Q&A with Eric Frederick, managing editor of the N&O site

Eric Frederick is the managing editor of the Web site of The News & Observer. Before taking that job, he had worked for more than 20 years on the print side at the Raleigh paper, including stints as sports editor and front-page editor. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Frederick discusses his job, how online content is edited and the site’s redesign.

Q. Describe your job. What does the managing editor at newsobserver.com do on a typical day?

A. A little of everything. We have a very small staff and a pretty complex site that is, of course, always live. (I tell people that if our Web site were the White House, I’d work all day in the Oval Office, but I’d wake up at 3 a.m. to grab a broom and go sweep off the North Portico or run the security booth.) There really is no typical day.

Put simply, and ideally, I oversee the news on newsobserver.com. But some days, I’m barely acquainted with the news that’s going up, so I’m lucky to have a talented team.

At any given time, I could be working on a future project, planning online coverage of a sports season or election or other big event, listening to a scanner, assigning a reporter (or sometimes reporting a story myself), sitting in a meeting, testing a new technology, coordinating with McClatchy Interactive and other papers in our chain on a news presentation or a technical issue (which I usually try to punt), editing and posting stories, rewriting headlines or story summaries, rearranging the sports pages, changing promotion on the site, moderating reader comments, checking site traffic for daily or hourly trends, updating our social media pages on Twitter and Facebook, helping readers with problems or just listening to them, handling the online coverage of sports events, dealing with vendors, assigning repair or development tasks to programmers (every day there’s something), setting up e-mail news alerts, listening to staffers’ ideas and refining them, updating coverage budgets, selecting and sending stories to Web aggregators, or documenting and communicating changes in procedures (they are frequent).

Many days I spend the predawn hours sitting in an empty newsroom getting the site ready before people wake up. It’s never boring; I’ll say that.

Q. How does story editing and headline writing work for content on the site?

A. In the morning, most of the prominent stories on the site were edited and headlined for print by the nightside copy desk. Only one online producer is on duty, and that person spends about four hours just getting the site ready, so he doesn’t do a lot of additional editing, but there are numerous changes that do need to be made.

Print headlines often don’t work on the Web because they’re labels or because they’re only clear in the context of a print page, so they must be rewritten. The body of a story written for print often doesn’t make sense online either because it’s produced in pieces that, again, make sense in a print context but are inscrutable online. So the producer does have to do some essential editing.

As we post new stories during the day, the assigning editor in the newsroom will sometimes give a story a quick edit before passing it to the online team, but often, stories come straight from reporters. The online producer on duty does whatever editing he has time to do and writes the headlines.

During a typical day, we’ll post about 50 new stories. Hundreds of wire stories also are added to the site each day, but most of them are not edited at all by my team (except for an occasional headline revision on a prominent story).

In short, there is no traditional rim/slot structure, for a couple of reasons. The first is that, with only one person on duty, that’s impossible, especially since that person is occupied with many other tasks. The second is that speed is essential online, and that means the normal newsroom editing chain isn’t in play.

Q. Why is The N&O redesigning its site, and what are some of the big differences between the new site and the old one?

A. Our site had outgrown its design and was collapsing under its own weight. It had nearly 3,000 “sections” that offered some kind of content, and the search didn’t work as well as it should, so things were hard to find.

We were offering a lot of great news and multimedia and interactive content, but most people didn’t know it was there. We figured we owed our readers something easier to use, and we needed to upgrade the site’s functions — better search, better photo display, better video player, etc.

Biggest differences? Readers can customize their home page with a news grid that will automatically display the categories of news that users choose. The home page also offers, at the top, a visual menu of our featured stories that can be set to automatically scroll through those stories, or can be operated manually to give the user more control or a more leisurely pace.

The site search is a lot better and incorporates more of our content, including blogs, so we hope people will use it a lot more. The overall design is much simpler, easier to navigate. Navigation menus are horizontal rather than vertical, which makes them much easier to use. Photos display bigger.

The site in general is more visually appealing. There’s a video tutorial on the site that explains a lot of this.

Q. The N&O is part of a crowded media market. How does the new site help the paper compete against WRAL.com and other news outlets?

A. Our site, frankly, is much deeper than our competitors’ sites. We offer more news, and far more contextual content, than other sites.

Our writing is better and more complete. Our reporting on important issues is far and away the best in this area; it really can’t be touched. I think even our best story videos are better than what the TV stations do.

I believe that readers intuitively know this, but it’s not always obvious when you look at our current site because it’s not presented as well as it should be, and it’s a little intimidating. I hope the redesign will make the richness of our content more obvious and more readily available, and that will make more people choose us as their primary news site.