MIAMI – Journalists from across the country gathered here last week for the 11th national American Copy Editors Society conference to discuss their expanding roles in an industry whose bottom line is becoming increasingly dependent on the Internet.
They shared challenges they have had to overcome and their best practices for editing online.
“A lot of papers used to think of posting their stories online as sort of a joke,” said John Russial, associate professor of journalism at the University of Oregon. “They were more concerned with just ‘getting it up there’ as opposed to editing the copy.”
Newspapers whose copy desks normally spend their nights editing and proofing print have only recently started treating their Web sites more seriously. As circulations continue to drop, papers are learning more about search engine optimization, too.
“The L.A. Times looks at traffic a lot,” said Eric Ulken, Web editor at LATimes.com.
Although traffic does not dictate what stories his paper covers, it does help educate its news judgment, he said.
“We give our copy desk an Internet 101 on writing Web heds [headlines] that serve several functions, so search engine optimization is really important,” he said.
Mr. Russial said many papers have only recently begun to fully copy edit the online versions of their papers and that small and midsize papers still give priority to print.
But unedited copy can often contain typos, nonstandard usage, incorrect information and even libelous content.
“Copy editors are the last defense before the paper is read by the public,” said Suzanne Levinson, senior producer at MiamiHerald.com. “We are trying to draw on the power of the copy desk.”
She said her online team used to be told “not to bother the newsroom.” It had to wait for the paper to realize its Web site was “not an appendage or an afterthought.”
“The challenge is making copy desks aware of ‘How is online different?’; ‘How are our readers different?’; ‘What kinds of things are they looking for?'” Ms. Levinson said.
Web-savvy copy editors are important because they know “print headlines don’t work” online, Ms. Levinson said.
Headlines written for the Web should be “filled with keywords, be powerful and enticing enough to get users to ‘risk to click’ … and be more straightforward than in print,” she said.
About half of the traffic to MiamiHerald.com comes from Web search engines, and the rest directly from users who enter the URL. So while giants like The New York Times can afford paid advertising on the Web – Ms. Levinson said The Times bought keywords for its Virginia Tech coverage – most papers have no marketing budget and need to optimize their sites with SEO-friendly headlines and multimedia to create “stickyness” to keep visitors.
Although there are many ways to optimize a site, “words are still king” because headlines, RSS feeds, text links, WAP and e-mail newsletters all require well-edited copy, she said.
“It’s still text,” Ms. Levinson said.
While search engines rank news stories higher when keywords appear in headlines, Ms. Levinson warned that headlines had to “inform readers before enticing them.”
She gave these examples:
–Original headline: Ripe for growth
–Rewritten: Wine superstore sign of industry’s growth
–Original headline: Divorce was out of the question, husband says
–Rewritten: Divorce never an option, Terri Schiavo’s husband says in new book
“Stress the left – push keywords to the left in heds as much as possible,” said Teresa Schmedding, news editor at the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago.
The first and second words are the most important, she said.
“Don’t tease readers – use small doses of humor and drop the puns,” she said.
“We have a lot more information about [online readers] – much more information than we do about readers in print,” Ms. Levinson said. “We know what they like, what they’re clicking on, how long they spend there.”
She said that readers who visited MiamiHerald.com tended to search for topic and location (“schools in Miami,” for instance).
LATimes.com’s Mr. Ulken also emphasized the need for punchy, informative headlines.
“Copy editors are encouraged to do Web heds for everything” in addition to writing print headlines, he said. “Just changing a few words can help make the headline stand on its own.”
His paper has had to readjust how and when its copy desks operate since most of the traffic to its site comes during the day – around noon – and 90 percent of the copy editors work at night.
“Weekends also used to be an afterthought but are now very important,” he said.
To make sure online copy is edited, “editors are being given keys to their own online sections” so they can manage their online content, Mr. Ulken said.
While many news sites feature multimedia content, copy editing will continue to play an important role in part because text is still the primary medium for breaking news, said Jim Kavanagh, a writer at CNN.com.
“Visitors find video to be more compelling than text,” he said. “But it’s not always the driver. When there’s breaking news, the video is always slower to catch up because it has to be processed and edited – it’s more time consuming than editing text.”