(This is also posted on the Reynolds Journalism Institute blog)

The Missourian is wrapping up a semester-long experiment designed to improve the focus of our website production and change the definition of a newspaper copy editor.

The assessment: It works. The changes could be implemented in other newsrooms – but only if senior and assigning editors let go of the print control.

Like many newspapers, we’ve called ourselves “Web first” for a long time, but we knew we weren’t really when it came to editing. The Missourian’s production rolled along the factory assembling line from mid-afternoon to midnight. Meanwhile, the website came together sort of auto-magically, requiring minimal effort on the part of copy editors to select a fresh set of stories to highlight on the home page periodically.

We decided we needed a radical change.

In August, we segregated all print production processes from the day-to-day operations of the newsroom.

Most of our copy editors, most of the time, would have no involvement with the print product.

Instead, they’d become “interactive copy editors.” They would focus on getting stories to our website quickly and accurately, on finding ways to increase reader engagement with our work online, and on making sure the website is always putting its best possible foot forward. The work of a copy editor would be just beginning when an article published.

A small team of editors and designers, working separately, would manage all the details of the print edition, from story selection to final proofing, piggybacking as much as possible on the work of the interactive copy desk. They – not the managing editor, metro editor or senior news editor – would effectively “own” the print edition.

It has gone surprisingly well. We succeeded in resetting the rhythm of the whole newsroom.

We’re no longer focused on the paper tomorrow — the print team worries about that for all of us.

Instead we’re occupying news editors and copy editors with the work of producing the website 18 hours a day every weekday.

We actually made the mistake of continuing to staff the desk lightly on Friday afternoons and not at all on Friday evenings — as we have since the Missourian ended its Saturday print edition — but soon realized that Fridays had become just like any other weekday — busier than most, actually. We had to adjust.

Interactive copy editors are in charge of our social networks. They regularly use Twitter and Facebook. But we can be more creative and proactive in soliciting reader input for potential stories, rather than just the ones we’ve already posted.

Interactive copy editors also monitor the comment boards at the end of every article. They take down comments that violate our policies, and they jump in when the conversation demands a Missourian response. We think copy editors could do more in mediating conflicts among commenters and soliciting comments on stories that ought to be sparking them but aren’t.

We need to be better, too, at figuring out how to create energy and engagement on the website when the news by itself just isn’t doing it. All these are on our list for tackling in earnest in the spring.

The biggest drawback to the experiment has been the print experience of headline writing for our student copy editors. While they still do an evening print shift every three or four weeks, it’s not enough experience, especially when it comes to headline writing. Writing headlines for print — in a space strictly prescribed — is a skill that only comes with intense practice. It makes them better at writing headlines for the website. We’ll retool for spring to rotate more copy editors into print shifts and, on those shifts, to increase their focus on perfecting their headlines.

However, the benefits of our experiment, which we dubbed The Transition, have far outweighed the drawbacks.

Our website has improved tremendously and, with our interactively focused copy desk, we see room for much more. Meanwhile, our designated print team has done a great job maintaining the print edition. Their exclusive focus on print has even improved the product in some ways. (See print editor Jake Sherlock’s separate report on that aspect of The Transition.) We’ll try to perfect the experiment in the spring. Watch our Transition blog (transition.columbiamissourian.com) for regular updates about what we’re doing on the interactive copy desk and in other aspects of the Missourian newsroom.