Preparing for online news

Today's copy editor faces a future that demands flexibility. An editor could start the shift editing a story for the newspaper, incorporate that story into a multimedia package for a partner television or radio station by lunch and end the day by putting that same report on the Web.

Janice Castro employed that same flexibility to talk about the various hats editors must be able to wear in editing's online future. Castro, assistant dean and director of graduate editorial programs at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, assumed the duties of her two fellow discussion leaders when at the last minute they were unable to attend the conference. The information from Nora Paul, director of the Institute for New Media Studies at the University of Minnesota, and Elizabeth Osder, director of Global Product Management for Yahoo's Overture Services, was included in Castro's presentation.

Editors can forget that a newspaper is simply "a delivery device," Castro said, just like the computer or even a cell phone. "The news is not the newspaper," she said. The key is to reshape content so that different media can deliver it effectively to the audience. "If I were to take the content of Time magazine and simply put it on television, that would not be effective television content," Castro said. "That would be Time magazine on a big screen."

It's the same mistake that some newspapers are making with their online editions. Almost 80 percent of copy editors say that copy editing guidelines for Web news are the same as for print, according to a survey by Nora Paul. Online offerings need their own rules. Those rules include shorter sentences and paragraphs because "people are looking into a flickering light when they're reading your content on a computer," Castro said.

The computer screen is "a rich visual experience," she said, but it's hard to read text, especially the Times New Roman font, which so many newspapers use on their Web sites. Newspaper fonts often don't work because they break up, Castro said. "They were made to look elaborate and beautiful when ink was applied to them," she said, but they don't work with light behind them because light shows all the tiny holes in them.

Other style differences exist as well:

  • Web sites have a global reach into different time zones and different cultures. Online editors must realize their work is being read by people all over the world. References to "the nation," for example, must be rewritten to make it clear what nation is being referenced.
  • Headlines play a different role online. Because they compete on screen with icons, links, ads and other marketing tools, she said, headlines must be "shorter and crisper" to work as entry points to the stories.
  • Online news needs its own stylebook. For example, she said, don't use percentage signs because they can't be read clearly. Also, use more acronyms without periods because they are easier to read.
The processing of online news also carries differences. Staffing, for instance, can be limited in numbers and journalism experience.

"In order to get the technically oriented skill sets - and save money - the publishers always hire the young people who are right out of school and haven't had any journalism experience yet because if they did, they'd cost a few more dollars," she said

Then there's the incessant need for updates because readers, who turn to the Web almost as if they're turning on their radio, expect fresh copy. The continuous news cycle of the Web creates a culture clash, Castro said: "Online is urgent; copy editors are methodical."

Castro urged the next generation of online editors to begin flexing their flexibility by learning:

  • How to work like a wire service.
  • How to work online and in print.
  • How to balance speed and accuracy.
  • How online writing differs from print and broadcast.
  • How to edit different Web presentations.
Convergence comes home

Castro then moved into the presentation prepared by Elizabeth Osder, who wants editors to imagine the "opportunities of inevitability" - how can copy editors leverage the changes to come in a converged future to strengthen their role at the newspaper?

Osder recommends looking at convergence in the Tampa (Fla.) Tribune newsroom and the Ifra Newsplex at the University of South Carolina.

The Tampa Tribune has a joint multimedia desk where newspaper and Internet editors and WFLA-TV producers work together - as their recruiters put it, "in print first thing in the morning, on television several times throughout the day and continuously over the Internet."

Ifra, a German publishing organization, in 2002 donated a $2 million micro-newsroom to the University of South Carolina College of Mass Communications and Information Studies. Ifra and the college jointly operate the facility, which trains students, journalists and researchers in converged media management. "They're trying to imagine what the newsroom of the future will look like," Castro said.

It's not a simple question to answer, or even define:

  • What exactly is convergence? Is it simply an ownership issue, a common approach to advertising, a structural approach to news dissemination, or parts of all three?
  • To whom does online report? "That's a huge issue," Castro said. "At some of the most respected newspapers in this country, which shall remain unnamed, online used to report to marketing."
  • The nature of storytelling changes. After all the elements of a story are in digital form, Castro pointed out, "it's liquid" and can be poured into any number of delivery devices.
Once that happens, Castro said, the copy desk is "at the center of tomorrow's newsroom," preparing copy for the newspaper, e-newsletters, cell phones, Web sites, broadcast and syndication.

"The copy desk can be not only the quality control system but also the thinking editor that thinks about the form," she said.

Castro's final segment focused on her research into the visual aspect of online news.

"When TV news got really popular," Castro said, "the great magazines died because TV was giving people something that they used to get from Life and Look and Saturday Evening Post - the big, huge magazines. But it also started training people to think visually, to perceive visually, to process information through images."

Newspapers, on the other hand, traditionally didn't run big pictures, Castro said, but when television came along, people grew accustomed to seeing their news.

"The Internet has only redoubled that relationship with the visual aspects of news because the Internet is interactive," she said. "Whenever we're reading on the Internet, we're reading on an electronic instrument. We're playing at a keyboard. We're interacting with it. We're making choices, We're clicking - and we're looking."

Pictures, headlines and graphics become doorways into your stories, Castro said.

However, with those choices, Castro said, comes greater pressure on online news providers to persuade readers to stick around.

"If I'm reading Time magazine or USA Today, I've already bought the whole thing. They don't have to work real hard to get me to turn the page," she said. "But online you have to get 'em one click at a time. And making matters worse, they may click off to somebody else's site."

That ability for readers to ricochet around the Web - "it's not a quiet, orderly place" - is a difficult reality for some editors. "Control freaks don't do too well online," she said.

If editors learn "visual grammar," Castro said, they have a better chance of holding on to their readers.

"Every element on the screen must invite the reader in," she said. "You buy their attention one page at a time."

Online readers don't read - they scan the flickering light on the screen. Their eyes are constantly in motion "like windshield wipers" until they find what they want to read. So editors must "edit to the interactive impulse" by offering clickable entries into the story.

Research on the Internet

The Internet is a great source of information, but most people look only on the World Wide Web, which doesn't cover a lot of important areas such as academic research. Castro recommended copy editors give themselves a short course on Internet research with help from the book "Searching the Invisible Web" by Gary Price.

Information on the World Wide Web "is often out of date or one-sided and promotional. That's why it's called surfing. You're not really digging in."

Editors need to search beyond Google, Castro said, because search engines return "maybe 1 percent" of all available information. It's too inefficient for search software programs to enter databases, she said, because "they'll never find their way out."

But search engines appear to be so complete that "we tend to forget what they're missing."

The Web was never conceived as a publishing medium, she said. Instead, it's a "vast retrieval system connecting computers." Search engines see only the surface, not the database content. In fact, she said, there are two Webs:

  • The surface Web is mainly static html pages, and they're not always up to date.
  • The deep Web is database, relatively dynamic pages.
  • The surface Web is mostly what someone said about something.
  • The deep Web is the original information that you look for as a reporter.

CASTRO'S 10 STEPS TO MORE EFFECTIVE ONLINE WRITING

  • Begin with your main point. Make a concise, clear statement.
  • Write very tight, using perhaps half the usual words per paragraph. Semicolons need not apply.
  • Break the text into chunks of 100 to 150 words.
  • Give one idea per paragraph.
  • Make your microcontent - headlines, captions - work.
  • Write in hypertext, include useful links. A sidebar becomes a set of interactive bullets.
  • Provide searchable data and original documents, full interviews. Give context and opportunities for exploration.
  • Keep it simple. Use crisp organization and a highly readable font. Use color as navigational design. No reverse type, please.
  • Write for scannability. Highlight key terms and use bullets.
  • Invite action. Offer other material to look at, responses you are prepared to answer. Reward every click.
  • Finally, be yourself. Castro rejected the advice of "so-called experts" who claim that online communication has to be done with attitude. "No," she said. "It has to be high quality. It has to be you. ... Voice, accuracy, reliability and trust matter more than ever."