What I am teaching this semester

The fall semester at UNC-Chapel Hill begins today. Here’s what I am teaching this term:

  • Two sections of News Editing. This undergraduate course focuses on story editing, caption writing and headline writing for print and digital media, with a dash of social media. Each section has 16 students; the class meets twice a week in a computer lab. Here is the syllabus for the course along with a handout on noteworthy names in the news.
  • One section of 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. The course covers different types of digital writing, including blogs, headlines and social media. It has 12 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 for a successful semester!

Labels and legislation

bathroomsign
Public bathrooms have been the focus of North Carolina’s House Bill 2, but there’s more to the law than that provision.

In North Carolina, two pieces of legislation have been in the news a great deal this year. News organizations commonly call one a “bathroom bill,” and they refer to the other as “a voter ID law.”

These labels are inadequate. Each law has numerous components:

  • House Bill 2, the “bathroom bill” passed by the General Assembly and signed by the governor in March 2016, requires that transgender people use public restrooms that match the gender on their birth certificates. But it also forbids local governments from enacting laws that protect LGBT people from discrimination in any form, including in housing and employment. HB2 also prevents those governments from raising the minimum wage in their communities. (It also stopped people from bringing any sort of discrimination claim in state courts. That piece was reversed this summer.)
  • The “voter ID” law, passed in 2013 and recently struck down by a federal appeals court, requires people to show certain types of photo identification at the polls. But among other provisions, it also reduced the number of days for early voting. The law also stopped same-day registration and out-of-precinct provisional votes from being counted. It ended a program that allowed teenagers to “pre-register” and vote when they turned 18.

These are complex pieces of legislation that present challenges to journalists who are writing about them. Including all of these elements in a headline or tweet is, of course, impractical.

But they could be included in story text or, better yet, as separate textboxes accompanying stories about these topics. That would better serve readers who want to get a full understanding of these laws.

Q&A with Mary Miller of the N.C. Newsroom Cooperative

The N.C. Newsroom Cooperative is part of The Frontier, a co-working space in Research Triangle Park.
The N.C. Newsroom Cooperative is part of The Frontier, a co-working space in Research Triangle Park.

Mary Miller is president and co-founder of the N.C. Newsroom Cooperative, a co-working space in Research Triangle Park. She previously worked as a reporter and columnist at The News & Observer and as special assistant to the provost at Clemson University. In this interview, conducted by email, Miller discusses the objectives of the cooperative, her role there and the outlook for journalism in North Carolina.

Q. What is the North Carolina Newsroom Cooperative? What is its purpose?

A. Our mission is to support and promote the work of independent journalists and nonfiction storytellers, and the way that we are doing that is by creating a nonprofit business cooperative with a newsroom co-working space.

The idea of co-working spaces and business incubators is popular these days. We see this as a new twist on what makes a newsroom such a fun and vital place: a space and support system to serve all the kinds of people with the differing skills required to produce and publish a fact-based story. The reality is that a lot of journalists these days don’t work out of a newsroom anymore, or if they do, the newsroom is a much emptier place than it used to be.

So the co-working component provides camaraderie and mentorship that we miss so much when we work in isolation. It’s a place to work and improve your work, to bounce ideas, acquire on-the-job training, collaborate and given the ever-interesting cast of characters, learn to navigate the rest of the world.

We see that people who are not employed by traditional media outlets are actually producing high-quality and essential journalism that deserves wider reach. Together we’re attempting to define and nurture this evolving media and communications ecosystem, to widen the tent and promote collaboration while preserving integrity, transparency and accountability.

That’s why we’ve organized in the cooperative model: because every member must adhere to the SPJ code of ethics and must be willing to give of their time and talents. How do we improve the quality and reach of nonfiction storytelling? That question is our North Star.

We’re a diverse group of professionals coming from the realms of media, academia, tech, nonprofit and corporate who value the necessity of a vibrant free press and ethically produced fact-based storytelling. Our group took a look at North Carolina and the Triangle in particular and realized that we have not only a large and diverse class of professional storytellers, but we’re so lucky to have the kinds of people in the tech industry and in academia who are forging these new frontiers in the gathering, telling and dissemination of information.

We had an opportunity to move forward with the idea thanks to the generous support of The Research Triangle Foundation (disclosure: I am married to CEO and President Bob Geolas), which grants us space and basic furnishings at The Frontier, a co-working space in RTP, in exchange for programming.

The programming we’re working on will help people be better journalists, more facile at technology that allows them to cross platforms to further their work, as well as programming that helps them to be better business entrepreneurs. We are looking at ways to offer bundled tech support to drive down the cost of digital publishing and most importantly, to free up their time to do the actual work of gathering and telling stories. And we’ll offer ways to market and promote their work on our website, as well as partner with strategic partners seeking quality content.

One striking difference from a traditional newsroom is that we host events to bring the public to The Frontier to raise the level of civic conversation. For instance, we had presidential historian William Leuchtenburg, William Rand Kenan Jr. professor emeritus of history at UNC-Chapel Hill, out on Super Tuesday to talk about the press’s relationship with American presidents this century. We are also working on screening some documentaries about important North Carolina stories this fall.

Q. Describe your role at the cooperative as co-founder and president.

A. Fancy titles, but as anyone with startup experience knows, the job description is “do what needs to be done.” This is a large group effort.

I am main point of contact. Our co-founders are veteran journalist Seth Effron, a digital pioneer who has recently taken a new position with Capitol Broadcasting Company, leading the web-based opinion section on WRAL.com, and media lawyer Hugh Stevens.

Our board includes Brett Chambers, who teaches journalism at N.C. Central University and is president of the Triangle chapter of National Association of Black Journalists; Teri Saylor who owns Open Water Communications; News & Observer columnist J. Peder Zane; Fiona Morgan, a former Indy Week staff writer who’s now journalism program director at the nonprofit Free Press; Joe Dew, a former political reporter for The News & Observer who also has experience in nonprofit management; and Ryan Stancil, one of the founders of the digital magazine Bit & Grain.

Beyond that, we have a core group of about a dozen more colleagues who have put in some money and time to get this off the ground. They are photographers, information designers, documentarians, established publishers of niche news websites like The Carolina Mercury and North Carolina Health News, startups like and Broken Toilets, which covers global and local development issues. Our members include freelance reporters, editors, photographers, copy editors, publishers of online magazines, documentarians, documentary filmmakers, information design specialists, and social media managers.

Q. How can someone get involved with cooperative?

A. We are in the process of defining membership and benefits, and officially kick off our membership drive in October. Don’t wait to make contact! Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter at @CoopNewsroomNC. Check out www.ncnewsroom.org.

But by all means, come visit. We’re at The Frontier, 800 Park Offices Drive, Durham. To do that, email maryemiller@ncnewsroom.com, or call me on my cell at 919-607-4069.

While we are always looking for people who identify as journalists and communicators, we are also in need of the talents of design and data visualization specialists, researchers, app developers, even social media managers. Diversity of skills will make us stronger.

Q. What’s your sense of where journalism is going, in North Carolina and beyond?

A. Storytelling has always been the most powerful means of communication. The question is whether it will ever become the most financially valuable. That I doubt.

Technology has democratized the telling of stories in ways that most people could barely imagine even six or seven years ago. Look at how Facebook livestream has changed news just this summer.

Having a smartphone and rolling video doesn’t really make you a journalist. Content isn’t context. And instant information, as we so often see, can be misleading.

Audiences are more sophisticated. So are businesses. They understand that they are best served by factual information because it’s getting easier to fact-check claims. People expect transparency.

Newspapers and other forms of media may falter, and some will die. Nonfiction storytelling won’t. I am amazed and heartened at the number of young professionals who, out of passion for story and community are launching projects and gathering stories, becoming multimedia publishers with a cellphone and technology that can fit in a knapsack. Their flexibility to absorb information and post in varying platforms is impressive, but even more so is their innate understanding of what makes a story and what might be the best form of telling.

Our youngest child, Josephine, is 8. She makes a movie trailer almost every time she gets her hands on my iPhone. She knows more about structure and plot than I did going into college. That tells me we are on the right course.

Just exactly what the facts is

The good people at Copyediting offer a cornucopia of online training for editors. In September, I’ll join this effort.

My class, “Getting Your Facts Straight,” will give you advice on how to ensure that the material you are editing is accurate. You wouldn’t want to mix up “Star Wars” and “Star Trek,” would you? Or attribute a quote to Mark Twain that he never said?

The audio class, which costs $79, will take place at 1 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 22. It will last about 90 minutes. It’s intended for editors of all sorts, and I hope to see you there.

Journalism and jazz

jazz
The UNC Summer Jazz Workshop invites students of various ages and backgrounds to explore the genre for a week. About a dozen of them will also learn about journalism. (Creative Commons image)

This week, I am stepping out of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill and spending my afternoons at the Kenan Music Building. I’ll be one of several instructors in a one-week jazz workshop.

When it comes to music, my tastes lean more toward rock, and my skills are limited to a few chords on guitar. I won’t be part of the workshop’s nightly performances, though I plan to attend some.

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

  • MONDAY: What makes a good blog 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: Writing for social media. Use Twitter (and more) to cover 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: The students and I had a great week. Their work includes a post about an outdoor concert, a profile of a musician and a recap of the week.

 

Q&A with Ellen Meder, editorial adviser at N.C. State University

Technician, the student newspaper at N.C. State University, recently switched to a tabloid format and reduced its printing schedule to two days a week.
Technician, the student newspaper at N.C. State University, recently switched to a tabloid format and reduced its printing schedule to two days a week.

Ellen Meder is editorial adviser for student media at N.C. State University, a position she has held since 2014. An alumna of the University of South Carolina, she previously worked as a multimedia journalist at TV station WSPA and at The Morning News in Florence, South Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, Meder discusses her role at N.C. State and changes at Technician, a campus newspaper.

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

A. The main goal of my job is to teach, train and advise the students who run N.C. State’s two student newspapers, Technician and Nubian Message. Basically, I use my professional experience and perspective to help them do what they do better.

It’s nice that a “typical” day doesn’t always look the same, but I’m usually juggling creating or leading training sessions on reporting or editing, holding critique sessions with newer writers, marking up the latest issues with constructive criticism and doling out advice for the papers’ senior staff on everything from management styles to good design.

Another role is helping writers and editors strategize on how to pursue difficult reporting — which is often one part coach, one part gumshoe and one part paralegal — but that has to be one of the best parts; seeing students’ curiosity get sparked and realize that they actually can track down the truth. Sometimes paperwork wrangling and departmental reports sneak in there, too, unfortunately.

Q. Technician will reduce its publication schedule in print to two days a week. What is the reason for this change, and what else is ahead for the newspaper?

A. We are definitely viewing the change as a shift of how and where content is produced, not as an overall reduction. It was a tough decision and one our professional staff and students didn’t take lightly.

We took the idea to this year’s editor-in-chief when we realized that a change in the print production schedule could bolster some of her goals, including pushing toward a more web-first mentality and really shaking things up with multimedia content and design, and our departmental goals, like increasing student pay for our leaders as to take down a barrier to diversity and stanch the flow of talented students who couldn’t afford not to have better paid, low skill jobs.

So those are the primary reasons for the decision being made now: It will lend more in the budget for payroll, and it will give the team time and space to focus more on their online output, instead of grinding so hard on each print edition that they’re too burnt out to think of producing anything until 5 p.m. the following day.

But it’s not something that had to happen right this second. Decreased advertising revenues would have eventually forced a reduction, though. We saw the writing on the wall with other universities and our own budget trends and decided that we’d rather make the move when our backs aren’t yet against the wall, when we can control it, and when we can advance other goals.

As far as what’s next, Rachel Smith, the editor-in-chief, has some great goals, and we’ll all be working toward making this transition smooth and ultimately more useful for readers. That means restructuring the newsroom work flow to get news online accurately and quickly (not the other way around) via the website, mobile, the app and social media.

Technician definitely wants to meet readers where they are, and that’s frequently on their phones. The students also want to produce more graphics for web and continue beefing up their video department.

The push to web means that the balance of content will likely shift in the print editions, since no one wants to put 24-hour old news on stands to sit for three days. It’s also transitioning to a modified tab format, so they’re trying new things with design and more engaging covers that don’t look the exact same each day. It’s definitely an exciting time!

Q. How did you get involved with student media, and what do you like most about the job?

A. I loved student media in college, and The Daily Gamecock newsroom was my second home. After I graduated, I worked as a reporter in TV and then at a newspaper in South Carolina for a few years before I started looking around for a new challenge.

I grew up in Raleigh, and when I found the listing for this position, I was super excited and, during the interview, very nervous because I wanted it so badly. I had contemplated going to graduate school for higher education administration when I was scared I’d never get a job in news, but this position meshed my love of journalism and helping college students grow into awesome, productive adults as so many staffers at USC had done for me.

The best part of the job is hands down the students. Watching them learn and grow is exciting and they are hilarious, smart, ambitious and excited. There isn’t the same pall of a declining industry in a student newsroom, nor the jaded curmudgeonliness that was starting to tint my outlook at a small-town paper.

Plus, they are downright challenging. Each student and each group is different, so I have to adapt my teaching and communication styles to best serve them and help them do what they do better. Sometimes that goes great! Sometimes it’s more frustrating, and I have to keep adapting. But when they get it, when they publish a damn good paper, uncover something important or cover a difficult topic with sensitivity, grace and attention to detail, there is nothing better.

Q. What advice do you have for college students considering working for campus publications?

A. Jump right in! Go talk to the students who are already working for the publications and ask why they love it, what makes it worthwhile and even what makes it hard. They’ll be honest with you, and if you stick around for a staff meeting or a production night you’ll find a tight-knit, and hopefully welcoming, group that works hard and has fun. Regardless of the outlet, you will learn skills that you can use in any industry you go into after college, and will gain valuable experience and probably some hilarious stories.

Plus, you’ll find some lifelong friends. I met some of my best, most trusted friends in student media, and we still go on vacation together once a year! I just got back from Nashville with them last week.

Once you’re involved, it’s all about continuing to ask questions and use the resources at your disposal to grow. Pick the brains of older students, your advisers, students at other outlets, alumni and just about anyone on campus who you have questions for! Being in student media is like having an all-access pass to your community.

Last piece of advice: Learn more than one hard skill. If you’re interested in reporting, spend some nights on the copy desk and learn the design software your team uses. If you love shooting photos, go ahead and work with the video team, too. Like it or not, if you want to go into journalism, you are going to need to be a jack of all multimedia trades, in addition to having a solid foundation of journalistic ethics, tenacity and know-how.