Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Copy Editors and the Web, Part II

John E. McIntyre, assistant managing editor for copy desks at the Baltimore Sun, takes a look at editing and the Web.

Q. How should copy editors think of the web challenge? A threat to their expertise and experience? Their skills? Or an opportunity? Anything in-between?

A. Electronic publishing offers the same challenges to copy editors as print publishing: The imperative to achieve accuracy and clarity in texts, and the need to establish the work structures and procedures to make that possible. Like it or not, readers appear to be migrating to the Web, so we must develop the methods to capture and sustain their attention. And at the same time, we can’t afford to alienate the readers of the print edition, which, though declining in both readership and advertising revenue, still constitute the core of our readership and the bulk of our income.

Q. What can copy editors do to make the transition from working only for the print publication to a combined print-web work?

A. The hardest thing is to break free of the “this is how we’ve always done it” attitude. Print edition deadlines no longer define the entire day’s work, and the Web has to be fed continuously.

The challenge is to find how to maintain as much of the old tripartite checking structure as we can: a story given a first edit by a copy editor, checked by a slot editor, and read on proof by a third copy editor. This is a process that can catch substantial errors at each of the three stages, and abandoning all or part of it exposes the publication to greater risk. Little errors erode credibility with readers, and large errors can expose the publication to lawsuits.

Q. How will producing stories and editing for the Web change work done for print?

A. Since newspapers appear unlikely to invest additional staff as they try to straddle the print-electronic platforms, copy editors are going to have to be nimble. At The Sun, we have dispatched an editor from the copy desk to a morning shift to edit copy for the Web. We have also had to merge functions of the different rims, so that the previous distinction between news, features and sports copy desks has been blurred, if not obliterated. Copy editors have to understand that they can turn a hand to whatever work is presented during their shifts. At the same time, we do still try to recognize levels of expertise, not assuming that copy editors are interchangeable cogs who can edit a homicide brief, a theater review and a baseball column with equal facility. Copy editors are assigned to core areas of expertise, with the understanding that they will branch out to others as they are able.

Q. Do copy editors need deep technical knowledge to work for most newspaper or magazine web sites?

A. Blogging software has become relatively easy for a non-expert to use, and basic word-processing skills are sufficient to handle most writing and editing. It has not been necessary, for example, for most of our people to master HTML. But this depends on the editors’ involvement with the actual Web site, as distinct from preparing content for the site.

As with all the other technological developments in the business, such as pagination, copy editors should be prepared to learn whatever technical skills are necessary to accomplish the work.

Q. To your knowledge, are stories frequently being posted without much copy editing?

A. Not at The Sun. All articles for the Web site are to be read by a copy editor before being submitted for posting. Blogs are slightly different. Some bloggers (I’m one) submit texts to editors before posting. But all blogs are to be read by editors, with comments and corrections forwarded to the bloggers so that they can make changes in the posted text.

Q. I've found many reporters and editors eager to get started with web assignments as long as their print work isn't damaged by the extra workload. But they seem unsure of how to take control of their work. What can journalists do to find their way onto the web?

A. The mental adjustments are the first step. Many reporters appear to be trapped in the print schedule — that is, they start at 9:30 in the morning, assuming that their job is to turn in the draft of a story at 6 p.m. Web work develops more like the P.M. papers of previous generations: stories updated throughout the day, beginning with short accounts of breaking events and accumulating additional detail (and corrections) as the day progresses.

This also requires more sophisticated setting of priorities. The breaking story, the blog post and the weekender are all conceivably in development at the same time. The writers have to learn how to juggle the different tasks.

For the copy editor, this means understanding the same thing: Which gets the immediate priority, the Web article, the daily print article, the article for the advance section? We have multiple deadline structures.

Q. Are newspaper blogs accomplishing what other non-newspaper blogs do? Are they an afterthought or are they getting the attention they deserve? Do they stand up on their own as journalism?

A. The staff blogs at The Sun are succeeding in attracting readership, mainly in sports. But others, such as the restaurant critic’s blog and a copy editor’s blog on the dating scene, attract a smaller but respectable audience and, more to the point, draw comments from the readers. Their relative informality complements the tone of the paper and extends its range.

Q. Are there any reading studies that can tell us whether people are reading or absorbing information on the web differently from what they get from print?

A. Not familiar with such work.

Q. I've heard complaints from journalists around the country that some people writing for newspaper or other web sites aren't informed aboutthe subject. Do you think that's correct? If so, will that change as more print people start producing directly for the web?

A. It’s hard enough dealing with the journalists who are ill-informed about the subjects they’re writing about.

Q. Is there anything else you want to say to copy editors or other journalists?

A. Say not the struggle nought availeth.

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