I had the pleasure on Wednesday of speaking to a class of journalism students at Saline Middle School. I brought along freelance photographer Jonathan Knight, and while we were there to educate and inspire, I think the students turned the tables. I was impressed with their enthusiasm, passion and dedication to journalism — and not just traditional journalism — multimedia journalism, as they asked questions, videoed us, worked online on their own articles, columns and book reviews, while also shooting the morning’s school announcements.
Prior to the talk, I checked out their website, The Blue and Gold, and was impressed with their work, especially considering they’re middle school students. I didn’t even get my first taste of journalism until high school and it was a very basic class as it was the 1980s and we didn’t have the technology students have today.
I accepted an invite by teacher Staci Nazareth because I wanted the opportunity to meet her students, check out their work and develop some sort of partnership in which we link to them or offer them a micro site at Heritage.com, reverse publish some of their work or give them assignments. Staci and I spoke after class and we agreed the students’ first assignment could be reporting on the results of this Tuesday’s bond election in Saline. If passed, the request will result in more money for technology, among other things, for students in the classroom. They’ve been given a week to turn around the story. I am excited to see their work and share it with readers of The Saline Reporter.
Below are the questions the students drafted for me and my answers that I read in class.
What is it like interviewing people?
I love interviewing people and I’ve been accused of doing it in my personal life. You just ask a ton of questions about the subject you’re tackling so you have a total understanding of the subject matter. I usually come prepared to an interview, whether it’s on the phone or in person, and have all of my questions written out. As we talk, however, more questions may come up and you ask them as they pop in your head. Always remember awkward, long pauses are good as the person you’re interviewing will try to fill in the gap with more information. More information is good because you can always self-edit and not include it in the story. Having not enough information makes for a poorly written and researched story, and you don’t want that. Always get as much information you can and from multiple sources.
How do you become an editor?
I earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Michigan University, worked as reporter, assistant editor and was promoted to editor in 2000 of the Chelsea and Dexter papers. So, it takes education, experience, strong organizational and leadership skills, and the luck of having a decision-maker in the organization – whether it’s a publisher or managing editor –– recognize your talent. My personal story is my editor resigned and the publisher brought in an interim editor from another publication. She was supposed to assess the situation and make a recommendation after the summer. Throughout the summer, I did my regular reporting and work as an assistant editor while also helping to hold the papers together, showing her our routine meeting deadline and introducing her to the communities we served. By the end of the summer, she said I was basically doing the job already and I should get the position. The publisher agreed and I was promoted to editor of the Chelsea Standard and Dexter Leader in August 2000 at age 31.
How in-depth do you have to be with your articles?
I like in-depth articles, but the situation doesn’t always call for depth. You have to make that call as a reporter. When my reporters ask how long their stories should be or how much space they can have, I always say whatever it takes to tell the story. I don’t think all editors think that way. Some will want you to write to a specific length. You should have that conversation with your editor. Trust your instincts and consider how complicated the subject matter may be. An article about city trash collection rates going up 5 percent won’t need as much depth as a story on the plight of the agricultural industry as government tightens regulations and provides less funding.
Is the Saline newspaper fun?
It can be fun, depending on your definition of fun. It’s fun for me to read all of the news that’s going on in the community and getting to know people of interest better through our reporters’ storytelling. I am having fun in this industry as it undergoes a major transformation as reporters utilize more technology to enhance their storytelling using video, audio, photography, graphics, live chats and other means, as well as engaging the readers more in their newsgathering and using social media to promote their work and source content.
How long have you been doing the Saline Reporter?
I’ve been editor The Saline Reporter since November 2006. In August 2009, I was promoted to managing editor of eight weekly newspapers in Saline, Milan, Chelsea, Dexter, Manchester, Ypsilanti, Belleville and Ann Arbor.
How many stories do you cover per month?
The Saline paper publishes –– online and/or in print –– about 400 stories per month, from news, features and entertainment to opinion and sports. As editor, I don’t personally do any reporting. I would love to, as that is my original passion, but I don’t have the time given all of my editing and management responsibilities.
What is the coolest report you have done in Saline?
It really depends on your definition of cool. What I consider cool is any story that starts a conversation in a community. So, our coverage of Saline school district’s bond request and all of the letters to the editor our coverage has generated is cool to me. I like to see robust debate and dialogue on an issue that affects a community. This is what journalism is all about.
How fun is it to work on the weekend?
I don’t mind working on the weekend because I am doing what I love. Whether it’s shooting video at a community event such as Saline Summer Fest on a Saturday or editing files at home on my laptop and uploading them online on a Sunday for the world to see, no matter what day of the week or what time of day, it’s fun to me. It gives me satisfaction to share the news of the community with the community.
If you’re not writing a feature article, what are a few ways to make a good lead?
Let the subject matter guide your lead. Listen to both sides of an issue, digest what was said, think about it and its impact on the community –– why it’s relevant –– and your lead will come naturally. I’ve never had a problem writing a good lead. Human-interest leads are compelling and leads that tell a reader why the story is relevant to them are winners.
Is your job ever a day without grief?
Your day is only filled with grief if you allow it to be or are bothered by things. You have to have thick skin as an editor and let negative comments roll off your back. You must always listen to someone’s criticism and try to understand their point of view, but you should never take it personally. In the end, you should be pleased that a reader is so passionate about something they saw in your publication or on your website that they took the time to call you. They may not be happy with the way it was presented or worded, but at least they read it and it stirred something in them –– it made them think and feel. You may be able to resolve the issue with them or may not and you agree to disagree, but, in the end, that conversation was good for both of you because you were both presented with a different perspective.
What’s your favorite topic you like to write about? What has been your most edgy of a topic you’ve written about for the newspaper?
I enjoy controversial topics because I like to stir debate. My first journalism award was for a story titled “Growing up gay in a small town,” and it prompted a lot of conversation in the community. It was 1998 and I received a lot of negative comments from readers in Chelsea and Dexter in the form of letters to the editor, as well as phone calls. While I was disappointed they were so negative, I thought it was interesting to hear what people are thinking on the subject. It provided insight into the makeup and mindset of many in the community. Many people brought religion into the debate, but what I wanted them to understand through my storytelling was that the teens I was writing about are human beings and deserved to be treated with respect, no matter what their sexual orientation. I thought by sharing the gay teens’ stories, readers would feel empathy and want to change the hostile environment they were growing up in. We had some businesses pull their advertising, and that hurt us a little financially, but those advertisers eventually came back and, in the end, my work was recognized by the Michigan Press Association and that made it rewarding.
Is it hard to find stories?
I never have a hard time finding stories. What’s hard is choosing which one to write about because there’s only so much time in a day and you can’t get to everything as we’re all working with limited time and resources.
Why did you want to become an editor?
To be honest with you, I became an editor for two reasons: a higher salary and I wanted control over the products we are delivering to the community. I wanted to be the decision-maker. As editor, I have total control over content –– from articles and photos to video and audio –– design and graphic presentation, as well as the direction we’re taking in terms of our use of technology, new ways of presenting information, partnerships in the community, such as with bloggers and citizen journalists, and regional reporting endeavors. While my style has been to let the individual reporters and the communities they cover dictate what will be reported or published, I like to be the person they turn to if they’re unsure about something, or need advice or support. I enjoy offering guidance and support, and mentoring staff. I am also a decisive person. I am not afraid to make decisions and follow through on them. I deal with the consequences or enjoy the rewards reaped from those decisions.
How many years of college do you have to attend to become a journalist?
I have a bachelor’s degree, which generally takes four years. I know others with a master’s degree, which takes six years. Some journalists don’t have degrees, but those reporters typically caught a break early in life and now have years of experience that serves as a degree. In the end, all that matters is that you’re good at what you do –– that you are a talented writer, and fair and balanced in your reporting –– that you accurately report the facts and quote sources, and know how to flesh out a story.
How do you find the “good” details of a story?
By asking a lot of questions, asking those questions of multiple sources and doing your research.
How do you find the top stories to write about?
By getting to know your community, attending government and school board meetings, by checking with the police and courts, by talking to people and asking them if they know of any interesting stories or people to feature.
How long have you worked at the Saline Reporter?
I’ve been at the Reporter since 2006 and Heritage Newspapers, now known as Heritage Media, parent company of the newspaper, since 1995. Heritage has been owned by the Journal Register Co. since 2004. I started my career in 1992 at The Dexter Leader, which, at the time, was owned by Helen and Walter Leonard, a couple in their 70s who had been running it for 40 or more years.
Which one do you prefer: posting online, or printing the newspaper?
Had you asked me three years ago, I would have said printing. However, in today’s media landscape and world of technology, and with the tools we have to be immediate and relevant, I say posting online. I like that we can report a story instantly and let it develop online in real time, rather than waiting days or an entire week to share information. It’s better for society to have the information as quickly as possible. I also like that any mistakes can be fixed immediately, whereas in print you had to run a correction days or a week later.
How do you manage all the deadlines and stories you have to do because in class things get a little hectic with all the students having to write their articles?
I put in a lot of time, an extraordinary amount of time, about 70 hours a week and I still feel like I am not doing a good job –– that there’s always something I couldn’t get to or could have done a better job on if I had more time. You have to have strong organizational skills just to keep your head above water and I would say that’s one of my strengths. I remain organized and diligent. Even if it’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon and I’d rather be at the park, I know if I blow off my e-mail for an entire day and not edit the dozens of articles or press releases in my inbox, I will never meet my deadlines Monday night and instead of it being a 16-hour workday, it could be a 24-hour workday. I think of the consequences and stay committed and on task.
What is your favorite kind of story? Which kind do you like the most to publish or read?
I enjoy a variety of stories –– everything except sports. The only sports story I can tolerate is a feature with a strong human interest angle. Personality profiles, an in-depth exploration of a community issue, stories that expose corruption or have an interesting, unusual or unexpected outcome are my favorites.
So, what do you think of our newspaper?
I checked out your website and I was impressed. I appreciate that you understand the importance of local content. Oftentimes, when I pick up a college newspaper, they’re running state and national stories. They don’t get it. Their readers want local. It can be a national issue, but you must localize it –– make it relevant to readers here. Quote local residents, experts and leaders; tell the reader how the issue affects them here. So, thank you for grasping the importance of local. I would also like to recognize that many of you are still developing as writers. I urge you to start using an AP Stylebook, which is the bible of any young journalist and should be used as often or even more so than a dictionary. I also, remember to leave yourself and your opinions out of a story unless it’s a column or opinion piece. Don’t mix news and opinion. It’s not fair to readers or the subject of your material. I like that you have a variety of content to satisfy many interests as that is key. Keep up the good work, and I hope to form some sort of partnership with your class in the near future.
How do you like your job?
I love my job. I can’t imagine doing anything else. When you find a career that’s your passion, it doesn’t feel like a job or work –– you’re just pursuing your passions and having a blast doing it. Sometimes I have to force myself to leave work or set aside work –– because it’s always there –– to also enjoy a personal life. That’s something I struggle with every day. I make it a point to try to schedule a lunch or shopping with friends or I’ll be on my computer all day editing, writing, posting content, creating video or playing with new technology.
How do you come up with ideas to write about when you can’t think of any off the top of your head?
You crowdsource. You ask your friends, family, neighbors, teachers, community leaders and public servants what’s going on. You can also look to state or national publications and localize a bigger issue.
Do you have any rival news sites and how do you compete with them?
Some may consider Ann Arbor.com and Patch.com, a new AOL venture, rivals, but I consider them colleagues and partners in delivering the news. While we sometimes may feel competitive in being the first to publish an important story or have the better story in terms of more facts or information, in the end we all have the same goal of informing the community. The more avenues for delivering the news, the better, in my opinion, because all that matters is an informed and educated society. That’s why I also embrace social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter because it offers another avenue for delivering the news, expressing opinions and sharing life.
How long does it typically take to make an article from start to finish?
It really depends on the subject matter and how much depth it requires. It can be anywhere from one hour for a story coming out of a City Council meeting, where you got all of your information and quotes in one place, to days or weeks on a story such as one we’re working on about teen pregnancy and how it’s handled and/or addressed by families, communities and school districts across Washtenaw County. More in-depth articles like this require talking to more sources, researching the issue, finding and understanding statistics, and often creating sidebars, graphs and other support material.
How many articles do write on average each week?
As editor, I don’t write any articles, although I may write a column or blog post every once in a while, often when I am prompted by something I feel needs to be addressed in the community, but I expect my reporters to produce two articles per day, two videos per week, two audio clips each week and post at least weekly to one of our many blogs.
How many people work for the Saline Reporter and how often do you publish a newspaper?
We have one reporter who is devoted 16 hours a week to the Saline paper and another who spends eight hours per week on Saline, as well as a sports reporter who is devoted 20 hours a week to Saline, plus I assign stories to stringers on an as-needed basis and in keeping with my budget. In all, I have nine reporters and three copy editors/reporters who report to me as we produce eight newspapers, populate the Heritage.com website, and maintain the social media supporting those publications. We also produce special supplements, including the school directories and community guides.