Q&A with Laurie Beth Harris of the American Press Institute

Laurie Beth Harris is editorial coordinator at the American Press Institute in Arlington, Virginia. Among her duties there is to write and edit the Need To Know email newsletter. In this interview, conducted by email, Harris discusses her role at API and how she puts together the newsletter.

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

A. As editorial coordinator, my job is to manage the editorial direction of API and our website. The biggest part of my job is curating and writing API’s morning newsletter Need to Know, so I’m also always staying up to date on what’s going on in the media industry. Working on Need to Know, it sometimes it feels like I get paid to read the Internet, which is the dream job for a lot of people.

The production of Need to Know frames the schedule of my workdays. I start my day by working from home to write Need to Know and send it out to subscribers, and I come into the office later in the morning. I spend the afternoon at the office keeping tabs on what people are talking about on Twitter and what stories are being published.

In between that, I’m working on the other projects, such as writing and editing posts for our Good Questions series, social media outreach and supporting the research API does, such as our fact-checking journalism project and in-depth reports.

Q. How do you go about putting together Need to Know?

A. I read a lot. We have some great RSS feeds of media blogs and news sources, as well a Twitter list of people in media and journalism. My go-to sources include Nieman Lab’s What We’re Reading feed and Mediagazer, which aggregates the day’s trending news stories.

I read a lot more articles than what ends up in NTK each day, and a big value of the newsletter is that we do the work for you and tell you what’s of importance so that you can get back to doing your job, hopefully armed with information that helps you do it better. Some of my favorite newsletters have been days where big, breaking news happened, such as the release of Columbia Journalism School’s review of the Rolling Stone article or Vox Media’s acquisition of Re/code, and I sorted through the noise to make sense of what was going on for our readers.

While I’m in the office during the day, I’m reading Twitter and scanning our RSS feeds in between meetings and other projects to get a feel for what news is happening and what people are talking about. I collect links by dropping them into a Google doc, sometimes with notes about the most interesting part of the story or something related that we’ve written about before.

In the evenings, I take a few minutes to sift through what I’ve collected, read through anything I didn’t get to and make a rough outline for what will go where in the newsletter. Need to Know is organized by each story’s utility to the reader, rather than by topic, which is a big part of what makes Need to Know unique and more useful to readers.

I wake up around 5:30 a.m. and immediately start writing that morning’s newsletter from home. I start my mornings by catching up on what news happened overnight that might need to go in the newsletter and revising my outline of the newsletter with those links. By 6:30 a.m., I’m writing the headlines and blurbs for the main stories in each section, working my way back around to the supplementary links in each section and finishing with writing Off the Top, our take on the big story of the day. Around 7:45 a.m., we’ve started editing the final version of the newsletter, and Need to Know shows up in subscribers’ inboxes by 8:30 a.m.

Q. Before coming to API, you were a copy editor at Southern Living magazine. How was that job similar to the one you have now, and what are some differences?

A. My job at API and at Southern Living are radically different in a lot of ways.

At Southern Living, I was “in the trenches” of the day-to-day production of a monthly magazine. At API, I’m more of an onlooker to the industry, recognizing what’s being done well in journalism and identifying ways we can do better. In some ways, working at API feels like being back in journalism school, because we have the time to think about new ways to do journalism better and watch what other people are doing in a way that can be hard to do when you’re caught up in production cycles.

The biggest similarity between my job at API and being a copy editor at Southern Living is that I’m still utilizing my editing skills, but I’m now using them to edit my own writing, not just someone else’s.

Q. You are a 2014 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What skills that you learned there are you using today, and what are some new ones you have picked up since graduation?

A. Like I said, working at API is a lot like being back in journalism school — we’re thinking about the lot of the same ideas my journalism classes were talking about when I was in school.

I’m most thankful for classes where we discussed the state of news industry and what we could do better, because those classes were what really prepared me for my job now, as well as giving me a lens through which to think about what a traditional news organization like Southern Living could do better. I’m also thankful for News Writing every morning as I write the newsletter — it taught me to write concisely, cleanly and pretty fast!

As far what I’ve learned since graduation, networking is so important. As a new graduate, I felt like the media industry was huge, but it’s really not. Everyone knows each other. Maintaining those relationships with your professors, internship supervisors and classmates can lead to great opportunities.

Follow Laurie Beth Harris on Twitter, and subscribe to the Need To Know newsletter.

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Q&A with Katie Quine, reporter and digital assistant at Our State magazine

Katie Quine is a writer and digital assistant at Our State magazine, which covers North Carolina’s culture and history. In this interview, Quine discusses how she generates story ideas and researches them, and how the magazine balances its print and digital presence. 

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

A. What I love about working as a digital assistant and writer at Our State is that no two days are alike. I travel around the state several times a month to report on various assignments.

In May alone, I interviewed North Carolina’s longest married couple, wrote a piece about urban beekeeping in Durham and started working on a story about a community mailbox at Sunset Beach. It’s been such a privilege to learn about all of the incredible people and places in our state.

When I am in the office, I spend some of my morning planning and monitoring our social media content. I also dedicate a sizable portion of my day to editing articles from our contributing bloggers and working on stories of my own. Another big part of what I do is restructuring content that appears in the pages of our magazine so that it is Web- and SEO-friendly.

Since our digital department is relatively new and has just four staff members, my job’s range of duties requires a pretty diverse skill set. It’s great because I feel like I’m learning something new every day, and I love the challenge that comes along with writing content that ranges from 140 characters to 1,200 words.

Q. You’ve written a series of posts under the label of The Curious Carolinian, looking at the quirks of North Carolina’s culture, history and geography. How do you come up with ideas for these posts, and how do you research, write and edit them?

A. The Curious Carolinian has been such a fun pet project. Every post starts with a question about our state that isn’t easily answered, such as “Why is North Carolina called The Tar Heel State?” or “Why are there two styles of NC barbecue?

When we come up with ideas for these posts, we’re thinking of content from a search-volume standpoint. For some ideas, I’ve simply typed “Why is North Carolina…” into Google to look at what the suggested searches are.

Once I’ve thought of the question I’d like to answer, I research the topic as thoroughly as I can, reading reference books, digging up old newspaper articles and reaching out to experts on the subject matter. At Our State, it’s our goal to be the definitive experts on anything pertaining to North Carolina culture, so I try to differentiate our content from that of other websites by writing the most comprehensive article I can.

There’s research out there to suggest that humans’ attention spans are getting shorter, but the feedback we’ve received about The Curious Carolinian series has taught me that people still love a good, long backstory if you make a point to have fun while telling it. Readers are only as engaged as the content is engaging.

Q. How is Our State different online than in print? How much collaboration is there between the two aspects of the magazine?

A. The editorial and digital departments are constantly collaborating with each other. As the editorial department plans its story calendar for the coming months, the digital department works to create content that complements what appears in the magazine.

What might work well in one medium might not perform the same way in another, so we make a point to think about how content can be repackaged in different ways. For instance, if the magazine features a personal narrative in which an author explores his or her love for a particular North Carolina town, the digital department might come up with a supplemental day-trip itinerary for those who wish to visit the area. When it comes to collaboration between online and print, making use of alternative story formats is crucial.

Q. It sounds like you have a good gig. What advice do you have for journalism students who are looking for jobs like yours?

A. I think I have a pretty good gig, too! Thanks.

I suggest that students should always look to tell stories in unexpected ways. What resonates deepest with your audience can surprise you, especially on the Web.

For instance, as a journalist, I consider myself to be a writer first and foremost, but what actually helped land me an interview with Our State was a video I produced, which featured one-second clips from every day of my senior year at UNC. The video started out as a little project that I hoped my friends would enjoy at the conclusion of our senior year. But not long after I posted it on YouTube, I got comments from alumni I’ve never met who told me it made them tear up 30 years after they graduated.

All that is to say, every skill you learn in the j-school is important, no matter how insignificant it seems at the time it’s taught to you. You never know when you’ll need it down the road.

Follow Katie Quine on Twitter, and read her articles on the Our State website.

The value of a Dow Jones editing internship

It’s Dow Jones News Fund season. Journalism students across the country are applying for this program, which offers summer internships in business reporting and copy editing. Here’s a look at some of the program’s alumni from UNC-Chapel Hill who had internships as copy editors.

Copy editor: Katie Schwing
Year of internship: 2005
Where she interned: New York Times News Service
Where she is now: Colorado Springs, Colo. “After three years as a copy editor on the night news desk at The Gazette (minus a two-month period during which I was laid off), I left to do editing and graphic design for an architecture/engineering/planning firm called HDR.”
How the Dow Jones internship helped her career: “It’s been invaluable. Having that on my resume made newspapers sit up and take notice when I was applying for jobs (both after college and when I was laid off), especially with such a large paper listed as my first internship. I constantly use the skills I picked up working the wire, having to trim Times-length stories to much shorter news bites — handy not only at a paper with a shrinking news hole but also in my new job, to help deal with wordy engineers’ writing. Dr. Ed Trayes was incredibly influential in my journalism education, even though he only taught me directly for two weeks. He really nailed into us the importance of both detail and big-picture editing (providing a broad education about the world in the process), as well as how to conduct ourselves professionally at what was, for most of us, our first time working in a ‘real’ newsroom. I also got to meet industry giants such as Merrill Perlman; without her workshops in our Dow Jones training and at the Times, I would have probably been intimidated to approach her one on one.”

Copy editor: Lindsay Naylor
Year of internship: 2008
Where she interned: Grand Forks Herald in Grand Forks, N.D.
Where she is now: Grand Forks Herald
How the Dow Jones internship helped her career: “The internship helped me get a lot of experience editing and designing pages at a newspaper. I was hired by my paper, and because I already had a couple of months of experience there under my belt, they were able to bump me up on the pay scale when I started full time. Before I took the job at the Herald, editors at other papers I applied at said specifically that one of the reasons they called me for an interview was that I had a Dow Jones internship on my resume. I’ve also kept in touch with a lot of the other interns I attended training camp with. We’ve contacted one another whenever our publication has been hiring, and a couple of the others have gotten jobs after another former intern has put in a good word for them.”

Copy editor: Pressley Baird
Year of internship: 2010
Where she interned: The New York Times
Where she is now: A senior at UNC-Chapel Hill and platform producer for the Reese Felts Digital News Project
How the Dow Jones internship helped her career: “Ask me this question again in a few months, and I can tell you if working for The New York Times actually helped me get a job. Right now, though, it’s made me a better journalist in several ways. I was able to read a wide variety of stories at my internship because I worked for the Metro desk. During a typical week, I’d handle a couple of stories about crime in the city, a political story about a new tax the mayor wanted to pass, an obituary of a well-known New Yorker and a few longer feature-style pieces for the Sunday Metropolitan section. Reading so many different — but all well-written — pieces improved my own writing. But the most beneficial part of working at the Times is that you’re working with the very best, all of whom are eager to help you. My coworkers took time to show me what I was doing wrong and tell me how to fix it. I got suggestions on where to apply after graduation, and I left the paper with a long list of people who were willing to serve as references. Connections like that are invaluable.”

From North Carolina to South America

In late 2001, when I was wire editor at The News & Observer, I proposed (or pitched, as we called it) a story about Argentina’s financial crisis for the front page. It was a hard sell, because I had to make the case for why it mattered to readers in North Carolina.

The story ended up at the bottom of the page, and then inside the newspaper from then on. Argentina’s problems, which included rioting and looting, faded from the North American media as the situation got better.

Nearly 10 years later, journalism students at UNC-Chapel Hill and Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina have collaborated on a multimedia website called What Now, Argentina. Using a variety of story forms and graphics, the site documents daily life in the the capital, Buenos Aires, and it explains the origins of the 2001 crisis. It does all of that in English and Spanish.

We’ve come a long way from a 25-paragraph wire story, photo and headline. I encourage you to take a look.

Q&A with Stephanie Yera, communications associate at the NYT

Stephanie Yera is a communications associate at The New York Times Company. Yera is a 2009 graduate of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. She previously worked as an intern and corporate communications assistant at Dow Jones and Company. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Yera talks about her job duties and journalism education.

Q. Describe your job. What does a communications associate do at The New York Times Company?

A. Every day begins by reading The Times in print and online to see what stories are on deck and which ones are “most viewed” and “most e-mailed” online. Pinning down our most popular news stories determines what newspaper content I’m going to actively pitch to TV and radio producers in an effort to secure interviews for our reporters to discuss their stories on air.

Even without pitching, we get numerous invitations daily from producers for our reporters to appear on their programs, so coordinating interviews is my primary responsibility.

It’s important to be familiar with the paper, its reporters and their beats, because if one reporter on a particular story is unavailable for interviews, I need to try to find another reporter to jump in. If I know The Times is working on an investigative piece or is preparing to break a big story, part of my job is to do advance outreach to producers to reserve air time for reporter interviews and make sure The Times gets credit for the news scoop.

My job also includes copy editing all external communications, writing company press releases and posting to the company’s Twitter feed. In the fall, I’ll be posting to Twitter live from TimesTalks events, part of an ongoing series of celebrity guests interviewed by Times reporters, which I’m especially excited about doing.

Q. You were a student in the news-editorial sequence at UNC-Chapel Hill. How did the skills you learned there help you in your job? What wasn’t taught that should have been?

A. Coming into The Times already knowing how a newsroom works and what kinds of stories make for high interest really helped me find my footing quickly. Because I’m speaking with producers and reporters constantly, I hear industry jargon all the time, and I’m able to keep up despite not having previously worked in a newsroom thanks to my time in the j-school.

The skills I learned in news editing helped me carve out a bigger role for myself in the office because I’m now trusted to copy edit and review corporate communications before they leave our department and to take such precautions as proofreading my Tweet before posting. Volunteering to edit internal communications is how I eventually got to do more writing.

I’m still not a master of the press release, but what helps me write one is the inverted pyramid, the concept I learned my first day in the j-school and which is now second nature when it comes to writing most corporate communications.

News reporting really pushed me outside of my comfort zone, but it was a necessary challenge that taught me a lot about taking initiative, networking and being confident in my writing. Networking isn’t something I’m naturally inclined to do, but putting myself out there as a journalist and getting interviews from sources gave me the nudge I needed to be more comfortable with it and, eventually, come to enjoy it.

I would like to see a j-school class devoted entirely to digital journalism that included lessons in basic HTML, Web design, blogging with video and audio, putting your resume online and attracting people to your Web site, Twitter feed, Facebook, etc. Something I wish had been more ingrained in me is the important habit of keeping up with the latest media industry news. Being up to speed on the gadgets, apps, tech startups and media journalists of the moment is critical if you want to stand out and be ahead of the curve of new media.

Q. You were an intern for the American Copy Editors Society. How did that experience help you in the job you have now?

A. As an intern, I was responsible for setting up interviews with copy editing professionals to discuss their jobs and editing expertise and for interviewing and following up with them without an intermediary, which were experiences that directly relate to what I do now.

For some people, picking up the phone and calling someone they’ve never met is easy, but for me, it took some getting used to, especially because I was nervous I hadn’t prepared the right questions to get enough meat for the stories I’d be writing for the ACES newsletter. Every time, though, I ended up having more than enough to write about, and I hesitated less and less before picking up the phone and conducting my next interview.

The majority of my day is now spent negotiating interviews, cold calling and e-mailing producers and “meeting” reporters on a call or via BlackBerry.

Having ACES on my resume also earned me some credibility with my colleagues when I first started at The Times. They let me have a go at copy editing internal memos and departmental e-mails when I started volunteering myself for the task. After a couple of months, I was asked to assist the company’s speechwriter in editing executive speeches and to copy edit press releases, and now I help write them, as well.

Q. Many college students would love to land an internship or first job like yours. What recommendations do you have for them?

A. Big opportunities can come from unexpected places, so tell people about your ambitions and get to know classmates and professors in and outside of the j-school. The interview for my public relations summer internship with The Wall Street Journal came through a professor in UNC’s peace, war and defense department — an unlikely source who knew I was looking for an opportunity in media. Without that internship, I wouldn’t have met the person who would hire me a year later to work at The Times.

Getting to know your professors can not only lead to job recommendations, but can also be a gateway to important introductions and meaningful support systems. Maintaining relationships with Carolina alumni is also an important step in preserving resources of encouragement and possible job connections. I only really took advantage of University Career Services in my senior year, and that’s something I should have done much sooner. Through UCS, you can find jobs posted by alumni or by organizations where alumni are already employed and find employers looking for Carolina grads.

Skills that will serve you in digital journalism should be kept sharp and up to date, but not at the expense of traditional know-how. I once got a job without an interview because I was the only candidate to not include a spelling or grammar error with my application.

If you haven’t yet had luck in securing a paid job in journalism, seek out volunteer or freelance opportunities to keep you in the game. Even if they don’t pay, they’ll add important value to your resume.

Back to the future of editing with News21

For the second consecutive summer, I had the opportunity to work with talented students at UNC-Chapel Hill on Powering A Nation, a website about energy and the environment. The site, which officially launched today, is part of the News21 project.

As one of several faculty coaches, I advised the project’s editing team on issues of work flow, story editing, word choice and headlines. It was a pleasure to work with this group in our newsroom.

It’s important to note that members of the editing team, led by Mike Ehrlich, also served as reporters. As reporters wrapped up their stories, they were sometimes drafted for other duties, including help with editing. Everyone did a bit of everything, including video and social media.

The idea behind News21 is to serve as an incubator for multimedia journalism, where students can chart a course for the future of news. My work with the students this summer reinforced my belief that editing will play a significant role in that future.

Q&A with Kristen Douglas, freelance copy editor

Kristen Douglas is a freelance writer and editor in Durham, N.C., who recently embarked on a career change into journalism. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Douglas talks about this transition and the challenges of working in online media.

Q. You’ve worked in education and mental health. Why the change to editing and writing?

A. Working in the mental health field was kind of a natural evolution for me, having grown up around mentally ill people. My stepmother owns a 32-bed facility for mentally ill adults, and I grew up in that environment. Teaching has also always been a love of mine, and I taught special education on temporary certification for a few years, as well as teaching in a welfare to work program in the midwest. In the meantime, though, I’ve always loved writing, and have written articles here or there over the years for local newspapers and other publications.

Even working in the mental health and education fields, I spent a lot of time writing and editing. I developed curriculum for a welfare to work teaching program, edited marketing materials and found that as my work in mental health gravitated more away from direct care of clients and into administrative roles, I was constantly being asked to look over progress notes, teach staff members how to write them professionally, develop and lead workshops that concentrated on writing treatment plans and other medical record documents, and edit documentation that was turned in.

I was one of many layoffs in the mental health agency I worked for in January 2010. I’d already been reading professional blogs on writing or copy editing online content, and I decided to use those skills I had always been using in the mental health and education fields to transfer to an entirely new career in writing online content rather than trying to find a lower-paying job in the floundering North Carolina mental health field.

I applied to several content-producing sites as a writer, and was hired to a few, but Demand Media seemed to fit my abilities well, and I like their work platform, so I predominantly write articles for their sites, which include Livestrong.com, eHow, trails.com, golflink, cracked.com and travel sections for several national newspapers.

After a few weeks of writing, I was invited by Demand Media to take two very stringent copy editor tests.  They don’t normally do this with new writers, but they liked the experience I’d already had editing in my former positions, and they liked my writing. I now spend about 70 percent of my time copy editing other articles for Demand and the rest of the time writing.

Q. You do much of your work with Demand Media. What is your typical workday like?

A. Being a night owl, I typically don’t get started with work until about 9 or 10 a.m., though I can flex my hours any way I’d like. Sometimes you’ll find me working at 1 a.m. if I’ve taken a break during the day to go hiking or grocery shopping.

I log into my “workdesk” at Demand and first check to see if I have any article re-writes that I need to repair. Normally my written articles are approved the first time through, but even a content editor can miss something in her own writing on occasion.

I then check to see if any articles I’ve copy edited and sent back for re-writes have returned, and I complete their edits. Once those things are out of the way, I begin choosing new articles to edit.  Demand’s writing work platform allows me to choose up to 10 article titles to write to at a time, from thousands of titles.  When copy/content editing, I see a list of 10 articles out of the thousands that need editing, choose one that looks interesting (and that I hope is well-written), and begin editing.

I check references first, before doing any editing, to make sure they’re listed properly and to skim through and make sure the content is not simply paraphrased or plagiarizing other content. Demand Media insists upon its articles containing original and innovative content, so making sure I’m a good “gatekeeper” and not allowing shoddy work or work that is just a re-hash of something else out there is my most important job as an editor.

If the references check out and the content is original and the article doesn’t need a re-write for structure, I’ll go back to line edit the article. I never line edit until I’ve checked to make sure the article isn’t going back to the writer; it takes time, and the writer might change the article enough I’ll have to line edit again.

Once editing for content, sending back for re-writes, and copy editing is done, I will either approve or reject an article. I’ve only had to reject a few outright, because I tend to become “the teacher” when sending an article back for a re-write, and I want to help the writer learn to write well for Demand Media content. I probably spend way too much time with this, because it cuts in on my bottom line pay (I’m paid per article by Demand).

Q. You don’t have a journalism degree or other formal training as an editor. What is it like to learn things as you go?

A. I’ve had to brush up on my AP style, for one. I was a bit nervous at first, because while I have many years of experience writing and editing, it has all been within the education and mental health fields.

Learning to write a “how to” article on laying self-adhesive linoleum or a “list” article on Frisbee golf courses in Washington state has been a learning experience, but it’s interesting. I’ve always gotten bored doing the same things over and over in traditional jobs, so the variety in writing and editing online content just seems to fit.

It’s the same on the copy/content editing end. I was nervous at first that I would not catch those things that needed fixing in articles that I was editing. I still worry once in a while that I’ll miss a glaring grammatical issue or allow something through that isn’t up to Demand Media quality, but I’m becoming more confident. My first performance review helped with my confidence. While I had let a few obvious errors through (like those infernal serial commas that AP style disallows), I was also told that I was doing a great job “gatekeeping” to make sure only quality content makes it through.

I still get nervous about learning to edit online content, because once it’s out there, it’s there for anyone to see. I want to make sure what I edit or write is high quality, because my name is attached to the writing — nobody can see who edited an article, but I still feel that I’m attached to the content I’ve edited in some way and don’t want it to be shoddy work.

I’m having fun, though. I was experiencing a lot of burnout in my mental health position, and I’m loving this career change. It’s hard work, and I have to pay my own taxes (and I don’t get paid vacations or sick days), but I’m much happier in my work.

Q. What advice do you have for people seeking work as a freelance editor and writer?

First, look at the experience you already have. Some people think that because they’ve worked in a particular field, they don’t have any experience writing or editing.  Check to see if you have more experience than you once thought, either through former careers or internships.

Study blogs that talk about freelance writing or editing. Avoid the blogs that are trying to sell you something and concentrate on those that seem to be just giving information. If you’re wanting to write in the online world, learn about search engine optimization and keyword phrasing.

Most of these media outlets aren’t just providing articles, they’re selling something, even if it’s just a click on an ad that appears around the article. Online content writing isn’t at all the same as writing editorials or other pieces for newspapers and magazines. You have to focus more on drawing people to your article using key phrases in your writing without making the article feel awkward.

I think I “lucked in” to the editing world. Most copy/content editors for Demand Media and other outlets have journalism degrees and have worked for years in newspaper or magazine editing. I’m one of the few who has been hired without that specific degree or newspaper editing experience, and it’s only because I had so much experience editing within my field.

Even that wouldn’t have gotten me the job, though. I got the offer to test to be a copy editor because I’m a good writer. I learned AP style, I learned to write in the “voice” that Demand Media and its outlets require by reading articles at Livestrong, eHow and the rest. I learned to check my ego at the door and write in the style that was asked of me.

That really is key. I have edited so many articles that might have been well written if the writer was submitting the work to a literary magazine or to a newspaper as an editorial, but that isn’t the “voice” that Demand Media is looking for.

Whatever company you write for, you need to learn the voice of that particular company and lose your ego about what type of writer you think you are, or find an outlet that better fits your style.  For example, I was hired by WiseGeek.com early on, but I found that I really didn’t like writing in the encyclopedic format they were looking for, so I very politely thanked them for allowing me to write with them and bowed out.

This isn’t easy – I’m still struggling to find my niche and make enough money to live well on while building my experience to a level that might get me editing or writing work elsewhere. My dream would be to work as an editor in a fiction publishing house, but jobs like that don’t come easily, so I’m content building experience for now.

Follow Kristen Douglas on Twitter and read some of her articles on eHow.com.