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.


Guest post: Use some discretion next time, Gizmodo

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the latest of those posts. David Riedell is a junior journalism major from Raleigh, N.C. He has worked on The Daily Tar Heel’s University desk for two years.

Everything with an Apple logo on it is white hot. When the first iPhone was released, people waited in line for hours to get their hands on the cool new gadget. The same thing happened a few weeks ago when the iPad came out. Nowadays, if you don’t have at least one iPod, you’re weird.

So of course it would be big news when Gizmodo paid someone $5,000 for “Apple’s Next iPhone” after it was left on a bar stool by an Apple employee who graduated from North Carolina State University in 2006. Apple’s security, as viewed by the tech-news world, is on par with Big Brother’s thought police: intimidating, sneaky and very tight-lipped.

Of course, Gizmodo’s editors would want exclusivity with the device. Of course they would want to pick it apart and let the public know what’s new. But did they really have to release the name of the poor, unfortunate Apple employee who left it at the bar?

The story, according to Gizmodo, is that a customer at the Gourmet Haus Staudt, a German beer garden in Redwood City, Calif., found an iPhone on a bar stool. After no one else at the bar claimed it, he opened up the phone’s Facebook application trying to find out who the owner was, so that he could return it later.

However, the next morning the phone was dead, presumably erased by a remote wipe. After examining it more closely, he realized that there was a fake case around the phone’s new, flatter design, to make it look like a regular iPhone. After failing to reach the phone’s owner at Apple, he ended up selling it to Gizmodo.

Once Gizmodo’s editors got their hands on it, they published an article with plenty of pictures detailing how it is different than the current iPhone. Then they published another article about how it came into their possession, complete with pictures, Facebook screencaps and Twitter updates of the Apple engineer who left it behind.

It seems that the public has accepted that Gizmodo’s new iPhone is the real deal, but there has been debate as to whether this was a humongous mistake by a hapless employee or just a publicity stunt from Apple. We don’t know if Apple meant for us to find it or if it was left by accident, but one thing’s for sure: If it was an accident, that Apple employee is in for a world of trouble.

Gizmodo, there was no reason to shove this guy’s name and picture into the spotlight at every opportunity. Assuming he left it by mistake, he’ll have an extremely tough time finding another job after he is (most likely) fired from Apple for unveiling this product early. He left his phone at a bar, an honest mistake that anyone could make, and you made it possible for Apple to publicly crucify him.

Guest post: Observer misses the point on Duke’s fourth title

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the latest of those posts. Jacob Swiger will graduate from UNC-CH’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication in May and has accepted a position as a technical writer. Jacob has interned for the Independent Weekly as a sports writer and editor.

The UNC-Chapel Hill media members are taking over the state’s newspapers.

At least that’s what Duke fans want to believe after seeing the difference between the front page of The Charlotte Observer the morning after Duke University won the NCAA tournament game compared with last year when Roy Williams won his second title:

I even found this gem on a Duke basketball message board:  “Charlotte, in general, has turned into the UNC self-licking ice cream cone.”

Although I don’t think many could argue the large presence of UNC-CH journalism graduates spread throughout the state, I do think there is a better explanation for what the Observer did.

John Robinson, the editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, blogged about the difference in his paper’s front pages and the Observer’s from a year ago.

Robinson explains that advertisers view a UNC win as a much bigger than a Duke win, which is the main reason why the paper might choose to scale down the prevalence on the front page from a year ago.

My problem is this: What kind of message is the drastic difference sending to the Observer’s readers, especially those who want to celebrate Duke’s championship?

Of course, it depends on the location of the newspaper. I would expect, however, a North Carolina paper to have a decent front page story on the game. Greensboro is not exactly Durham’s second home, but the News & Record did a better job of handling this year’s paper than the Observer did.  As Robinson mentions in his blog post, the News & Record ran a five-column picture this year and a six-column photo last year.  Robinson justifies this due to a more important local story this year compared with last year.

That’s perfectly reasonable.

As for the Observer, I would argue that Duke’s championship was a much more interesting story than UNC’s championship considering the Tar Heels were expected to win the entire season. By only placing a small banner at the top of the paper, the Observer contradicts its treatment of last year’s front page.

Why not replace the Toyota story? Or the pollen story? Or the Tiger story? For that matter, why is the West Virginia mine story buried at the bottom of the page?

As anyone who builds newspaper pages will say and as Robinson told my editing class recently, designing front pages is not a science. It’s very easy for someone outside of the newsroom to be critical, and I respect the difficulty of preparing the front page, especially for those who are professionals. Furthermore, I am confident the Observer took the time to consider the ramifications of its front page based on solid news judgment, but I sincerely believe it missed an opportunity to be loyal to its true cause and lost more than it could gain.

Toyota on the front page

My friend and former colleague, John Robinson, visited my editing class yesterday afternoon. He’s the editor of the News & Record in Greensboro.

The topic of his talk was the front page — specifically, what is a front-page story for a newspaper in Greensboro in 2010? It’s a topic that Robinson discusses on occasion on his blog and on Twitter.

Robinson asked the students in the class to go to a news Web site of their choice and tell him what the top story was at the moment. CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times and several other sites had the story about a congressional hearing into the Toyota recall as the big news. The outliers were the Huffington Post (an Afghanistan story) and WRAL and The News & Observer sites, which both were leading with news about turmoil on the Wake County school board.

Robinson told the students that the chances of the Toyota story appearing on the News & Record’s front page as virtually nil. The story was out there on TV and online all day — what could the Greensboro paper do with it that readers didn’t already know?

The News & Record considers itself a local newspaper. And indeed, its front page this morning is all about Greensboro. Toyota is mentioned in a promo at the bottom of the page, with a story on A6.

Was that the right call?

Guest post: The state of the Woods union

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the sixth of these posts. John Dougherty of Goldsboro, N.C., is a senior in the news-ed sequence with a second major in environmental studies. He was on the Daily Tar Heel’s sports desk as a copy editor and writer once
upon a time. Last year, he worked as a media relations intern for the Carolina Hurricanes. He is currently working in the exciting field of new media, editing multimedia college sports text message alerts. Next year, he will be attending law school (not sure where yet).

I might not be Lou Gehrig, but I consider myself fairly lucky.

Thanks to the fortunate arrangement of Tiger Woods’ rehab schedule, the world’s most famous golfer and one the wealthiest athletes in sports history decided to speak publicly Friday for the first time since his November car accident. Of all days, Woods just so happened to pick the day I write my guest blog post.

His fellow golfers on the PGA tour and one of his largest former sponsors, Accenture, weren’t too pleased with the statement coinciding with round 3 of that weekend’s tournament. Well, tough.

My procrastination has paid off. You, my reader, should count your lucky stars as well. Rather than a grueling 8-paragraph post dissecting the distinction between “less” and “fewer,” I have the opportunity to discuss 21st century America’s favorite topics: celebrity strife and extramarital affairs!

Personally, I was excited about the prospect of Tiger finally making his feelings public (through a medium other than his personal Web site). It was on my mind going to bed last night and one of the first things I thought of once I woke up … right. So naturally I had to figure out where and when this statement would be televised.

Not a hard task I discovered. Within a matter a seconds of turning on ESPN, the scrolling ticker informed me I’d have to wait until 11 a.m.

As the morning progressed, I stayed turned to ESPN. I figured to catch the recap of last night’s Lakers/Celtics game. Maybe an update on the U.S. Olympic efforts. And if I was lucky, even hear mention of baseball’s spring training.

Obviously all those unimportant stories were being covered on ESPN 8 (The Ocho). Segment after segment, the broadcasters covered every trivial and insignificant detail of a speech they’d yet to hear. From how long the statement would last, to whether Tiger should cry and if his wife would be in attendance. I was a bit surprised the Disney executives didn’t invite George Stephanopoulos onto the morning “Sportscenter” to weigh in.

When Tiger’s moment of truth arrived, I gave a quick glance to see what else might be on, assuming whatever portion of the population didn’t tune in to ESPN was missing out. Shockingly, or probably not, I found missing out wasn’t really an option. Every major network had preempted their morning programming to cover Eldrick. Talk about the presidential treatment.

It’s not my intention to analyze Tiger’s words, though plenty can be said about them. And plenty was.
From ABC and CNN to ESPN, TMZ and even across the pond at BBC, the afternoon became another episode of (excuse my lack of originality) “Tigergate.”

Obviously, there is some news value in the first public statement by a desperately private public figure. My astonishment is in the amount of attention that was laid upon a 15-minute prepared address, in which Woods didn’t exactly shock the world.

His most aggressive and controversial statements came in relation to the constant hounding he and his family receive on a daily basis. What we weren’t surprised by was his admission to cheating on his wife or treatment at a rehab facility. The reason these things didn’t shock us? Consult the beginning of this paragraph.

I don’t condone Tiger’s hypocritical request for absolute privacy while gaining fistfuls of endorsement cash as a public name, but it is worrisome that the entire Western world’s news cycle shuts down for 15 minutes while an athlete admits to infidelity.

Eventually the Tiger storm will pass, and one day he might even go back to playing golf. The court of public opinion will inevitably give a verdict and life will move on. But until we’re all swept up in the frenzy of the next “___ gate” it might be worthwhile to re-examine America’s news judgment.

Until then, I’m going back to exploring ESPN.com for that Lakers score. It’ll probably be posted just next to Kobe’s opinion on Tiger.