The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Tag: Web editing

Q&A with Amy Goldstein, editor at ESPN.com

Amy Goldstein has been an associate editor on the copy desk at ESPN.com since February 2008. Before moving to central Connecticut, she completed a master’s degree in journalism at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism and a bachelor’s degree in linguistics at CUNY Queens College. She has interned at the Detroit Free Press, McClatchy-Tribune News Service and News 12 Long Island. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Goldstein offers a glimpse of what it’s like to be an editor at the ESPN site.

Q. Describe your job at ESPN. What is your typical workday like?

A. I edit 12 to 15 stories, blogs and photo galleries each day and am the copy desk editor who backreads subject page tops that are sent via e-mail. I also often assign priorities to stories in our queue system based on what’s expected to be featured prominently on our front page or on section pages. When time allows, I slot stories and coordinate copy desk reads of entire index pages.

We have a copy desk and a news desk, and the copy desk is responsible for editing features, columns, power rankings and other staff-generated items, while the news desk mostly edits headline news stories and game recaps. Most copy deskers work during the day rather than at night because the stories we edit generally come to us during normal business hours. Stories’ lengths vary significantly, as do their subject matter — I might edit a feature about an NFL player, then a Q-and-A with the creator of a sports video game, then a live blog about a poker event.

Q. What is the biggest challenge you face in your job?

A. You were expecting it to be working against the clock, weren’t you? Well, not quite. If a story needs to be published right away (for example, right after the Masters tournament) it is, and then we’ll backread it as soon as possible. If it doesn’t, we’ll be expected to turn the story around within a reasonable amount of time, but there’s usually no rush.

ESPN is a reporter-driven environment, and that’s what enables our best writers to develop a distinct voice that is recognized on a national level. Our writers have a lot of editors — a story might be edited by two or three people before it reaches the copy desk — and we’re charged with maintaining our writers’ voices while making sure they don’t cross the line on sensitive topics. With so many hands on deck, sometimes it’s hard to appease everyone. My biggest challenge is deciding which battles to pick and how best to compromise.


Q. You have worked for print and online media. What are the biggest differences between them? What about similarities?

A. My work online might be a little less creative than what I did for print media, but that’s really a function of the workflow here. I typically don’t write headlines or cutlines or select photos, but section editors (who do all those things) ask me for headline and blurb suggestions several times a day. We also have two layers of headlines for most of our stories — the index page display text, which aims to get the reader to click on a story (and often has tight head counts, just like in print media!), and the headline on top of the story, which is often a summary type of head because the reader already was engaged enough to click through to that point.

As I hinted at above, there generally aren’t deadlines at ESPN.com, so I find working online to be less stressful than working in print. I try to finish a story as fast as I can, but I almost always have plenty of time to make it as good as it should be. At the same time, there’s little downtime during our workday. We always have something to do because our writers and section editors produce so much content each day.

As for similarities, the reality is that both print and online media work to tell similar or identical stories. A story published online might be longer, but the general rules of keeping a reader engaged still apply.

Q. Many college students would love to have a job like yours. What career advice do you have for them?

A. Persistence was key for me in landing this job. A number of things had to fall perfectly into place for me to end up here, but if I hadn’t kept calling my boss during a seven-month period, I wouldn’t be at ESPN. In addition, knowing what you really want in a job helps you sell yourself, and internships help you refine what path you want your career to take.

In graduate school, I had several opportunities to learn Web programs, and I’m thankful for that because although ESPN.com’s publishing system is proprietary, I learned how to tell a story using interactive media. I share that knowledge with my colleagues whenever I think it might be useful. I suggest that college students take advantage of the opportunity to learn new programs — it’s fun and rewarding when you finish a project, even a quick photo gallery produced with Soundslides.

Q&A with Rachel Sterne of GroundReport

Rachel Sterne is founder and CEO of GroundReport.com, a citizen journalism site with an international perspective. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Sterne talks about how the site works, how it uses social media and how its content is edited.

Q. What is GroundReport, and who makes up your audience?

A. GroundReport is an global news platform that allows anyone to submit articles, videos and photos for publication. The best work is published online to an international audience and syndicated to Google News, Huffington Post and other outlets.

Our mission is to democratize the media, but we’ve found that adding vetting and reward systems helps to ensure that our news reporting has some of the highest standards in the participatory journalism space. Founded in 2006, today GroundReport has over 7,000 contributors around the world, and our exclusive reports have been cited by The New York Times and AFP.

Our audience is mostly American, English, Canadian and Indian places where there are large, English-speaking, technologically connected populations. Our contributors are mostly foreign journalists, freelance writers, journalism students, bloggers and nonprofits.

Q. How does your site use social media to promote its content?

GroundReport is a purely digital news offering, so from day one, social media has been integral to our success. As a couple examples, we use Twitter to recruit journalists and publish stories to the world, and Facebook Connect to create a social environment for responding to stories and engaging with authors. We also publish video via YouTube Direct and share all videos on that platform as well as on our site.

Beyond that, GroundReport itself is social media, a full-fledged news platform completely supported by digital contributors.

Q. How does editing and headline writing work at GroundReport?

GroundReport’s editing system is based on the reputation of the author. An author is classified in one of two ways: Verified or Unverified.

If the reporter is on our Verified list, her work is instantly published live upon submission. If the author is unverified, all submissions enter a hidden queue where our Editors and Super-Users can review and approve or delete all content. We reward great contributors by making them Editors and give them extra privileges that allow them to edit any content on the site as if it were a Wikipedia page. Most of our Editors, not surprisingly, are journalism students, eager for a way to apply their skill set and get real-world digital journalism experience.

Headline writing is first submitted by users, and most are published as is. If the story is of mainstream relevance, we look to optimize the title for search using tools like Google Trends and Twitter Trends to research how people are searching for the stories.

Q. With much of the U.S. media increasingly turning to local news, what do you see as the future of international reporting?

A. I feel strongly that the two are deeply intertwined. When you investigate deeply enough, every story is local.

We feel that by presenting international news from the local perspective, we bring more engagement and emotional connection. Just as there is local U.S. news, there is local news for everywhere else in the world, and unfortunately, we almost never get to discover those unique local perspectives on foreign events.

Until now, many American news outlets have only presented foreign news stories researched and reported by an American. We think that there is a huge opportunity to support both national and foreign journalists in doing local reposting. And in this way, GroundReport supports both local and international coverage in one go.

Follow Rachel Sterne on Twitter and read her stories on the GroundReport site.

UPDATE: In January 2011, Sterne accepted the position of chief digital officer of New York City.

Guest post: Barrage of information hinders quality

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the seventh of these posts. Nathaniel Haines is a senior journalism major from St. Louis, Mo. He is in the news editing sequence and is a member of The Daily Tar Heel editorial board.

Quality, thoughtful journalism is being swallowed whole by the demand for quantity and constant updates.

It started with the 24-hour cable news networks. Now, we’ve descended to new depths with micro-blogging. We journalists are now reveling in out-of-context 140-character snippets of information that we can push to audiences from our phones.

On Jan. 25, 2010, Ken Auletta wrote an article for The New Yorker called “Non-Stop News.” The article examined how 24-hour news cycle — scratch that; the hour-long news cycle — is affecting the White House press corps.

Auletta paints a bleak picture of harassed reporters who are responsible for pushing out content 5 minutes ago. Auletta follows an NBC White House correspondent, Chuck Todd. In the course of one day, Todd writes three to five blog posts and eight to 10 Tweets; he also appears on multiple TV shows.

But there’s a question that looms behind Auletta’s description of the non-stop news cycle: Where are the editors?

It’s a startling issue of the non-stop news cycle. In order to cut the time between when a reporter writes a story and when a reader reads it, editors have been removed — or at least, they come in at a later points. Their job as gatekeeper between the reporter and the reader is being redefined.

But should it?

Should reporters be pushing news to their readers constantly? Is BlackBerry reporting actual reporting? Is there anyone in the process who digests the information and asks himself, “Should we publish this?”

Presumably, reporters are supposed to police their own news and information. But objective questions can’t be answered by someone immersed in a situation. A reporter doesn’t have perspective on the information he works hard to push out everyday.

At one point in his piece, Auletta quotes Anita Dunn: “When journalists call you to discuss a story, it’s not because they’re interested in having a discussion. They’re interested in a response. And the need to file five times a day encourages this.”

That’s a problem. It might seem like the rush is just part of entering an era in which information is instant. But the rush should really be seen as a new role for editors. Perhaps, instead of being gatekeepers for readers, editors should start acting as gatekeepers for reporters. It might be time for editors to tell the public that good news takes time and effort and that minute-to-minute updates are more like gossip than journalism.

Toyota on the front page

My friend and former colleague, John Robinson, visited my editing class yesterday afternoon. He’s the editor of the News & Record in Greensboro.

The topic of his talk was the front page — specifically, what is a front-page story for a newspaper in Greensboro in 2010? It’s a topic that Robinson discusses on occasion on his blog and on Twitter.

Robinson asked the students in the class to go to a news Web site of their choice and tell him what the top story was at the moment. CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times and several other sites had the story about a congressional hearing into the Toyota recall as the big news. The outliers were the Huffington Post (an Afghanistan story) and WRAL and The News & Observer sites, which both were leading with news about turmoil on the Wake County school board.

Robinson told the students that the chances of the Toyota story appearing on the News & Record’s front page as virtually nil. The story was out there on TV and online all day — what could the Greensboro paper do with it that readers didn’t already know?

The News & Record considers itself a local newspaper. And indeed, its front page this morning is all about Greensboro. Toyota is mentioned in a promo at the bottom of the page, with a story on A6.

Was that the right call?

Using links as footnotes

Good columnists use facts to back up their opinions. Better ones tell you where they got those facts.

That’s why I like what Frank Rich does with his New York Times columns. Rich includes smartly selected links to show readers where his information comes from.

The most recent Rich column, on Sarah Palin, contains links to not only other New York Times content, but also stories at The Washington Post and McClatchy’s Washington bureau. That’s a smart move that makes Rich’s conclusions more believable.

Curiously, Rich is unusual among his NYT columnists in the prolific use of links as a sort of footnoting system. Ross Douthat has one link in his most recent column, and Nicholas Kristof has two. Maureen Dowd, Thomas Friedman, Bob Herbert, Paul Krugman, Gail Collins and David Brooks have none.

Linking is a simple way to build credibility into an op-ed piece. Why not use it?

Guest post: Online media — a better connection

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, will write guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the third of those posts. Josh Britton is a junior journalism major from Monroe, N.C. After he gets his degree, he hopes to attend Duke Divinity School and become a United Methodist pastor.

While online journalism is on some level bad news for the nostalgic newspaper lovers, it opens an exciting new realm of opportunity for everyone. Where journalism was once mostly a one-way relay of information, we as journalists now have the opportunity to engage in alternative forms of mass communication where our readers can have significant input. Our media is now more interactive than ever before, and that makes it a very exciting time to work in journalism.

When I told my parents that I had decided to pursue a degree in journalism, I was expecting to hear excitement in their voices. However, instead of excitement or encouragement, I was met with skepticism and doubt. They are concerned about my future, and understandably they would be upset if I chose a course of study with no future.

As I began taking classes in our beloved j-school, I must admit that I too had my doubts. It seems like I was constantly made aware of how newspapers were downsizing and how the print jobs were on their way out. The notion that the glory days of journalism are coming to an end seems rather ubiquitous in our society, at least from my experience. However, I am excited to see how the field of journalism expands into a more effective means of communication in the next few decades.

With online elements, the potential of media networks to connect with their audiences is incredible. Instead of simply reading articles and/or perhaps writing a letter to the editor, our audiences can comment on stories, interact with Flash presentations or submit videos and provide valuable opinions and information.

Online journalism helps us to better connect with our audiences by not just telling about an experience, but sharing that experience with them. A recent example of this has been the coverage of the Haiti earthquake. Web sites from more traditional media outlets such as CNN and ABC news, as well as blog sites such as The Huffington Post have moved past traditional storytelling to share the experiences of the earthquake victims and relief teams. By no means does this replace the actual emotional experience of the events, but it is undeniable that this shared experience has more of an impact than words on a newspaper or even five minutes of television news coverage. Our users are controlling their experience, and we as editors are allowing them to do that.

In some ways, I was scared of going into editing. Blogging and social networking Web sites have given some media sources a run for their money as every day people step into the role of “editor.” However, because the wide variety of programs used in online production, professional editors are still in demand to create and publish high-quality presentations. Editors need to maintain some level of proficiency in a variety of programs, while maintaining the values of traditional news editors.

The skills of online editors may be different from those of print editors, but there is still some overlap. Editors of all forms of media need to make professional judgment calls and responsible decisions.

In conclusion, the field of online journalism presents an exciting opportunity. Despite the uncertainty of its future, it is clear that editors will keep working to create better experiences for and deeper connections with their audiences.

Guest post: Telling the story without text

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, will write guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the second of those posts. Brecken Branstrator is a senior journalism major from Greensboro, N.C. Her passion is magazines, and she is an editorial intern at the Carolina Alumni Review.

When you first see a huge block of text, do you get excited and dive right into it, or are you wishing that it was shorter or broken into chunks with illustrations to go with it? You’re probably thinking the latter. That’s where alternative story formats come in. As we have been learning in class, some things just work better in illustrations.

As the same-sex marriage debate has grows, especially as California’s Proposition 8 heads for the Supreme Court, many media sites are using alternative story formats to report the issue and follow its progression. Instead of trying to write convoluted stories with many numbers or states, a number of them are creating interactive maps or slideshows of pictures. They present the issue in a visual way that allows the reader to consume the information faster and retain more.

NPR has a great example of this, with a map that not only shows the status of each state on the issue but also a feature that allows the viewer to hover over the state to see details about past legislation. This is the kind of alternative story format that readers are attracted to and appreciate because they can get the facts fast. CNN also displays the story in a very similar way.

But GOOD magazine took another route when it created an innovative flow chart that outlines the arguments for and against same-sex marriage. This chart would look good in both print and online, and actively involves the reader as they become invested in following the lines of the illustration. Its off-the-beaten-path methods are what newspapers should strive to create to attract readers to a story and enhance the text.

These sites are great examples of how alternative story formats can enhance the text of a story and how all options should be explored. An issue that progresses over a long period of time, like the same-sex marriage debate, can only be explained in text for so long before the readers get bored. So when developing a story, designers and editors should always be thinking of a different way to tell it.

Two takes on the Edwards scandal

How does traditional newswriting differ from blogging? It’s not always clear cut, because some bloggers write in the same straight-ahead style as The Associated Press. Others have attitude.

The latest news in the rise and fall of John Edwards offers some insight into blogging versus straight news. The story is about a new book by a former Edwards aide who helped the presidental candidate cover up an extramarital affair. Here’s how the AP starts its story, which is written in the inverted pyramid form:

A former aide to John Edwards says in a new book that the two-time presidential candidate told him he thought about leaving his wife but also cited his love for her as a reason to keep details of an affair hidden.

On the blog side of things, here’s how Gawker did it:

Someone finally read John Edwards aide Andrew Young’s forthcoming tell-all, putting a cherry on top of months of crazy Edwards rumors. He’s a wellspring of scandal — but is it all John’s fault?

The Gawker item is a “truth squad” alternative story form that attempts to figure out who’s to blame for Edwards’ various problems. Yes, it is full of snark.

See the difference? For somewhere in between, take a look at this item in Under the Dome, the News & Observer’s blog about North Carolina politics.

Image via Creative Commons

Guest post: Online headlines should entice readers

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, will write guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the first of those posts. Daniel Bethea of Hendersonville, N.C., is a junior majoring in journalism and political science. He enjoys sports and his internship on the copy desk at The Herald-Sun in Durham, N.C.

The headline is typically the first thing that a person reads, but a recent study shows just how important online headline writing is. The study found that 44 percent of Google News readers only read the headlines and did not actually follow the link to the publications’ Web sites.

What does this tell us about headline writing for the Web? First, online headlines should be more informative than a typical print edition headline. Names should be included. The print edition may say “mayor,” but the online headline should say the mayor’s name. Figures can also enhance a Web headline. Instead of writing “millions,” write the actual number.

Too often, daily newspapers use the exact same headlines from their print editions for their Web site. A print edition can get away with using a vague headline that will entice its reader to read the story, but if that headline is used on the Web where people are apparently only reading the headlines, the reader will learn nothing. A better version of the Hendersonville Times-News article may read something along the lines of “Polk escapee now faces 86 charges.”

News Web sites are often cluttered with several stories, and the viewer may be overwhelmed. A good online headline will stand out to the reader if the editor has implemented some of the tactics mentioned earlier in the writing of the headline.

Online headline writing is much less restrictive than print writing. Space is not nearly as big of an issue, and longer headlines are often used online. Google News and several other online news sources also use a blurb underneath the article’s title. This can either be the first sentence of the article or the deck headline from the print version of the story. It provides the skimming reader with more information and may even persuade them to (gasp) read the article.

While every news outlet hopes that readers are actually reading its stories, the reality is that some people don’t want to spend five minutes reading, but would rather have you tell them everything they need to know in 50 characters. This is the task placed upon online copy editors.

We want our public to be informed, and we need to do our best to write headlines that will give details and hopefully make the reader want to read further. The easy thing for copy editors to do is simply duplicate their headlines from print to the Web. But if you simply spend a little extra time writing new, more detailed online headlines, your Web site can be greatly enhanced.

Q&A with Eric Ulken, professor and data visualization expert

Eric Ulken, formerly of the Los Angeles Times, specializes in database journalism. He’s given talks on that topic and others (including writing headlines for the Web) for The Poynter Institute, the American Copy Editors Society and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. In this Q&A, conducted by e-mail, Ulken discusses his latest job as a professor at the University of British Columbia.

Q. Why the move into teaching?

A. First, I should say that I love and miss the newsroom, and I hope to get back there soon. But I thought this would be a good time to be away from daily news for a while and explore the changes in the field with students, who are approaching things with a fresh perspective.

The grad students I’m working with are really sharp — they’re thoughtful, tech-savvy and open to new ways of doing journalism. And I expect to learn as much from them as they will from me.

Q. One of your courses is called Integrated Journalism. Describe that course — does it have an editing component?

A. Integrated Journalism is the foundation course that all first-year students take. It’s an intensive, team-taught exploration of all facets of journalism.

Most weeks it consists of three hours of lecture and discussion and about six hours of lab work, in addition to independent reporting and production assignments. It is a full-year course, and I’m arriving right in the middle of it, but I’m gradually catching up.

Most of the first semester was spent on basic reporting and writing for print and radio. This semester we’re focused on TV, online and entrepreneurship. The online and entrepreneurship components, which I’m responsible for, include blogging, social media, data journalism and visualization, alternative story forms and the new information economy.

There is a copy editing component to the course, but most of that took place before I arrived. When we cover blogging, I plan to go into some depth on SEO and headline writing for the web.

Q. You’re known as a leader in database journalism and data visualization. How effectively are newspapers and magazines at this type of information gathering and reporting?

A. Gathering information is something journalists do naturally, but most of the time we really stink at organizing and presenting it. It’s a competency that legacy news organizations desperately need to develop if they want to compete online. Unfortunately, this kind of work requires skill sets that news organizations traditionally haven’t valued — namely, skills in software development and information architecture.

I should point out that I am neither a developer nor an information architect, but I do understand how they work, and I enjoy helping news organizations apply those skills to their problems.

Q. You’ve been in online media for more than 10 years and have seen lots of changes. What do you think the next 10 years will bring?

A. I hate making predictions like this, because I’m sure they’ll sound silly in 10 years. But if I suppose if I keep them vague enough, I stand a better chance of being right. So here goes:

The next 10 years will bring cheaper and near-ubiquitous wireless connectivity, as well as more powerful mobile devices, making mobile the most important medium for real-time information sharing. That’s a no-brainer.

Now I’ll go out on a limb and say we will start to see successful geo-targeted online advertising models that can support high-quality local journalism from a wide variety of sources. Among those sources will be some companies currently in the newspaper business, but they will have plenty of competition. And that can only be a good thing for journalism.

Follow Eric Ulken on Twitter and check out his Web site.

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