainly no one path to a career, and I found mine through study; I studied editing and linguistics as well as news and current research in fields that interest me. And I continue this study regularly. Together, this learning keeps me current on the fields I work in as well as keeps my editing skills sharp, which continually creates new opportunities.

Q. Lastly, what’s your view on the two topics that editors get asked about a lot: the Oxford comma and the singular they?

A. I enjoy the Oxford comma in my reading, but rarely use it in my personal writing (a holdover from my early days in journalism), so I live in both worlds.

I like seeing it on the printed page, but generally only put it there if style dictates or if I’m writing for a broad audience. If Oxford comma usage was banned or made mandatory tomorrow, I wouldn’t lose sleep either way.

As for singular they, I encourage its use and am pleased to see style guides finally adopting it.

Check out Heather E. Saunders’ website and follow her on Twitter.