Q&A: How the L.A. Times edits for the Web

This Q&A with Henry Fuhrmann, conducted by e-mail, offers a look at how online editing works at the L.A. paper, where he is the senior copy desk chief for the Web. Fuhrmann has been at the L.A. Times since 1990 and in his current position for about a year.

The AM copy desk recently marked its first anniversary. How did the desk get started, and what is its main purpose?

I deserve no credit for the AM desk concept — I am merely the lucky guy who got the job after the leaders of the L.A. Times copy editing department decided that we needed to set up a team to handle the rapidly growing flood of material being sent to the Web.

At the time, by the way, I was an assigning editor — specifically deputy business editor — although I had previously run the business copy desk and worked on desks all around the newsroom. I happily rejoined the copy editing department when this opportunity arose. I knew it would be a terrific challenge, a lot of fun and, to my mind, even more important than helping run one of our largest newsgathering staffs.

Back to the your question: Our main purpose on the morning crew is to serve as a universal copy desk from about 7 a.m. onward, when stories, blog posts and photos are being offered for the Web and before the traditional nightside copy desks arrive.

As a result, we handle material from our foreign, national, metro, business and sports staffs. We also read quite a bit of entertainment content, mostly photos and blog posts, from 7 to 10 a.m., when the features copy desk checks in, and then throughout the day to back those folks up. The night desks are all in by 3 p.m.; we work a few hours beyond that, finishing tasks we’ve started during the day that may not have required immediate posting to the Web.

The copy desk department is not quite a 24/7 operation — more like 17/7 — but the 60 hours of service we provide Monday through Friday have filled in big gaps in coverage. In addition to working 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on those days, we provide an editor from 8 to 4 on Saturdays. We are off Sundays, when we have the features and night desks split the Web copy editing chores.

You come from a print background. How is editing for the Web different from print?

When people ask me what it takes to edit for the Web, I ask two questions: Can you work fast? And can you right-click? (That mouse function is required to “export” stories from the newspaper editorial content system, CCI, to our Web content management system.)

Whatever the medium, good editing is still, in essence, getting the words in the right order and communicating as effectively as we can with the reader-user. The difference with the Web is the lack of a firm deadline (other than “right now”) and the demand for speed.

The ever-ticking clock has required that we eliminate a few layers from the traditional print editing sequence. Instead of going from reporter to assigning editor to copy editor to slot (and usually proofreader), material for the Web moves from reporter to assigning editor to copy editor, or from blogger to editor to copy editor, or often from blogger directly to copy editor. At odd hours, when, say, a foreign correspondent files while the assigning desk is asleep in Los Angeles, he or she will work directly with one of our two overnight Web producers, cutting yet another layer from the process. (Those two producers, no surprise, were ace copy editors in previous jobs.)

Because fewer hands are touching the copy, we have recruited slot-capable editors to our ranks for the most part. After a year, we have trained four editors and sent them back to their home desks to help spread their Web knowledge to their print peers. We’ll keep rotating people in and out on six-month stints.

What about headlines for the Web?

Writing headlines is a crucial part of the Web copy editing process. In many respects this is the area in which we can make the most difference to the Times’ efforts to build its online audience, as we try to optimize our heds for search engines in an effort to draw Web users to our stories.

There’s probably nothing unusual about how we approach the task. We try to use the obvious search terms that we think would apply to a given story, including specific names and other key subject words. To put this another way, we aim to replicate what a typical Google user might type to find our story.

All stories that go through the morning copy desk get Web heds because all of our material is posted online. But we also ask that copy editors working for print write a Web-specific hed for practically every story.

Optimizing search is a newsroom-wide effort, with reporters and their editors adding hyperlinks, Web producers filling in keywords in Assembler and so forth. But our understanding is that the Web hed is the most important tool, so we on the desks take that responsibility very seriously.

The L.A. Times site has dozens of blogs, with more added each week. What is the paper’s approach on editing blog posts?

Our stance is that the blogs carry our good name, so they also must carry our usual stamp of quality. That said, we copy edit relatively lightly (as we do with any opinion journalism) and quickly (by necessity — we have so much else to do). We correct for typos and errors of fact and watch for legal and taste issues. But we discourage heavy rewriting; again, time is a factor, but we also acknowledge the importance of maintaining the blogger’s voice. I gather that copy editing blogs is considered somewhat novel, so we’re happy we can provide even this modest level of scrutiny.

The challenge is certainly big — and getting bigger. Three years ago the Times had three blogs. As of this writing, we have 42, with at least two more coming this summer and several others planned for the fall. Nearly every member of the copy editing staff has his or her hand in at least one blog.

You get out a lot to see cool concerts and sporting events. Is the idea of a morning copy desk good for the social lives of copy editors?

Yes, definitely. Getting out earlier has been one of the great side benefits of the job. It has enabled me and my daughters (ages 16 and nearly 14) to have more quality time together every evening. I attended a lot more of the girls’ softball games and other after-school activities than in years past. I’ve seen a personal record nine concerts this year (and it’s only the halfway mark as I write this) and also attended two Dodgers games and four Lakers games.

The flip side of this has been an interesting development in our recruiting efforts. I always thought that copy editors worked for years to get those coveted, rare openings on the day side and a presumably “normal” schedule in real life. But, in fact, many otherwise interested copy editors have told us that they love nights and couldn’t imagine how they could convert to days, even for just a few months.

UPDATE: Fuhrmann has been promoted to assistant managing editor in charge of copy desks, standards and the library.

2 thoughts on “Q&A: How the L.A. Times edits for the Web

  1. Thanks, Andy.

    One note on Henry’s puzzlement about copy editors who can’t/won’t convert to day work. Some of us, I suspect, are like saddle-broken horses — we’ve adapted our lives to night work, and changing back is tougher mentally and physiologically than most might think. Others, like me, have been night owls all our lives, going back to earliest childhood and are incapable of reordering our circadian rhythms even if we wanted to. I’ve worked for PM dailies before, but never for long. Starting my day at 6 or 7 a.m. just about killed me.

    Jim Thomsen
    http://jimthomsen.wordpress.com/

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