Here’s Kelley Carlson’s interview with Paul Wahl, the managing editor for the Sun Sailor (western suburban newspaper).
Q: First of all, I was just wondering how you pick some of the stories that you choose – it seems like such a great paper because of its focus on community issues, and I’d love to know how you go about gathering ideas for upcoming stories!
Story ideas come to us from two primary categories. About 50 percent are ideas suggested by readers or groups or organizations in the community. These are usually in the form of email messages. Sometimes they are passed along to our community editors when they are out and about. The other 50 percent of our stories come from working the best (city council, school board, other regularly scheduled meetings). One example, someone may come to a city council meeting to complain about the condition of the road in their neighborhood. That might lead to a story regarding road conditions in general in that community, using the person who appeared to complain as the focal point. There are a handful of other ways we get news, but those are the “big 2.”
Also, how involved do you find yourself having to be in actual editing – how much time and focus do you need to spend on correcting AP style errors, fact-checking, et cetera, and at what point do your reporters find themselves in a little bit of hot water with you if their stories seem to be lacking?
Unfortunately, more involved than I would like to be. We give every new hire an AP style test mainly to give us some idea of how much we’re going to have to work them on AP style. Generally our applicants do well, but then when it comes to practical application, not so much. Our writing software is designed to catch errors of all kinds and does a thorough job, but there are always those that slip through. Fact-checking is pretty much left up to the community editor. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on how you look at it) I’ve been doing this for so long that I know most of the names and know when someone gets one wrong and fix it. Or if someone reports on an incident on a particular street in a particular town in our coverage area, I generally know if they’ve gotten the name of the street wrong. We always ask our community editors to get business cards from everyone they interview and sometimes just to double-check I will ask a community editor to show me the business card to check a spelling or a city of residence.
What advice would you give to aspiring journalists and editors as to how to get involved in the industry in a real way?
Internships. Internships. Internships. And I mean newspaper internships. We see a lot of people who interned in marketing or communication or advertising and it’s just not the same as a newsroom internship. We look at a newsroom internship as a bare minimum for getting hired in our company.
How do you combine the physical paper that you send out with the online aspect of the Sun Sailor?
Since Sun Sailor is a free distribution newspaper, we post all of the content of each edition on the website. We do this in small dribs and drabs each day of the week, but if you read the website religiously each day of the week, you will have access to all of the same content that’s in the printed version. Outside of Sailor, where we have paid circulation publications, only a small amount of “teaser” copy is placed on the website with great emphasis on pushing annual subscriptions.
Do you get support from the community to put out the paper, or do you focus more on advertising to get the funds needed to run?
For Sailor, advertising revenue makes up 95 percent of total revenue. We do sell a limited number of subscriptions to people outside the area who want to get the printed edition and there is some money generated from sales of additional copies and from sales of photos that makes up the additional 5 percent. It’s a bit tricky because if advertising sales go down, it’s an immediate hit. We don’t have a great deal of revenue diversity like some publications do. That said, it’s also easy for us to know where to put our efforts when it comes to revenue — ADVERTISING SALES!