News Leadership 3.0

November 18, 2008

The Eagle’s ‘online first’ copy desk

In Wichita, editors vet online stories before the line editors do

After I wrote about the tension around the copy desk in times of digital transition, I heard from Michael Roehrman, deputy editor/production at The Wichita Eagle, about that news organization’s efforts to integrate its copy editors into its online efforts (Editors from The Eagle participated in Knight Digital Media Center’s annual leadership conference in July and I periodically query participants about newsroom issues and strategies.)

imageRoehrman described a three-step process that has given copy editors the lead role in vetting stories for the Web:

1. Reporters send breaking news for the Web directly to a copy editor, bypassing the line editing desk.

2. Copy editors immersed themselves in search engine optimization techniques.

3. Most of the 10 copy editors are individually responsible for overseeing a portion of the main Web site, Kansas.com sites such as WichitaPaws.com.

“The traditional process of reporter-line editor-copy editor doesn’t lend itself well to the urgency of getting breaking news on the Web. So, the first thing we did was eliminate the line editor from the process. The thinking here was that accuracy and eliminating potential libel were greater concerns, so copy editors are the ones to work reporters’ copy and then post the items. Line editors can go back into the story and work their magic after it’s online,” Roehrman said in an e-mail.

“We also gave all copy editors access to the online publishing tools system. This authority allows them to go right into the code and fix any errors they spot. An area where this is particularly helpful is cutlines. The system we have uploads the photographers’ cutlines, which are embedded in the photo files they send, and they are often not everything they should be.”

I asked Roehrman about the inevitable challenge of changing culture and practice.

“The biggest initial challenge, particularly among our more-seasoned editors, was one of perception; a close second was time management. The first was overcome by consistently reinforcing the idea of one job but multiple platforms and pointing out the professional advantages of having experience publishing different ways. With copy editors, you can never underestimate the appeal of learning something new.  I’m still delighted that my editor with the most seniority - he’s been in the business for more than 30 years - was the one who embraced the changes with the most enthusiasm.

“As for time management, that was a more gradual process. One breakthrough was in the realization that reverse publishing eliminated the need for redundant copy editing. In other words, if an article was already edited for the Web, considerably less time needed to be spent editing it for print.”

The Eagle has 10 copy editors, including Roehrman.  The workload?

“It sounds like a lot, and it is. The trick, however, was that everything was phased in over the past couple of years—some of the tasks started out as goals. The most important thing is that each member of the desk is fully behind both platforms. They embrace the changes we’re going through and are excited about the possibilities ahead.”

So far, the approach is working.

“As far as I’m aware, there haven’t been any repercussions from our method of online editing. Most in the newsroom realize the importance and value of what copy editors do, so they’re in agreement with the process. When I’ve spoken with editors at other papers, they’re amazed that we’ve adopted this philosophy. To me, it’s a logical idea. And yes, it’s quite empowering.”

Efficiency and empowerment. What a combination.

What’s your formula for integrating your copy editors into the digital mix? What’s working in your newsroom? Please share tips and ideas in the comments.

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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