Q&A with Overheard in the Newsroom's Kevin Cobb

For folks that have left the newsroom, it’s become the source of our newsroom culture fix. For those in newsrooms, it’s the place that confirms you are not alone and, yes, the newsroom is crazy. Awesome and crazy.

For this week’s post I chatted with the creator of Overheard in the Newsroom, Kevin Cobb. We pull back the virtual curtain and learn about how the project began and how it has been an insightful barometer reflecting our industry’s ups and downs.

As in other Q&As I do, we meet on a collaborative document a few weeks back and just chat-typed away.

Kevin, thanks for agreeing to do this Q&A… let’s start with you talking about your journalism background. What do you do and how’d you start in the ‘business’?

Kevin CobbI’m currently a news designer with the South Florida Sun Sentinel. I first got my ‘journalism itch’ back in high school. I was always the kid who ended up staying after school and making sure the paper was finished. I went to Ball State University in ’04 (Go Cards!) and worked at The Times of Northwest Indiana after graduation.

You’re a man of many talents, including being an ordained minister… but you’re best known for the site and Twitter account @OHnewsroom, which “delivers the best overheard comments in any newsroom.” Can you talk about how that idea came about?

Overheard in the Newsroom launched in Jan. of ’09. My entire journalism background has been focused on the print side of journalism and I wanted to ‘figure out’ the Web side (building a site, maintaining a social network presence). I just needed an idea. I noticed a trend among the people I was following on Twitter of sharing what was being said in their newsroom… things like “heard in my newsroom” and “my editor just said…” I had the newsroom background to know people kept quote files of the more outrageous things their co-workers said. So I launched. But what has made the site viral has been the Twitter and Facebook presence.

So it started as a site? Talk about your experience when you move to Twitter. When did you know you had something big?

Yep, it first started as a site. Using Twitter and Facebook just seemed like a natural extension. I had my first ‘holy cow, what have I started’ moment when New York Times reporter Brian Stelter mentioned the site on Twitter a few weeks after launch.

How many followers did you have before the mention? How many did you have afterwards?

I’m not sure of the exact numbers. I did send him an email thanking him and said the account gained 150 followers in 30 minutes — which was a huge number at the time.

You’re now at more than 40,000 followers on Twitter, and more than 100,000 on Facebook. Did you ever imagine this to reach so many people? How has this affect your newsroom relationships? Do people think you’ll post something if they make a comment to you?

You can ask my mentor Erica Smith about the increase in number of followers. Every time I would hit a milestone I would text her. Every. Time. In terms of my newsroom relationships, I would say it has only made them stronger. My co-workers know this is a side project that I do on my own time. I’ve made it clear to them that I’ll never submit a quote I overheard.

Ha! My condolences to Erica. Talk about the ‘workflow’ for OHNewsoom. How do you get submissions? How many a day? What’s your process in ‘publishing’?

The majority of submissions are sent to the site — overheardinthenewsroom.com. I’ll pick up a few from Twitter that people know to add the hashtag #ohnewsroom. Some people add them to the wall on the Facebook page. A few months ago I added Tumblr to the mix and I’m starting to get a few through there. Depending on my day, I’ll go through the submissions and schedule them out a day or two in advance.

How many submissions do you get a day? What makes a good OHNewsroom submission/post?

On average I receive 50 to 75 quotes a day. When I’m going through the submissions, I look for things I would send my friends. In terms of which ones make the Twitter + Facebook feeds, I look for the ones that are relatable. Ones that will get a “that just happened to me” comment.

How many posts have you done so far? I’m assuming you’re going to have to guess the number.

Somewhere over 7,000.

I have to ask the typical question… do you have a favorite? What have been the most memorable ones?

Here are my 3 favorite:

Editor: “If you’re still at work and they’re vacuuming, you know you’ve made the wrong career choice.”

Reporter: “Life in the newsroom? It’s just a constant roller coaster of praise and bitch-slaps.”

Reporter: “I’m going to go as a journalist for Halloween. All I need for my costume is an empty bottle of vodka and my shattered dreams.”

To celebrate the passing of the 100,000 fan mark on Facebook, I’ll be soon be releasing a video of my journalist friends reading some of the best quotes from the site.

So, what are the typical reactions you’ve gotten from the posts? Do people recognize they’ve been quoted ever? What are the reactions from journalists when they meet you and realize you’re the guy behind OHnewsroom.

On Twitter, people will say “Hey, that’s my newsroom!” — they take pride in being recognized. My favorite ‘made it on OHnewsroom site quote’:

Producer: “We love making it on Overheard in the Newsroom.” Reporter: “It’s like, who cares about an Emmy. We made it on Overheard in the Newsroom!”

Are there ones you’ve had that you hadn’t published? Can you talk about those?

There have been a few quotes that have been submitted that were too over the top to be published.

Let’s take this to an ‘analytical’ level. What have you learned from these thousands and thousands of posts? What do these comments tell you about our newsrooms? About journalists?

There is still a definite need for copy editors.

It’s interesting to see the quotes change. I can always tell when it’s Intern Season when the intern-related quotes start floating in.

HAHAHA! Do these comments reflect the changes and challenges in our newsrooms?

I think so. When layoffs and furloughs were sweeping newsrooms, the site took an even more sarcastic / borderline depressed turn.

Based on the submissions you are getting now, let’s take an unscientific leap… what do your submissions say about the state of the industry now? Are we on the way up? Or still going down? Or … both? (I’m not a scientist)

From the submissions, I would say things have leveled out. The themes are now centered around deadlines, booze, technology and dealing with the public… which seems pretty universal in any newsroom, at any time.

Well, thanks for taking the time to chat with me … are there any parting words you’d like to add? Did you, in fact, ‘figure out’ the Web? What tech tips do you have for newsroom folks? Any pieces of wisdom to share from OHnewsroom?

If you have an idea for a project — go for it. It’s ridiculously easy to start a project on Tumblr.

Try new things. Go to your audience. Make it easy as possible for them to contribute and share your content. And if you don’t know where to start or who to follow on Twitter — participate in #wjchat. 🙂

Ha! Thank you sir. I have to say, for someone who has stepped away from the newsroom, I’ve continued to get my witty, smart-ass, anti-PC, newsroom culture fix from OHnewsroom. You captured something wonderful here and I, as I’m sure other journos, are grateful you’re sharing our brilliance and awkwardness.

The site would be nothing without the continued support from my fellow journalists across the world.

Robert Hernandez is a Web Journalism professor at USC Annenberg and co-creator of #wjchat, a weekly chat for Web Journalists held on Twitter. You can contact him by e-mail ([email protected]) or through Twitter (@webjournalist). Yes, he’s a tech/journo geek.

About Robert Hernandez

Robert Hernandez, aka WebJournalist, is an assistant professor at USC Annenberg. Hernandez has been working in Web journalism for more than a decade. He has worked for seattletimes.com, SFGate.com, eXaminer.com, La Prensa Gr