Emily Fortner’s advice for job seekers: Think about yourself as a brand

“Don’t feel boxed in. Your specific concentration won’t hold you back. Your skills transfer.”

That’s Emily Fortner, manager of content & channel strategy at Twitter, speaking to my post-grad group. She was addressing the question of someone who had graduated with a specialty in one area of journalism (broadcast) and was thinking about doing something else in journalism, perhaps social media.

Adrian Walker, one of the participants in the group, suggested we ask Emily, who lives in San Francisco, to talk with us. I was excited about her because I like Twitter and wanted to hear her perspective. I particularly like the idea of networks and how people are connected, even as they don’t know they are. When I looked up Emily on LinkedIn, I noticed that she was connected to my two daughters. It turns out that not only is Emily from Greensboro, but my elder daughter and Emily’s sister were in Indian Princesses together. Networks.

Emily talked with us about job hunting and branding and innovation. She was smart and helpful. But like a bumbling idiot, I forget to record it. So, I turned to the hive mind of the group to help me remember the highpoints. Several participants responded, and then Anna Grace Freebersyser comes in with a detailed outline, which I copied-and-pasted below. (Yes, Anna Grace was an exceptional student.)

There are jobs and Twitter is hiring. She is a hiring manager so she knows.

General philosophy: “Just take the next right step for your career.”

Q: Tips for branding yourself?

It’s not just about the visuals–color, resume, etc. What she looks at when she hires is people who tell a compelling story.

  • Her LinkedIn looks like a scattershot. Regardless of broad experiences, think about what you enjoyed, where you excelled in those jobs and then pull that out and weave it into a narrative.
  • Look for the why and how. Think about what excites you and sets you apart; pull those things to the forefront on your LinkedIn, resume, etc. Think about how you show up as a person more than the visuals. If the substance isn’t there then the fluffy stuff won’t matter much.

Q: How do you distribute that brand?

Think about yourself as a brand or company: Think about how you communicate down to how you sign off your emails. Think about the channels you communicate on–are you active on twitter, Instagram? Do you write a blog in your free time? How do you spend your time building a brand and what channels do you use to do it?

  • Look for consistency and what’s going to set you apart.
  • Think about what you want to accomplish and the type of role you want to have. (Ex. if you want to be a sports reporter, you should probably be an authentic fan and cultivate your channels around that.)
  • Be strategic, but authentic to what is actually interesting and unique about you because faking it isn’t going to help you or the people hiring you find your value.

Q: Would you recommend making content when you’re not employed?

Yes. She just hired someone (further along in his career than us) and one of the things that interested her about him is that he’s been writing movie reviews on the side for seven years. That doesn’t have a lot to do with writing product tweets but it did tell her that he loves to write–enough to do it in his free time–and has niche interests he’s passionate about and can create content around.

  • It’s becoming more of a thing, at twitter especially, to bring your whole self to work. People want to work with people who have diverse interests and can contribute their perspectives to the workplace. If you have professional or personal interests that you can demonstrate through your internet presence that’s great–definitely not going to hurt you.
  • Avoid being gimmicky to get a job but if you have a desire to get a job in content, it’s great to build a presence or a youtube channel, etc. because it shows your initiative and capacity.

Q: Specific advice for anyone job searching?

  • Always write the cover letter even if it’s not required.
  • Be more targeted in your job search. Your first few jobs can set you up for success so if you can afford to financially, don’t just apply for anything and everything. Pick places that will build the career you want.
  • You will probably hate your first job, you will definitely not get your ideal job. But still, think about how a job can set you up for future success and pick a job you can actually put your heart into (otherwise, lack of love will show up in an interview). Use that first job as an opportunity to learn and observe how things work.
  • Don’t be afraid to move around with jobs. Every step should be a step forward.

Q: What makes social media management a cool job?

It’s revolutionized the way we people expect to see and interact with brands. One big part of her job is the ability to communicate difficult messages to different audiences. She loves crisis communication (PR background came in handy). It involves careful message crafting.

Q: Advice for working at a startup?

Startups are typically more flat and less hierarchical so there are fewer barriers to learning from and interacting with “higher-ups” than at a more established company.

  • Take advantage of that flexibility by talking to different people there and learning from them about their roles, the industry, disciplines to hone, etc.
  • Ask questions when you don’t understand.
  • Learn the processes.

Q: What’s the most important thing to know if you want to get into social media management and how to learn it if that’s not your background?

  • You don’t have to pick an industry, but if there is one you like, learn the language of that industry.
  • When you get your foot in the door, keep doing the job well and advancing by growing your skills until you can be more picky about what you do/the scale you do it at.
  • Your skills transfer more than you think they do (content strategy, planning, interviewing all apply from j-school to social media management).
  • Don’t feel boxed in. Your degree matters, but not that much especially in job applications.
  • Find nonprofits or small businesses that you can volunteer to work with and help out with their social media.

Q: What does advancing look like?

  • Have a clear expectation of the role you are employed at so that you can meet expectations. Know clearly what good looks like but have a strategy for getting to great.
  • Under-promise, over-deliver.
  • Over-communicate. If you don’t know what to do, ask questions and get help. That’s way better than the work not getting done.
  • You are a frequent topic of conversation between your managers. That’s not scary, it’s just an incentive to meet deadlines, do the work, present yourself well and continue to be consistent in meeting the standards you purport to have in your personal brand. Be consistent when things go wrong, in emails, in meetings. Be reliable.

Q: How do you know when to take the innovative risk?

Take smart risks.

  • If it’s your first time out of the gate on that work, then it’s probably not the time to take the risk. If there are clear ideas around the deliverable, then try it the standard way first (there’s probably a reason it’s standard). After you’ve done something is the time to evaluate opportunities for innovation.
  • Follow instructions the first time, learn it well, then be critical and by the fourth or fifth time evaluate if there’s a way to make it better/more useful.
  • Find peers to talk about your ideas with. Ideate with others. Lean into your professional network and get feedback.

Q: Mistakes to avoid in job search?

Network: don’t be afraid to reach out to anyone. Be curious and be insistent in learning about what you’re curious about.

  • Don’t let your resume look like a list describing tasks/responsibilities you did. Make it a list of accomplishments/impacts and quantify volume or impact where you can.
  • Do your research ahead of time. Know why you want to show up at this company every day. Speak the same language as your resume and as the company. And, again, tell a consistent story.
  • Throw out the dressing up and bringing a fancy copy of resume (specific to tech industry obviously: know your audience and make a judgment call).

Q: How important is learning to getting where you want to go?

  • Know what’s going on in your industry.
  • Emily starts her day every day by catching up and learning from tech blogs, askamanager.com, etc and sharing that with her co-managers.
  • Always be improving and learning more about your industry and relevant fields, especially as you settle in.
  • Take whatever development opportunities your company offers you. It shows initiative and makes you better.

My plans for the fall

I plan to teach in person when classes begin next month. Yes, the virus is surging and there’s little sign it’ll be under control in August. But everyone – instructors and students – will be wearing masks in Carroll Hall where I teach. Classrooms have been designated with six-foot distancing capacities, which creates a teaching challenge that I’ll discuss later.

I had the option to teach remotely, which means using Zoom, but going to campus and being in a classroom with students is a no-brainer for me. I taught for six weeks on Zoom in the spring and didn’t like it. I wasn’t very good with it, and I missed the students. One of the big reasons I teach is to get to know the students — they’re smart and fun and engaging. You just can’t do that as effectively online. (OK, boomer.) And I don’t think they learn as effectively online.

People have asked me how I can feel safe teaching students who, perhaps the night before, were at He’s Not Here, drinking, laughing with, breathing on and touching others, shoulder to shoulder. My response is always the same: “I go to the grocery store several times a week and I’m usually about the only one there wearing a mask or keeping my distance in the produce aisle. I think I can handle a classroom where everyone is masked and six feet away.”

The rub is that, because of the six-foot distancing rule, classrooms have new, limited, capacities. Many seat only 10 or 12 people. That means I will divide my 20-student classes into two sections, post lectures online for them to watch at their convenience, and have less face-to-face time with them.

Not ideal, and we’ll see how it goes. It would be easier to be completely remote. I wouldn’t have the commute or the gas and parking expenses. I’d save two hours a day not in the car. But I admit that part of the allure is the challenge of figuring a new way to teach, reinventing courses I’ve taught for several semesters. It will give me new skills to be better when we return to normalcy.

Of course, in truth, I’m confident the campus will be closed down by mid-September and I’ll be teaching remotely anyway. The coronavirus has no respect for the “full on-campus  experience.”


Sunday sampler

The coronavirus and racial justice dominate many front pages in North Carolina today. First, the virus:

Irony is not dead as readers see stories about coronavirus cases on the increase in their counties at the same time that their elected sheriffs proclaim they won’t enforce the governor’s executive order requiring people to wear masks in public.

In Hickory, 42 new cases Saturday, the largest one-day gain in cases. Meanwhile, the Catawba County sheriff says the executive order is unenforceable.

In McDowell County, the first paragraph of the McDowell News announces the sheriff won’t enforce the order. The second paragraph: “On the same day, local health officials announced that seven additional McDowell County residents had tested positive for coronavirus, bringing the total number of known positives to 203.”

Rockingham: “As Rockingham County’s reported COVID-19 cases jumped by 13.5% in three days, Sheriff Sam Page announced on Friday that he will not enforce Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order requiring citizens to wear masks in public.”

Jacksonville: The Daily News reminds us: “Compared to the last four weeks, North Carolina is forecast to likely exceed those numbers over the next four weeks.” Onslow County says it will enforce.

Several newspapers throw shade – probably unintentionally – by also publishing this national AP story: “But now, some places that appeared to have avoided the worst are seeing surges of infections, as worries shift from major cities to rural areas.”

Raleigh: The N&O explores how masks became so political. (I say Trump, but that’s just me.)

Now to racial justice:

Burlington: The Times-News publishes a story based on a small, unscientific survey of residents seeking the answers to these two questions: “What is one area/issue you think Alamance County can address to overcome systemic racism? How can that goal be achieved?”

Winston-Salem: “A group of Black Lives Matters protesters gathered downtown Saturday evening to demand more accountability from the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office and better treatment for the inmates detained in the Forsyth County Jail.”

Then, also in the Journal, there is this story about a mayoral candidate’s racist Facebook post. And this one about the racist post by the racetrack owner.

Greensboro: The News & Record publishes a look at how Christianity is intertwined with the Black Lives Matter movement. “As a faith leader, it is my obligation to speak against injustice. Jesus was a victim of injustice. If I don’t mention that when I preach, I’m complicit.” — the Rev. Richard Hughes.

And still other good stories:

Asheville: The Citizen-Times has a package of stories on why police didn’t arrest armed counter protesters (white men) at a Black Lives Matter protest. “Police Chief David Zack defended his officers’ decision to not immediately arrest heavily armed counterprotesters, saying they were concerned about the possibility of a gunfight breaking out in a crowded public area.”

Journalism advice: ‘Push against the conventional wisdom’

Christina Reynolds, VP of communications for Emily’s List, and an alum of Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns, spoke to my post-grad group this week. She talked politics and journalism from a vantage point this group isn’t used to hearing: from the candidates’ side.  She is a straight-talker and gave impressive insight.

Here is a little of the journalism advice she gave, edited for clarity:

“A tip to all the future journalists: We’re all watching your Twitter because we know you say more in your Twitter than you do in the questions you ask and sometimes in your stories. It’s how we get that this person doesn’t like this idea or this person seems to think this or think that.”

“Diversify your sources and make sure that you’re talking to a lot of different people. I try to talk to a bunch of different reporters and I find that there are reporters who only talk to the same people and those same people end up in their quotes. What I find is the ones who reach out to more people and to different people get better stories. I know that seems obvious, but you find that  a lot of political reporters are always talk to the same people.”

“You know conventional wisdom is not always right. And sometimes we fall victim to just assuming that it is. Stop believing the random pundits on TV. I think part of what makes you good on TV or a good political operative is sounding definitive. Push against the conventional wisdom. That’s important.”

Elvis has left the building

The News & Record staff has left its home at the corner of Davie and Market streets since the 1970s. A lot of wonderful memories in that squat two-story building. The people. The stories. The laughter and the tears. I remember the first time I walked in for a job interview in 1984 and the day I left in 2011. Good times and hard times.

But mostly I’m ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ . It’s a building, and not an architecturally attractive one at that.

In 2004, when publisher Van King retired, the paper threw a big dinner in his honor. My wife and I were seated at the table with former Mayor Jim Melvin and his wife. Jim, who  is known as Mr. Greensboro, told me the story of how the News & Record ended up in that location downtown.

At the time, the paper was in an old building where the Cultural Arts Center is now. When Landmark Communications bought the Greensboro Daily News and Greensboro Record, it wanted — it needed — a new building. Jim said that Frank Batten. who owned the company, and Pete Bush, who was the new publisher, were looking for cheap land to locate a new building for the paper. They didn’t care where in the city but the land had to be well-priced, Melvin said. They were looking near High Point Road and I-40.

Melvin was the mayor at the time, he was an enthusiastic downtown promoter, and there was no way he was going to let the paper locate on the interstate. He told me he got the paper a good deal on the Market Street property and persuaded Batten to take it. “I’m the reason the paper is downtown and not at Four Seasons,” he told me.

Van laughed when I told him that story. He said that Batten had always planned to locate downtown. In those days, newspapers were not located in the suburbs; they were located downtown where the government buildings are. That’s where institutional news occurs — the police station, the courthouse, City Hall. Batten just used the other location as a bargaining chip to drive down the price for the Market Street property, Van said.

Of course, that was several lifetimes ago in the news business. Landmark Communications sold the newspaper to Warren Buffett’s company, and the real estate on Market Street became as valuable as the paper. It’s been sold and the staff has to move….

…to a site south of the interstate.


Sunday sampler

Normally, I’d title this “Sunday sampler, Father’s Day edition,” but Father’s Day stories weren’t featured on that many N.C. newspapers front pages. That’s OK with me. What is featured on many of the state’s papers is a version — I assume an early version — of this story from the News & Observer.  Gov. Roy Cooper ordered the removal of three Confederate monument from the capital grounds to avoid them being torn down by protesters.

“I am concerned about the dangerous efforts to pull down and carry off large, heavy statues and the strong potential for violent clashes at the site,” Cooper said in a statement Saturday afternoon. “If the legislature had repealed their 2015 law that puts up legal roadblocks to removal we could have avoided the dangerous incidents of last night. Monuments to white supremacy don’t belong in places of allegiance, and it’s past time that these painful memorials be moved in a legal, safe way.”

Newspapers also featured stories about the protests going on around the state and nation.

Morganton: “’8 Can’t Wait,’ a project by Campaign Zero, proposes eight policies that police departments could implement that the organization said could reduce killings by police and save lives, according to the campaign’s website.”

New Bern: “Local citizens including clergy and retired law enforcement plan a peaceful march and demonstration at noon on June 27 in New Bern, a response to the nationwide movement on racial equality.”

Fayetteville: “‘It does not make sense for police internal review to be the end all when it comes to misconduct,’ said Shaun McMillan, who founded Fayetteville PACT. ‘’They can’t police themselves.’’ The outrage over the death of George Floyd is re-igniting the debate over whether Fayetteville needs an independent citizens review board to investigate complaints about police officer conduct.”

Hendersonville: “Hendersonville Police Lt. Mike Vesely joined about 200 area residents in a March For Change through downtown Hendersonville on Juneteenth, an event that called for an end to hate and racism.”

Both Greensboro and Winston-Salem have different versions — and good ones — on having “the talk” with black children about how to interact with police officers, and I hope that white readers will take them to heart. “This Father’s Day, Black men say they see hope in conversations now taking place regarding race, but they are facing the same circumstances that burdened their parents and now, seemingly, their children. As race dominates the headlines, many Black fathers find themselves discussing strategies based on the color of their skin before the ‘birds and bees.'”

But the best story of the day is this one in the N&O about the director of the N.C. Community Bail Fund in Durham, who bailed out nearly 30 men from jail to spend Father’s Day with their families. “Wearing all black and a Juneteenth T-shirt, she then walked up to the front desk of the jail with a deputy, who asked her how many people she was going to bail out. ‘I am going to try to get out 27,’ she said. ‘We have to get them free.’”

‘It is OK to not know exactly what the hell’s going on right now’

Madeline Coleman, one of my former students and now an intern with Sports Illustrated, described Jourdan Rodrigue as “the pep talk queen.” And she is that. Jourdan is a writer for the Athletic, covering the L.A. Rams. At Madeline’s suggestion, I asked Jourdan to speak with what I call my post-grad class. (I started this informal group of grads in an effort to keep their skills fresh and spirits up as they search for jobs. This could be the coolest thing I’ve done.) Jourdan’s topic was maintaining sanity during a job search amid a pandemic. And she did not disappoint.

Here are some edited excerpts from her talk.

The job search

“First and foremost, I want you guys to know that it is OK to not know exactly what the hell’s going on right now. Every single editor that you’re going to talk to is very aware that what you are experiencing as sort of a graduating generation is so adverse. Now you’re facing newspapers dying, the digital landscape changing, and some companies changing more rapidly than ever before. I mean, it’s like, what the hell, and so it is absolutely OK to not know what comes next.

“It’s OK to continue to give yourself the patience of finding your path. There are a ton of different paths and a ton of different twists and turns that your own path is going to take you on. It’s OK to be scared. It’s OK to have that fear of the unknown, and it’s OK to understand that your path is not going to look like everybody else’s, particularly right now.

“When I started my career, I was being told by all of my professors at the at the Cronkite School at Arizona State that ‘newspapers are dying. Good luck.’ And I panicked. I took the first job that I was offered. I was covering the Seattle Storm, the WNBA team, but I was doing it from an in-house perspective. I wasn’t doing real beat reporting, which I knew for forever that I wanted to be a beat writer. But I was making it work because here was a job that was getting me writing reps. It wasn’t the way that I ever thought I would start my career. I thought I was going to start my career like, ‘OK, I’m going to cover college football for five years, then I’m going to become a columnist on a college football beat, then I’m going to go national.’

“But it’s never exactly what you think it’s going to be. When I started out, my writing reps as a professional were in a PR space. I leveraged those articles into covering all the events that nobody wanted to do and that more established writers wouldn’t take and that was freelance. And then I was assembling emails for Fox Sports. Like, literally, I was writing lists for emails for Fox Sports from 4 a.m. to noon every day to pay my rent and then going and covering like the garbage-time articles that nobody wanted to do.

“And that’s OK because it led to more and more clips piling up and more and more resumes getting sent out, and one day after another of me really freaking hating what I was doing, but then it leading into things I love to do.

“You just never know what’s going to take you to where you feel in your soul that you’re supposed to be. And so, yes, the anxiety is very, very, very strong. Yes, the unknown is very, very strong, but it’s OK to sort of deviate from the path that you always thought you were supposed to be on. every success looks different to everybody.”

Dealing with imposter syndrome

“That voice in your head: ‘Why should I apply for that job? They’re probably looking for more experience. They’re probably looking for someone with X, Y, or Z on their resume.’

“What if I just went out and did it anyway. What’s really the worst thing that could happen? Could they say no? Could someone not like your story? What’s really the worst that could happen because if you reframe it in your mind at the end of the day, you still are succeeding. Because you went out and did it anyway.

“Being told no really stinks. It really, really stinks being told you suck. But at the end of the day, you’re always going to hear that from somebody. You’re not getting like your fingernails peeled off or anything. So if that’s really the worst thing that can happen, then what the hell? Then why don’t we just try and why don’t we just do and why don’t we kind of give the finger to that voice and and just go out and try to be who we are, anyway.

“I think my generation’s job to make sure that your generation understands that it is OK to fail. It’s OK to feel sometimes like you’re not good enough. It is not OK to let it control your life. The secret is, you don’t have to let it control you. It doesn’t own you. It doesn’t have any power. It’s not paying your rent for you; it’s not putting money in your wallet. It’s not bringing joy to your life. It doesn’t have any power over you.”

Dealing with trolls and harassment

“It’s like an ever-evolving process. Some days, you’re able to laugh it off, and then other days, you’re like, oh my god. There were days where things are really, really quiet, and  there were days in my career where I couldn’t stay at my own house. For me, it’s like, ‘well, why don’t you lose weight in your face’ or, ‘you know, why don’t you make an effort, like the TV reporters.’

“I think an ongoing process of growth and learning how to tune out those voices. What really helped me was being very intentional about some of the conversations that I would have with editors, or with colleagues, and developing support groups in that regard. And I’ll tell you, like the women who cover the NFL,  we’re all in one massive text thread.

“What do we think this person is doing, sending me this nasty message? I can either let what happened two minutes ago control my entire day, or I can, say, seek out a voice that matters to me, have a sip of this really good coffee or go pet a dog. I would  say, find a support system like a place where you can just vent it all out, a safer space where you have voices that you trust.”

Dealing with layoffs

“Am I ever going to feel safe in what I’m doing and am I ever going to be secure? Am I ever going to be comfortable? The answer is no.

“If you are seeking this profession because you want to be safe and want to be secure, those jobs are very, very rare in sports journalism and and in regular journalism. You have to attack and approach every single day, like, here I am, this is what I know I want to do with my life. And this is why I’m here. You start to stack enough of those days all in a row where you just give it what you have. Despite chaos and noise and scariness of the uncertainty, and all a sudden you have this massive body of work that you’re really proud of. Even if you are let go, you’ll find something else, because that’s the kind of work ethic that you have. And that’s the kind of talent that you’ve displayed.”

Dealing with no jobs

“There is a tendency, particularly as young people leave into the job market, to look around and see a lack of opportunity and a lack of jobs and sort of this decline in what the opportunities are that we always dreamed of doing. There is a habit that young people fall into as ‘this is my fault, somehow. I chose wrong. I studied all the wrong things for four years, all of these things that are happening around me, I did the wrong thing.

“The number one thing you need to make sure you’re reminding yourself is what’s happening right now is not your fault. And you didn’t do the wrong thing by deciding on what you want to do and for working toward that. You did not do the wrong thing by making the choice you did for what you wanted to do this is outside of your control, you cannot control this.

“The second part is focusing on what you can control, and the things you can control are providing structure for yourself and your life. So that you can literally feel at the end of the day, I know that everything around me is outside of my control but I accomplished this thing on my checklist and for that I am to be celebrated. And I can celebrate myself because I’ve done that for me what it was was I’m going to send out five resumes per day.

“It could be anything. I’m going to send out five resumes per day. It could be incredibly lofty aspirational things. It could be something completely outside my what I thought was my field of interest. It could be something that you know would be a very entry level position. It could be anything. 

“And if I can check that off my list. I am to be celebrated. Because with all of this happening outside of my control. I have accomplished this, and setting up structure for yourself. For me, it took eight months of doing that before I got my job covering Penn State football. Other people around me, it was two resumes, a week, and it took them two weeks. Other people around me didn’t find anything and they realized they wanted to do something outside of journalism and were happy doing that.

“The act of providing structure for yourself and reimagining that conversation that you have, instead of ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t control this. And I’m just going to be swept by this riptide that’s that’s coursing through our economy right now, OR I‘m going to create this task for myself. I accomplish this task and I have done what I can today to make my life better for myself and that should be celebrated, absolutely should be celebrated.”

“I got to like black people so much more than white people”

The New York Times on Sunday told the story of Robert Frank, a photographer who criss-crossed the nation, “seeing it as an outsider, a Swiss who left Zurich in 1947 in search of broader horizons.” Years later, he told the Times, “That trip I got to like black people so much more than white people.”

It reminded me of the early 80’s when I covered religion for the News & Observer. One of my duties was to report on what was said from the pulpits on Sunday mornings. The idea was that clergy had a sizable audience and influence; if we were covering governmental meetings, we should cover “meetings” of the faith communities.

I understood the thinking, but I didn’t like it. It meant that I spent half of my Friday trying to find a preacher who planned to base a sermon on a newsworthy topic. Then I spent half of Sunday reporting and writing it. Basically, it cut down on the days when I could write stories with more impact on the faith community and community at large.

But, yeah, whatever. In any case, I could only write about sin and forgiveness so many times. I worked hard to find a sermon on a topical issue — social justice or something happening in the world — and many times, I’d get there and the promise of the sermon topic wasn’t fulfilled.

I kept it up for about a year, and don’t remember the topic of a single sermon now. But I do remember one thing: I was welcomed with open arms at the black churches; I was just another parishioner at the white churches. Even when I was asked by greeters at the white churches why I was there, my response was answered with a simple, “Welcome!” and they moved on to the next worshipper coming through the door.

But at the black churches, I was routinely invited to sit with someone in a pew, to join them for the potluck after the service, to talk about my background, and, most important, to be invited back next week. Maybe that welcome was because I was the only white face in the crowd. Maybe it was because most of the white churches I visited were traditional mainstream congregations. Maybe it was because they were simply more welcoming.

Or maybe they thought I was an angel. Hebrews 13:2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

Sunday sampler

Many of N.C. newspaper front pages have stories about high school graduations and coronavirus. I was surprised that some of the smaller papers had race/protest stories. (Sometimes I can be a small-minded elitist.) I’m looking at you Mooresville, Kannapolis, and Hickory.

To the metro papers, the News & Observer has two good pieces on the protest. The first is a simple but compelling compilation of protesters’ voices explaining why they are marching. “History keeps repeating itself, and it’s time for change. I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t try to help be part of the change. Sitting around doesn’t make me feel good. I want change not only for myself but for future generations.”

The second story is about next steps for the protesters in Raleigh. “Active civic disobedience I don’t think will go away anytime soon,” Zainab Baloch said. “The crowds might diminish on the ground, but regardless of that, people are passionate and ready and want quick bold change.”

In Winston-Salem, artists took to the streets, literally, to paint “in big, block letters ‘END RACISM NOW #BLM, in the middle of the road. Every letter is its own art piece, with one artist responsible for each character — except for the hashtag, which had three.”

Burlington, Jacksonville and Kinston all feature an Asheville Citizen-Times story on North Carolina’s census count…and how way too many people aren’t filling it out. I can’t find the story online, though.



Finding story ideas: ‘Mine your own life’

Jessica Contrera, a remarkable journalist with the Washington Post, visited my post-grad UNC journalism group last night. I’ve followed her career as a writer since she was winning awards at Indiana University six or seven years ago. When members of the group asked to hear from someone about story ideas, I knew just who to call. (I started this informal group of grads to chat to keep their skills fresh and spirits up as they search for jobs.)

Contrera’s bio says she “reports on people whose lives are being transformed by major events and issues in the news.” Recently, she’s reported on the protests & COVID, but she’s also notable for her insightful feature stories. She spoke about covering the protests, finding stories, and quieting her dog, and took questions group for 45 minutes. I’ve excerpted a few of the topics, with light editing for clarity.

Advice for coming up with story ideas

“Mine your own life. If there’s something that you’re really interested in, the chances are that there are other people who are interested in it, too.

“I think that you have to read a lot. Right now that can be kind of an exhausting activity, so I don’t recommend non-stop reading and never taking breaks, but sometimes dedicating yourself to every morning, you’re going to read what’s on the homepage of The New York Times and The Washington Post and in your local paper. You know you’re not just skimming headlines right you’re actually reading because so often story ideas are hidden in a little paragraph in the middle of the story.

“So I would just encourage you read a whole diversity of things. Read fiction and as you’re reading be looking for story ideas, be looking for something that kind of sparks that curiosity in you and makes you want to know more.

“And then the last one would be to just try to develop sources. In my job, I don’t cover like a specific beat. I’m not the education reporter. I’m not the basketball reporter. So there’s not a very obvious like ‘oh, here are my sources that I need to form relationships with.’

“So for me, forming sources is a lot about just, anytime I do any story, I say to people, ‘You know, you have my number. If there’s ever anything you think we should be writing about please give me a call.’ Sometimes I’ll say that to like strangers who I meet where I’ll carry business cards and give them to like Uber drivers. You can do that with all kinds of people. You can post that on Facebook, you know, if you if you wanted to read a story right now, what would you read. Oh, you guys aren’t using Facebook;  Instagram. You only have two eyes and two ears, right? But if you can kind of utilize a network of people who can bring new stories then it multiplies you know your options.”

On deadlines and rewriting

“You want to meet your deadlines. You want to meet those expectations that people place on you. But what I really tried to do is carve out more time for writing, more time than I think that I need. Because the first time you write it, it’s not going to be like it’s going to be fine. It might. It might be actively bad. A lot of times what I write the first time is actively bad. I just know that if I keep working at it, it’s going to get better every single time I rewrite it. And so when I have a big project to turn it, I will leave even like one or two days on the end where all I’m doing is just revising. If I’m on a really tight deadline, maybe only an extra five minutes that I give myself but that kind of helps.

How you pitch for communities you’re not familiar with

“You want to read everything that publication has done as far back as you can manage. And then I think Twitter lists are an amazing thing. So every time I started a new internship or a new job. I would create a Twitter list about that place, and I would find all the local TV stations, all the local radio stations, all the local food bloggers, and reporters, and add them all to that Twitter list. Then start going through that. You can do that with a hashtag on Instagram too.

“When you guys arrive in these new places — and I think that being fresh is like the biggest benefit that you can have — you’re seeing a place with totally new eyes.  Just driving around, walking around you can see story ideas.

“You can do a lot in a coffee shop. You say, ‘I just moved here and I’m gonna report and I need story ideas and you hand over your card and say what’s been going on.’ Get yourself in that mode of when you’re out in the world, you can be reporter even if you’re not technically on the job.”

Advice for covering a protest

“Not to get in the middle of the crowd for a very long period of time. And putting your back against something, especially when you’re going to be on your phone typing is just safe. Because something could fly to the air or whatever. At the very first protest that I covered, I got hit in the head really hard because I was just trying to duck under these guys and get in the middle of the scrum, which I don’t know why I needed to do that because I can’t actually see anything.

“I’m constantly looking for ways to get myself up high. So a lot of like where I spent last week was like hanging on a light pole. Right. I was only two feet off the ground. I could look around and then when I saw a mother carrying her 2-year-old for the protest. I was like, I gotta go. And I like chased her down, and very respectfully asked her if she’d like to be a part of the story.”

On chasing ‘your’ stories

“You figure out ways to juggle your time, which is really important. If you care about a story, do the story, even if you if you have to find a more creative way to do it. Because when you care about a story, you’re going to do it well. And when it’s done well, people are going to read it and respond to it and your editors are going to go, ‘Great. Let’s do have her do more of that.’ So you have to be sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. You have to be brave and to not just stay in your lane and write about only things you know.”