Q&A with Ryan Thornburg, journalism professor and author

by andybechtel

Ryan Thornburg teaches in the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill, and he is the author of a new textbook, “Producing Online News: New Tools, Stronger Stories.” Before coming to UNC, Thornburg was managing editor of the website of U.S. News & World Report. He’s also worked for the online operations of Congressional Quarterly and The Washington Post. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Thornburg talks about his book and his views on editing in the digital medium.

Q. Journalism education has no shortage of textbooks. What makes this one stand out?

A. Actually, I think journalism education has a shortage of texts for “new media” topics. In fact, the idea for this book came about because I couldn’t really find the book I needed to teach a class about online news producing. I found some pretty interesting books about new media concepts and some very good tech tutorials, but nothing that really connects the skill that students need today with the concepts to which those skills are applied. I hope that’s the big gap this book fills for folks.

Students who go through all 12 chapters will be very well prepared to walk into most newsrooms today and get a job in online news production. And they’ll be thinking about news in a way that helps them look for and take advantage of future opportunities to tell stronger stories as the tools and techniques continue to change. It’s a book for people who want to be reporters, editors and storytellers generally rather than people who already know they are in love with just one particular method — say, writing or video or design or programming.

Q. A book on paper about online editing seems ironic. How can a textbook stay current when things are moving so quickly in our profession?

A. Ha! Yeah, I know. I like to think of it as “retro.”

So, the other thing that makes this textbook a bit different is that it’s not just a paperback book. It’s a hands-on experience and a community. The real value I think is going to be for the students and instructors who opt to use the online modules and who engage me and each other on social media.

If you go to cqpress.com, you’ll soon be able to buy individual digital chapters of the book. And I’ll be updating those chapters as often as the publisher will let me.

For each chapter in the book, there are also a series of online exercises to which students can subscribe. These online learning modules include objective quizzes based on that material covered in the chapter as well as hands-on training exercises in which students will use real news content — text, audio, video, pictures — to produce stories in a simulated CMS environment.

We’re initially building that environment in a customized version of WordPress that’s going to be hosted by CQPress, so students will be working with a user interface they’re almost certain to see in their professional careers. And — bonus — instructors don’t have to worry about any of the tech support. Students will also be using their WordPress blogs to revue and critique professional news sites following criteria they learn in the book.

Students will be able to publicly share those blog posts if they choose and take them with them after they leave the class. It’s going to be a great tool for building student portfolios and for connecting the classroom with the professional industry.

I’ll also be available on Twitter and Facebook and my blog to chat with students during the year, so they’ll be able to ask me what the heck I’m talking about on page 82, for example, and I’ll be able to tell them that I found a great new example for non-linear storytelling and they’ll be able to talk with each other about the future of news that they will be shaping together. So using the book and the associated online modules is going to make you a member in a community of young people who care deeply about the future of journalism, the tools that people are using to create it and the effect that both will have on our shared world for generations to come.

I mean, I don’t get excited about much other than Carolina basketball, and I’m really excited about this.

Q. What information in the book is applicable to copy editing?

A. The most obvious is the entire chapter about editing for searchers and scanners (as opposed to readers). I keep hearing that the role of copy editing is dying in newsrooms, but that role has really just evolved so much that it is becoming a new job that I’ve always called “producer.”

Now, “producer” has a certain meaning in a traditional broadcast newsroom, and I think that meaning does translate into online news for the most part. A lot of the job is about choosing the pieces you need to tell a story.

Copy editing text — fixing spelling and grammar and fact-checking — is one piece of that role. But it’s also about quality assurance generally — do the links work, is the video too dark, is the audio too hot, do the captions in the photo gallery work in a linear or non-linear fashion, is the JavaScript properly loading the interactive graphic, do the state abbreviations in the database match AP style …

To quote Phil Meyer, the ante has been raised on what it means to be a copy editor today.

Q. Copy editing seems to be at a crisis point, with many media companies laying off editors and consolidating editing functions. What do you see as the future of editing as a skill?

A. You know, I’ve never had “copy editor” on one of my business cards, so I’m probably less worried about the loss of copy editors as I am about the loss of quality that too often accompanies copy editing.

Just to pick up on one issue related to quality assurance, there are all these debates and hand-wringing about un-edited stuff that goes up online, and that’s because I think we’ve yet as a culture been able to think about text as a living medium.

For many of us, text is still something that’s carved in stone or printed on paper. And it still is. Text that is bound and printed, to me, has great authority and importance.

But we have to start thinking about text as dynamic media. And that gets us to think about copy editing as something that’s always happening — not just something that happens at one specific point in the editorial process.

So, for example, is it OK for me to publish a fact error — something totally opposite of true? Saying that the president has been shot when he
was not? Absolutely, no never.

But is it OK for me to write that “Barak Obama signed the bill which ends don’t ask don’t tell.” There are all sorts of problems with that sentence, but it is factually correct. Spelling, grammar and AP style need to be fixed, and they should be.

But each news organization is going to have to make decisions — based not on theory but on real economics — about how and when to correct that sentence. Some factors probably should be the role that timeliness plays in a particular news story, the hour of day that it is published, the number of people who will potentially see it, etc. This is triage.

Copy editors live in an ER that is always dealing with a plane crash amid a massive earthquake. More layers of editing — including, in some cases, editing by the audience or by machine —  mean higher quality. There is always a point of diminishing returns at which additional layers become economically unviable.

Editing isn’t merely a profession. It’s a mindset. It’s about looking for not just what is there, but what is missing. With the mass of information being tossed up online, on air and in print, the discerning and curious minds of editors will eventually become more valuable than ever.

We’re all still a bit like kids who get their first car or have their first drink. We freaking love our newfound freedom and pretty much love thumbing our noses at journalistic authority right now. And that’s not good. We’ll wreck the car. We’ll get hung over.

But the editing mindset — those of us in and outside of newsrooms who know that clarity, brevity and accuracy is the path to truth — has to eventually win out. I hope my book helps more young people understand that before we get messed up too badly.

For more, read Thornburg’s blog and follow him on Twitter.

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