Q&A with Will Doran, reporter and beer columnist for The News & Observer

The tap room at Aviator Brewing Company in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina.
The tap room at Aviator Brewing Company in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina. Its Devil’s Tramping Ground ale is among Will Doran’s recommendations. (Creative Commons image)

Will Doran is a reporter at The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. In addition to covering town governments in Wake County, he is also the newspaper’s beer columnist. In this interview, conducted by email, Doran discusses his roles at the N&O and his prior journalism experience.

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

I cover three towns in western Wake County: Apex, Morrisville and Fuquay-Varina. They each have very different personalities, but growth and traffic are the main concerns for residents in all three, since the area is exploding in size. I’m in charge of reporting on the town council meetings, writing some enterprise stories about the area, and also finding cool people or businesses to write features about.

I usually come into the office around 10 or 11 a.m. and stay until 7 or 8 p.m. I’ll generally spend a day doing tons of interviews but very little writing, followed by a day in which I just type away at my stories, and on and on.

Q. In addition to your reporting duties, you are also now the N&O’s beer columnist. How do you see yourself in that role?

A. How do I see myself as the beer columnist? With blurred vision.

No, on a serious note, beer is important to me and the paper for one reason: People like to drink it, talk about, Instagram it, and all that, and what good is a newspaper that isn’t serving its audience?

The Triangle has a very vibrant craft brewing scene, and it’s incredibly exciting for me to have the chance to dive into that scene. I get to go to bars and bottle shops and meet the people behind craft breweries, who are almost always fascinating. It’s a great gig.

Q. Before coming to Raleigh, you worked at another North Carolina publication, The Sanford Herald. How did the experience there lead to your current job? What did you learn?

A. The Sanford Herald was a great experience for me, both as a North Carolinian and a reporter. I grew up in Florida and then went to school in Chapel Hill, which is definitely in its own little bubble.

Then a week after graduation, I was just 45 minutes away in Sanford, but it was like a whole other world. It straddles the urban-rural divide that defines so much of North Carolina’s people and politics, and it taught me a lot about the kinds of places, people and problems I never thought much about as a college kid.

In any given week I’d be reporting on both a drive-by gang shooting and the newest program at the local agricultural extension. As a writer, it was exciting because it was so varied. It was also stressful because there were only two reporters putting together a daily paper (with the help of a few excellent editors, too). It meant I got to cover basically anything I wanted, and it was like a journalism bootcamp in terms of learning to write quickly and report efficiently.

I’d like to think the writing skills I learned there help a lot in my current job, which is also slower paced. And the opportunity to write about anything meant I had some pretty decent clips to include with my resume.

Q. You graduated from the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2012. What skills from your college years do you use at work now? What new ones have you picked up since then?

A. lot of the intro-level classes cover basic skills because, well, they’re the foundation of everything else. The introductory reporting class helped get me out of my shell with cold-calling people and selling myself as someone that a potential subject would want to talk to.

And I don’t need to tell you this, but with so many cuts to copy editors now, reporters have to be very careful because there’s often not as many double- and triple-checking as before. So developing a careful eye turned out to be very important.

I wish I had taken more classes on photography and computer-based reporting. I take photos for probably half the stories I write and wish I had some formal training. That’s one skill I’ve definitely picked up on the job. And with so many opportunities now to comb databases or make interactive maps and things like that, I wish I knew a little bit more how to create and attractively present that kind of reporting. Those are skills I still want to pick up, through MOOCs or blogs or anything else.

Q. Back to the beer. What are some of your recommendations, particularly from North Carolina breweries?

A. If you like high-volume beers, Devil’s Tramping Ground from Aviator in Fuquay-Varina is an excellent ale. For dark beer, try the Thrilla in Vanilla Porter from Double Barley Brewing in Smithfield.

Both have great names (always a plus) and with the Thrilla in Vanilla, if you’re feeling crazy, throw in a scoop of vanilla ice cream and make yourself a beer float. I don’t know if the brewers recommend it, but I do!

As for less intense beers, I mentioned in my inaugural beer column that Top of the Hill’s Blue Ridge Blueberry Wheat is a classic. I’m also a big fan of the Scottish ale from Raleigh Brewing Company, which they call Blatherskite and I call best served in a pitcher with friends.

Community journalism from Durham to Ocracoke

Seven years ago, my colleague Jock Lauterer helped create the Durham VOICE, a print and digital publication serving the northeast-central section of the city. It was his way of responding to the awful death of a student body president at UNC-Chapel Hill at the hands of two young men from Durham.

The idea, as described in The News & Observer, went like this:

Lauterer had been a small-town newspaper editor. He knew how to do community journalism. He could do community journalism in Durham or anyplace else.

And if he could put cameras, pens and notebooks in the hands of urban teenagers, maybe those kids would feel they were a part of something good, that they had a stake in their community.

And the VOICE was born. Since then, Lauterer has collaborated with colleagues and students at N.C. Central University to help at-risk teenagers in Durham learn the tools of journalism.

This summer, Lauterer plans to take the VOICE concept to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Working with Partners for Youth Opportunity, he is organizing a trip that will take five Durham teenagers to the village of Ocracoke in early August.

For three days, the teens will write news stories and take photographs for the Ocracoke Observer, and they will visit radio station WOVV. In addition to learning skills in journalism, they’ll experience a part of North Carolina that is a world away from Durham.

Lauterer estimates that total cost of the trip will be about $3,000. So far, he’s raised about $1,900. I’ve contributed to the cause, and I hope you will too.

To do so, write a check to JOMC Foundation with “Durham VOICE” in the “for” line. Send it to:

Jock Lauterer, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, CB #3365, Chapel Hill, NC 27599

Whatever you can give will make a difference. Thank you for your support.

For more about the VOICE’s origins and mission, watch this short video from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.

My favorite lists from “The Book of Lists”

David Leonhardt, editor of the The Upshot at The New York Times, recently wrote a defense of lists. Here is the post’s upshot:

As easy as it may be to mock listicles, they’re really no different from traditional articles, quotations, photographs, charts or statistics. They’re an extremely useful tool of expression that can be used well or used poorly.

Leonhardt cites the Ten Commandments, the Bill of Rights and Martin Luther’s 95 Theses as examples of effective lists. As an advocate of alternative story forms, I agree. And I’d add one more: “The Book of Lists.”

BookOfListsI encountered the book in the late 1970s when it was being passed around my elementary school. Its popularity there may have been connected to its chapter on sex. I was certainly intrigued to read about that subject, but I consumed the entire book. The list format allowed me to learn a great deal about a host of topics: history, sports, nature, language, etc.

After reading Leonhardt’s post, I decided to revisit “The Book of Lists.” (Yes, I still have a copy.) Although it was published in 1977, the book holds up pretty well. It has its shortcomings, of course. “8 Important Libel Cases” doesn’t include Times v. Sullivan. “Plan 9 From Outer Space” isn’t listed among “The 10 Worst Films of All Time.”

But the bulk of the book has aged well, and I enjoyed my reunion with it. “The Book of Lists” is still a fun and informative read, and it cleverly concludes with “The Lord Thy God’s 10 Commandments.”

So here are my “6 Lists From ‘The Book of Lists’ From 1977 That Caught My Eye In 2015.” Each of these would work well in this era of digital media:

  • 8 Cases Of Spontaneous Combustion
  • 7 Remarkable Messages In A Bottle
  • Norris McWhirter’s 12 Best Reference Books In The World
  • 8 Remarkable Escapes From Devil’s Island
  • Dr. Demento’s 10 Worst Song Titles of All Time
  • 15 Semordnilap Palindromes

Student guest post: How tone can make or break an email newsletter

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the 14th (and last) of those posts. Martha Upton is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in journalism and history. She is from Wake Forest and has called North Carolina home her whole life. Martha hopes to land a job editing and designing in the magazine industry next year and vows to return to Florence, Italy, in the near future where she spent a summer abroad.

After spending years feeling obligated yet reluctant to try to make it through more than one whole story in a print newspaper, I have been delighted recently by the email I find in my inbox promptly every weekday morning from a daily newsletter called theSkimm.

Without warning, news roundups and daily or weekly newsletters have become instilled in the rhetoric of the journalism world. You can even get your New York Times delivered as an email right to your inbox every morning. Lately it has become all about readability. How fast can I read this information and get the gist without having to take too much time out of my busy life? They don’t call it theSkimm for nothing.

With all the debriefing, I have to wonder if some of the value gets lost in translation. TheSkimm prides itself on its witty, and some might say sassy, approach to current events. There are pop culture references thrown in, which I especially enjoy, but is it OK to use the same style of writing when it comes to stabilizing Yemen’s government?

As an editor, I have become well versed in the concept of alternative story forms. I see the merit of using numbers to tell a story or making lists, either ordered or not. I was particularly enthused after finding a link to a guide theSkimm had put together differentiating the various terror groups that have been in headlines recently, something most people would be eager to learn. I quickly forwarded the guide to my mother before reading it myself because I knew she would be interested.

What I wasn’t sure of was whether my mom would understand what it meant for ISIS to be the P. Diddy of terror groups. Was my mom expected to search P. Diddy on the Internet to find out what meaning she should gather from that? (I Googled P. Diddy for you if you’re curious.)

As an editor, I understand that many publications, and now newsletters, have prided themselves on keeping a certain tone consistent throughout. However, I think editors should consider whether they want to limit their audience by making references only 20-somethings would understand.

Alternative story forms should be clear and concise, presenting the information in a way the reader can understand quickly. Not only is the topic of terror groups not exactly something that should be made light of, but also some readers may be turned away by the flippant tone used in addressing the topic.

My suggestion to fellow editors is if they want their newsletter to be the P. Diddy of newsletters (see link above), then consideration should be given to how tone can apply to different topics. In theSkimm’s case, it might have been more appropriate to take on their usual snarky attitude in the quick hit about ISIS’ latest terror, but be more straightforward in the guide. When effective communication is the goal, all the reader should have to do is skim.

How Scientology tries to silence journalists

Scientology’s headquarters in Los Angeles. (Creative Commons image)

I recently watched “Going Clear,” an HBO documentary about the Church of Scientology. It’s a hard-hitting look at the organization, told largely through the testimony of former high-ranking members.

Much of “Going Clear” is familiar to me because I had an encounter with Scientology in the late 1990s. At that time, I lived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where my then-wife had taken a teaching job at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. After a year as an adjunct instructor, I too was hired as a tenure-track professor.

One evening, we received a phone call from my sister-in-law. She had recently graduated from college and moved to the Pacific Northwest. She told us that she had a new boyfriend who had introduced her to Scientology. They were both taking classes and working for the organization, and she said how much she was getting out of it.

But there was a problem, she said: Her sister and I were journalists. This fact apparently emerged during an “auditing” session in which Scientologists are interviewed about their personal lives. For her to advance in the organization, my sister-in-law would need a letter from us promising that we would never report or write about Scientology.

We declined to provide such a letter even though we had no intention of writing about Scientology. In fact, we were grateful that Scientology’s paranoia had provided us with leverage to help get our relative out of an organization that we viewed, in the words of Time magazine, as a “ruthless global scam.”

That exit happened suddenly a couple of years later, after we had left Louisiana for North Carolina. After not hearing from my sister-in-law for some time, she called out of the blue and told us she was planning to leave her boyfriend and Scientology as soon as possible. She was frightened. Could she stay with us, where the organization couldn’t find her? We said yes.

When my sister-in-law arrived in North Carolina, she told us about the organization’s dark side. For example, her boyfriend once dragged a former member off the street and into a car to take him back to a Scientology center. She worried that they might come for her too. Thankfully, Scientology never tracked her down, though they did call her parents asking about her whereabouts.

The entire experience showed me that Scientology is scared of scrutiny. As “Going Clear” shows, the organization’s public-relations strategy is to attack not only its critics, but also neutral observers who examine its practices.

The central role of the news media is to act as a check on government and powerful institutions. That includes organizations such as Scientology. Let’s hope that the Tampa Bay Times, HBO and other media continue to shine a light on its operations.

Student guest post: Editors should be wary of clickbait headlines

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the 13th of those posts. Katie Schanze is a first-year master’s student studying journalism. She hopes to survive another year of grad school and go on to work for a travel or lifestyle magazine. Her passions are traveling, eating and promising herself that she will go to the gym tomorrow.

If you ask a room full college students where they get their news each day, you are guaranteed to hear two things: Facebook and Twitter. There are bound to be outliers, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that 20-somethings don’t ever pick up a newspaper. But now more than ever before, news is social.

Facebook and Twitter have essentially replaced Google searches for news and browsing news sites for content. This means that readers don’t go out looking for news — they let it come to them.

This is an important change for editors and writers. If people are waiting for a story to pop up on their feed that is worth reading, headlines have the utmost importance in attracting readers. This leads to less of the summary headlines that ruled newspapers for decades and instead more teaser headlines that provide just enough information that the reader wants to know more.

Headlines that are written to be seen and shared on social media often target the curiosity of the reader, and they don’t have long to grab readers’ ever-wandering attention. While straying away from traditional news headlines may entice people to read more articles they might not have read otherwise, this change in news consumption also leads to clickbait.

Scroll down your Facebook newsfeed and you’re bound to see several examples:

Contrary to belief, all of the content in these articles is within the realm of imagination, and none of it is shocking. Yet these articles have been liked on Facebook millions of times.

These “articles,” to use the term lightly, have one thing in common. They have highly shareable, clickable headlines that target reader curiosity through shock tactics.

According to Vox, clickbait is a misleading headline that under-delivers. Clickbait risks readers feeling that they have been duped into clicking on an article. It works by providing little to no information about the content of the article, and instead using shocking, exciting phrases that challenge a reader to find out more.

Those who are in favor of clickbait often argue that if exciting headlines get people to click the link and read something they normally wouldn’t, than so be it. It’s true: Just because a headline sounds interesting enough to click on doesn’t make it’s clickbait. A flashy headline can accurately reflect the content of the article, but at what point does it put the values of good journalism at risk?

Deadspin wrote this headline for a story about the expected deaths of migrant workers in Qatar: “Report: Qatar’s World Cup Expected To Take More Lives Than 9/11”

People clicked the headline to read more, but that doesn’t mean substance isn’t lost. The content in the article does reflect the headline: Around 3,000 people died in 9/11, and over 4,000 are expected to die in Qatar. However, the connection of Qatar to an unrelated terrorist event is misleading, even if the actual comparison is accurate. Readers took notice, and they felt tricked.

It’s easier than ever to attract millions of shares and clicks with a headline, but there is a line that divides the accurate and truthful from the misleading. Journalists should be cautious that the hype for what’s to come doesn’t surpass the article’s actual level of interest.

Editors should be careful about online headlines. To prevent “bad” clickbait, we shouldn’t tell readers what they’re going to feel when they read an article. As journalists, it isn’t our job to tell readers that they’ll be shocked by our story or that they won’t believe it.

Keywords are important but should fully reflect the article in a way that isn’t misleading. A headline can be clickable and shareable without being over the top, and that leads to more value overall.

Who’s that? That’s who

Earlier this week, this tweet from The New York Times generated a discussion about style and grammar:

Here is the question from Kelly Flincham, who teaches journalism at Hofstra University: Shouldn’t it be “a teen who vapes”? Isn’t there a rule that says use “who” for people and “that” for objects?

Patrick LaForge, an editor at the Times, responded with this link from Grammar Girl’s website, suggesting that the two words are interchangeable, at least grammatically. LaForge said later that the NYT stylebook prefers “who” in those situations, although such guidelines are more loose on Twitter.

As the Grammar Girl post discusses, stylebooks differ on “who” vs. “that.” Several recommend “who” when talking about people and, on occasion, animals.

I’ve had my own experience with this question. When I was wire editor at The News & Observer in the early 2000s, I met with a group of readers concerned about coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In their view, the Raleigh newspaper’s news judgment, story placement, headlines and word choice were biased against the Palestinians and in favor of the Israeli government.

One of the readers said that we had published “Palestinians that …” constructions on occasion. She said that using “that” instead of “who” was a way to indicate that Palestinians are not people. I did my best to assure the reader that there was no such intention and that I believed that Palestinians and Israelis are humans who deserve fair treatment in the news media.

Since that conversation in the N&O newsroom years ago, I have held fast to this distinction between “who” and “that” on stylistic grounds. So if you say you want to talk to a teen that vapes, I won’t question your grammar. It’s correct. But to be on the safe side, I’d make it “who.”