Q&A with Kevin Uhrmacher, graphics editor at The Washington Post

Kevin Uhrmacher is a graphics editor at The Washington Post. In this interview, conducted by email, Uhrmacher discusses his work there and offers advice to journalism students looking at careers like his.

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

A. I’m involved in making everything from simple maps and charts to more meaty interactives and data visualizations. I also spend some time making sure our graphics are being copy-edited and included with related stories that others in the newsroom are writing.

My days vary quite a bit, but it’s typical that each includes some combination of responding to breaking news, working on daily and longer-term projects and getting our team’s graphics work published across platforms and promoted on social media.

Today, for example, I went in at 7 a.m. to get a jump on updating our page covering the EgyptAir Flight 804 crash. Another graphics editor, Denise Lu, and I updated the page periodically throughout the day as more information became available. As we pushed out updates to the page, we were sharing them on our @postgraphics Twitter account. We were also working on a couple of other projects intermittently.

I should also mention that the members of our team regularly solicit and offer feedback to one another about projects in progress.

Q. How does editing and headline writing work for graphics at The Washington Post?

A. Any graphic I create goes through several layers of editing, including my own editors on the graphics team, other content-specific reporters and editors, and a small army of very attentive copy editors.

Headline writing is a team effort here, for sure. While we’re writing a headline, we do a lot of sharing and testing to see what connects with people. Often that means sharing headlines in an internal chat room and asking others to offer suggestions for how to improve something.

Often, the most valuable feedback you can get on a headline is from someone who has no preconceived notions about the story. This helps you see how much interest your headline generates and make sure your story (whether it takes the form of text, graphics, video or some combination of things) delivers on whatever you promise in the headline.

We also have a new-ish tool that helps us A/B test promotional material for our stories (headlines, deks and — especially helpful for our graphics — promo images) You can read more about it here. We’re fortunate enough to have a tremendous engineering team to build tools like this one.

Q. You graduated from the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2014. What skills and concepts that you learned there do you use day to day? What have you had to learn on the job?

A. I think the most obvious thing I took with me out of the journalism school, and many nights in The Daily Tar Heel, was a keen sense of news judgment. By that I mean being able to identify the crux of a story and making sure that it is coming across in the way it is presented. It also means recognizing stories that are not being told and finding a unique way to tell them.

That reminds me of another thing UNC taught me, which is how to learn something that I don’t know. There are plenty of new skills and concepts that didn’t exist when I was in school just a couple of years ago. The key is knowing how to adapt and learn them.

Q. Being a graphics editor at The Washington Post sounds like a good gig. What advice do you have for journalism students considering similar career paths?

A. Well, first let me say it IS a good gig!

As far as advice goes, I would say students should not be devastated if they don’t get their dream internship or job on the first try. Never cut off a relationship with someone at a company you want to work for because you assume they don’t want you. For all you know, you’re at the top of their list for the next open job.

This one can be awkward but really pays off: Ask what you could do to improve your chances for the next time around. Do you need to beef up your portfolio in some way? Need to show more similar experience on your resume? Occasionally send them an email when you publish something you’re really proud of. Don’t underestimate the power that putting yourself on someone’s radar has for your future prospects.

I also recommend getting involved in professional organizations such as the Society for News Design, the Online News Association or the American Copy Editors Society. The annual conferences are great ways to meet people and learn more about what’s happening in the field you one day hope to work in.

Q&A with Laura Fiorilli-Crews, web content specialist at RTI International

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Laura Fiorilli-Crews is a web content specialist at RTI International in North Carolina. She previously worked as a homepage editor at TBO.com in Tampa, Florida. In this interview, conducted by email, Fiorilli-Crews discuss her job at RTI, its new website and her transition from the newsroom.

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

A. I work on RTI’s beautiful Research Triangle Park campus, about a 25-minute drive from my home in Raleigh (though the trip back can be much longer). A typical day for me involves working on project stories, expert profiles and other content for our recently launched website. Leading up to the launch, we also spent a lot of time learning about the institute and planning our content strategy.

The overall pace is pretty relaxed compared with what I was used to in a 24/7 multimedia newsroom. I leave at more or less the same time every day, and I have the ability to telecommute as needed.

Q. RTI recently launched a new website. What are some of the major changes, and how did they come about?

A. The redesigned RTI website is much more streamlined than what we had before. Our goal was to make it easier for potential clients and partners (such as government agencies, foundations, and universities) to understand what RTI does and reach experts who can help solve their problems.

We overhauled the site architecture and changed the emphasis of the writing, replacing dozens of pages of descriptive but dry text with stories about the impact of our various projects around the world. We also worked with outside designers and developers to make the site modern and mobile-responsive.

We have also added a section aimed at members of the media. Our Emerging Issues pages will help inform journalists that RTI is a leader in research on some important, quickly developing topics. Right now, that includes Zika virus, marijuana, electronic cigarettes, drones, and noncommunicable diseases (i.e. cancer, diabetes, etc.) in low- and middle-income countries

Q. You previously worked for news organizations such as TBO.com. What skills from that part of your career do you use at RTI, and what new skills have you had to learn?

A. The slower pace described above is the biggest difference, and it ripples through many aspects of my work. TBO (which is sadly dormant right now after the purchase and closure of its partner, the Tampa Tribune) was, during my seven years there, one of the nation’s pioneering converged newsrooms. You simply don’t get that atmosphere of constant change and urgency in many other places. I’ve often called it “the emergency room of news.”

In my office at RTI, you might say we are running a wellness clinic. There is much more time for strategic decision-making — which is something I felt was sorely needed at my old job.

The writing process is different as well. People are more inclined to deliberate over every word. That’s true within our office and also when dealing with the distinguished academics who conduct the scientific work that RTI is known for.

Diplomacy is an important skill here. I think most journalists assume that a PR role, at least in the absence of a true crisis, is pretty cushy — that everyone you work with will appreciate that you are on their side. In reality, even though we are working to support the public image of the entire institute, everyone doesn’t share the same opinions on what that looks like.

RTI is so diverse that we must customize our web content to each constituency, while being fair to all. Plus, our requests are far from the most pressing thing these researchers deal with each day. Working in marketing communications doesn’t make you immune from the problem of unreturned phone calls.

Q. What advice do you have for journalism students seeking to work at places like RTI?

A. My top piece of advice is the same as ever. Get some life experience. Pursue what you like to do both professionally and personally. Learn a little about a lot of different subjects.

Working at RTI is probably comparable to working for a university. RTI appreciates curiosity and interest in diverse fields in health, science and social science. The words “improving the human condition” figure prominently in our mission statement. This is a great place to work if you like feeling that you are contributing to a larger cause.

What I’m doing this summer

It’s summer, at least according to UNC-Chapel Hill’s academic calendar. As I’ve noted in the past, summer for faculty members is not synonymous with a vacation. Here’s what I have planned:

  • Teach JOMC 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.
  • Grade comprehensive exams for an online master’s program.
  • Teach writing for social media as part of a week-long jazz workshop.
  • Research and write a proposal for a course on freelance editing, with a focus on nonfiction.
  • Contribute to a top-to-bottom review of the curriculum in the journalism school, with an eye toward major revisions.
  • Read the new edition of “The Subversive Copy Editor,” which I use as a textbook in my Advanced Editing course. (This is my beach book.)
  • Review and update course materials for the fall semester, which will begin in mid-August.

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

A challenging word

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This front-page headline in the Sunday edition of The News & Observer surprised me for a couple of reasons:

  • The newspaper had landed an interview with Jan Boxill, one of the people connected to the scandal involving bogus classes at UNC-Chapel Hill.
  • The headline used the word “refuted,” which indicated to me that Boxill had argued successfully against the many accusations (such as these from the NCAA) against her.

Our friends at Merriam-Webster list two definitions for the word:

  • to prove wrong by argument or evidence
  • to deny the truth or accuracy of

The use of “refute” in the Boxill headline matches the second definition well enough. But it’s unclear in the story whether she has proven the accusations to be false. That conclusion lies in the mind of the reader.

The Associated Press Stylebook advises against this use of “refute” because it “almost always implies editorial judgment.” With that in mind, I would suggest other verbs for the Boxill headline: challenge, dispute or deny. Each of those would reflect the tone and content of the story without overselling it.

I’m open to rebuttals.

Q&A with N&O reporter Mandy Locke on the Deadly Force series

Mandy Locke is an investigative reporter at The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her recent series, Deadly Force, examines violent incidents surrounding the sheriff’s office in Harnett County, including the death of an inmate who was shot with a Taser. In this interview, conducted by email, Locke discusses how the multimedia series came together and how the N&O published it in print and online.

Q. How did the Deadly Force series come about? What were some of the obstacles you faced in your reporting?

A. I wish I could claim some sort of brilliance, but the initial tip to this story came because of a relationship. I had a long-ago source, an eccentric lawyer whom I met as a cub reporter in 2004. He would now and again leave me ranting, raving voicemails late at night over the years.

He left one of those in December. John Livingston, he said, shouldn’t have died. A deputy who was at the wrong house with no permission to enter had killed Livingston.

Naturally, this sounded important. But, it was one of about eight important stories on my list in the new year when I met with my investigative teammates and our editor. How or why I bit this off first may have been simply random; it may have been fate.

Within hours of my visit to Harnett County, to the place where John Livingston died, I was convinced this was something. I didn’t know how big and wide and tough this “something” would be to report, but my gut said, “Whoa, stop. Listen. Think.”

Obstacles? So many. Where to start? Simple sentences:

  • Officials here rarely dealt with reporters.
  • I had few established sources.
  • I was an “outsider.”
  • My subjects had become distrustful; they were beleaguered.

Q. The series was available each day in the print newspaper or all at once on the website. It also has a video trailer and a podcast. Why did the N&O decide to present this story this way?

A. In the last several years, The N&O and our parent company, McClatchy, have learned much about storytelling and how best to harness our platforms. Our digital audience had different engagement patterns than our print audience. Our audience increasingly engages better through video and infographics.

We launched the first part of the series online on a Friday, when our online audience is high; same story ran in print Sunday, when our print audience is high. It takes a mind shift.

I learned this year that there is no shortcut to reporting. You must dig and push and press. However, there are so many ways to tell a story.

Though I love to write, I had to check that sensibility at the door. What is the best way to tell this story? Video? Podcast? How do I help people relate and respond to this work? We do not have the luxury of expecting people to digest our work in traditional formats because they must.

Q. How did editing, fact checking and headline writing work for the series?

A. We are rigid at the N&O. For good cause.

For each and every word and fact, I must present the document or the audio interview or transcript to my editor, Steve Riley. It takes about a day for me to prepare one story for this test. It takes another day to go through it with Steve.

We do not employ fact checkers, and even if we did, there is no shortcut to shoring up a significant story for public scrutiny.

Headline writing is by committee. A team evaluates and challenges, and eventually, we settle on something that works.

Q. Investigative reporting is expensive and time-consuming. What do you see as its future as newspapers continue to face reductions in budgets and staffing?

A. This is the most pressing question in journalism in my estimation.

I give credit to John Drescher and other top leaders of the N&O for preserving and expanding our investigative efforts in the age of falling revenues and layoffs.

As a breed, investigative journalists are expensive. Our work is risky, time-consuming and often does not endear us to those who keep this business afloat through advertising revenues.

Investigative journalism exists because people like John Drescher refuse to relinquish it, despite the expense. It exists because readers tell us over and over that his is what they want and expect from our news organization. We do this because it is our duty.

Read the Deadly Force series and follow Mandy Locke on Twitter.

Student guest post: Self-editing with our auto-correcting brains

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 14th of those posts. Kristin Tajlili is a senior who is majoring in editing and graphic design with a minor in creative writing. She has contributed to many on-campus publications including Should Does, The Daily Tar Heel and Blue and White. She gets excited over the most mundane of coincidences.

Why is self-editing hard? Blame our brains – the original auto-correctors.

Whenever I hit submit on a blog post that I have worked tirelessly on, I dread that it will be mangled with dropped words, wrong uses of there/their/they’re and sentences that don’t make sense.

It’s embarrassing, especially when people ask me: “If you want to be a writer, why don’t you know the proper use of there?”

Like many people, I can easily catch errors in other people’s work, but when it comes to correcting my own errors, I am useless.

The inability to self-edit can be attributed to our brain — the original auto-corrector, according to blogger Yuka Igarashi. Because our brains are very good at altering sensory information to be “correct” very quickly and unconsciously, it is difficult to catch our own mistakes.

In her blog, Igarashi uses this sentence to illustrate how humans perceive text:

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Did you see the word “the” twice? Even though I knew there was an error, I had to look at the sentence five times before I spotted it. My brain automatically removed the second the.

This ability of our brain can be helpful in situations where we have to think quickly, but it also makes naturally poor copy editors. For example, after proofreading my resume — which I had worked on for several hours before — I read the mistake “second-more viewed article” as “second-most viewed article.” Because I knew the message beforehand, my brain corrected it. A couple weeks later, after using this resume for a few job applications, I caught the mistake.

In order to become stronger editors, we must acknowledge our brains, like spell-check and many of the new grammar checkers flooding the market, are not reliable. Once we acknowledge that our brains are no good, we can look to other techniques to meet our copy editing needs.

In a handout about editing and proofreading, the UNC Writing Center lists several solid techniques, such as reading the paper out loud, slowly. I found this to be good advice, but when reading a paper longer than a couple pages, my vocal chords — and eyes — get tired. Also this isn’t helpful when it’s 5:30 in the morning and I don’t want my roommate to wake up to a lecture about the Roman Empire.

Instead of reading my own papers out loud, I usually find a free text-to-speech translator such as Mike. Unlike me, Mike sees the text for what it is instead of what it is meant to be. But for those who find Mike creepy, the UNC Writing Center allows students to download Read&Write Gold, a text-to-speech translator which offers more flexibility than those offered for free online. Just stop by SASB and ask for a copy.

When I’m not in the mood to hang out with Mike, I like to play with formatting on my word processor. I change the font type and size so that the text looks different than my original draft. In doing so, the errors have less room to hide.

That being said, it took me years to find effective methods for self-editing. What may work for me may not work for other people. There are dozens of tools and techniques to circumvent our auto-correcting brains. Finding what works may be the difference between landing an interview or staring at an empty inbox.

Q&A with Brooke Pryor, sports reporter at North State Journal

Brooke Pryor is a sportswriter at North State Journal, a new newspaper covering the state of North Carolina. A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, Pryor previously worked at The Herald-Sun in Durham. In this interview, conducted by email, Pryor discusses her job, describes how editing and headline writing work at the NSJ, and offers advice to college students looking to go into sports journalism.

Q. Describe your job at North State Journal. What is your typical workweek like?

A. The best/worst thing about working for a newspaper, and a startup newspaper no less, is that there’s no pattern to my workweek. Most of the time I love variety in my job, but it can also be a little draining to be on call all the time.

My schedule at least starts the same every week when I send in a story budget to my editor Monday morning. He’ll usually shoot back an email green-lighting the good stuff and tells me to scrap anything else.

Then I get to work reporting on all the different stories. As I write this, I’m sitting in the Durham Bulls Athletic Park procrastinating on a story about Rays top prospect Blake Snell. I just finished talking to him, so I want to transcribe the interview and then start writing or at least formulate a lede and an angle.

Right now, the NSJ is a weekly paper, and our hard deadline to submit the pages to the printer is Friday at 6 p.m. Recently, I’ve been flooding the copy editors with stories Friday morning, but I can pretty much file throughout the week up until about noon on Friday.

During the weekends, at least in the spring, I’m usually at baseball games or other events, gathering more material for feature stories. With the weekly print schedule, I have to focus on the long game and spend most of my time working on long-term evergreen stories and personality profiles.

Q. How does editing and headline writing work at the NSJ?

A. Great question — and one that I didn’t know until I went to the office last week. Like pretty much any newspaper, the process to produce a (mostly) error-free paper is a long one.

When I finish a story, I send it to my sports editor, who copy-fits it for print and edits for content, length, accuracy, etc. Then, it gets placed on a page, and when the rest of the stories for the page are placed and copy-fit by our wonderful designer Cece Pascual (UNC and Daily Tar Heel alum, woo!), they are printed out and passed out among the staff gathered in the office.

We circulate the pages for three reads before the section editor goes back to Cece and shows her all of the necessary changes. Then the page is printed out one more time and goes through three more reads before the final edits are made and the page is sent to the printer.

Headline writing is a group effort and usually involves a bunch of people yelling ideas at a computer screen. It’s just as chaotic and riveting as it sounds.

Q. You previously worked at the Herald-Sun. What has it been like to move from an established publication like that to a startup?

A. A lot of my day-to-day work stuff has been the same, but I do get a lot of questions about what the NSJ is or who’s paying for it. Spoiler, in case you thought I would have an answer to the latter: I have no idea. There’s a bunch of rumors floating around, but I don’t pay attention to them because I’m grateful for the opportunity and I love working in such a creative environment.

Because we’re not established, we run into some administrative or copy flow issues that are second-nature at established papers. So we’re in the phase of figuring out the details that make newspapers work, like how to submit photo requests, who should what and when, etc.

One thing I’m interested to see is how much access I’ll get to different events when the college football season starts up. When I was working for an established newspaper, I got plenty of access and interviews and was never denied a credential. But that could change now that I’m working for a brand new paper. Luckily, since I’ve been around UNC/Triangle sports since my freshman year at UNC, I’ve made a lot of connections, and I hope that those will keep me in the loop around here.

Q. Many journalism students have an interest in sports. What advice do you have for those seeking a career in sports journalism?

A. I think the biggest and most helpful thing I’ve learned as a writer is to not be afraid to try something new.

If you’ve only ever watched and written about football and basketball, try covering women’s lacrosse or field hockey. Sports journalism is more than just covering the revenue stuff, and you’ll find that there are plenty, if not more, interesting storylines in the less mainstream stuff. You might not understand what’s going on, but challenge yourself to find a story in an unfamiliar environment. It’ll make you a stronger reporter and adding a variety of sports to your background will come in handy when you’re looking for jobs.

You’ll probably have to cover a lot of random stuff in your career and the more experience you have going into unfamiliar territory, the better. Talk to everyone you can at those events and look for the human angle. People love reading about other people, so even if you don’t understand all the logistics of the game or event you’ve just covered, you can find an interesting story just by asking questions and tapping into human emotion.

Follow Brooke Pryor on Twitter and read some of her stories on her website.

UPDATE: In August 2016, Pryor announced that she had accepted a job covering college football for The Oklahoman.