Archives for posts with tag: copy editing

I’m proud of the aggregated content Columbia Missourian journalists have created over the past two semesters on our interactive copy editing desk.

As the news industry tries to find its way toward a successful transition from print-oriented to “digital first” thinking, it’s tempting to view copy editors as a costly budget line rather than a valuable resource.

Other journalists, including American Copy Editors Society President Teresa Schmedding, have defended our profession by showing that copy editors create value for news organizations. Copy editors can be skilled at writing focused, SEO-friendly online headlines. They catch errors that can save publications from costly libel suits.

As research by Fred Vultee of Wayne State University has demonstrated, readers appreciate our efforts. They notice the difference between edited and unedited copy. In particular, copy editors’ work can make a difference in perceptions of liberal or conservative bias in our news stories.

Copy editors are also skilled at aggregating content. We’ve been doing that for decades by creating index material and packages of wire news briefs for print newspapers. In the digital-first environment, we can create similar material that can be posted as valuable, reader-friendly online content.

The San Jose Mercury News, my employer for more than a decade, was a pioneer in recognizing that copy editors are uniquely skilled at creating compelling aggregated content. Levi Sumagaysay, the Merc’s former business copy chief, is the author of the popular Good Morning Silicon Valley tech-industry blog at SiliconValley.com. Jeremy C. Owens, a veteran of the Merc’s consolidated copy desk at the Contra Costa Times in Walnut Creek, Calif., succeeded me as writer of the daily 60-Second Business Break online newsletter.

Here at MU and the Columbia Missourian, Missouri sports is to us what Silicon Valley’s technology industries are to the Mercury News and SiliconValley.com.  Missourian journalists on our interactive copy editing — or ICE — desk have brought thousands of page views to our site with The Week in Missouri Sports and The Week in Missouri Football features, which link to the best sports stories on ColumbiaMissourian.com and to interesting commentary on other sites, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Kansas City Star, ESPN, and even our crosstown rival, the Columbia Daily Tribune. (more…)

Our ICE desk editors have been busy this semester creating original aggregated content at the levels of public service and storytelling for the Missourian’s website.

This work fits well with the role and skills of our interactive copy editors. They are knowledgeable about the reported stories on our website. They are curious and can find compelling material on other news sites and elsewhere online.

This work also could fit well on most newspaper copy desks. Copy editors are skilled at distilling information into concise text. A good copy editor can tell a story in a short headline, summary or caption. For print publications, we’ve turned to copy editors to compile packages of news briefs and features such as celebrity columns. For the Web, we can turn to copy editors to create content that can be much more valuable for readers.

At the Missourian, we publish in print five days a week, but our interactive copy editing desk is staffed to update our website seven days a week. Sunday is an online-only production day — and it can be a relatively slow news day. Our interactive copy editors are using that time to create fresh content that has been popular with Sunday evening and Monday morning readers.

At its best use, aggregated content complements the strengths of a news site. At the San Jose Mercury News, for example, the Good Morning Silicon Valley blog and 60-Second Business Break newsletter add to the newsroom staff’s excellent coverage of Apple, Google, Facebook and other Silicon Valley technology companies.

At the Missourian, by far the most popular topic among our readers is Missouri football. The ICE desk has created a regular The Week in Missouri Football feature that aggregates content from our talented staff football writers and commentary from other websites. Our Sunday editors alternate as the writer of this feature. However, they have developed a unique voice for The Week in Missouri Football and a common format — a summary of Saturday’s game, with commentary on the team’s strengths and weaknesses, followed by updates on other football-related news (so far, that has been mostly conference realignment developments) and a look ahead to Missouri’s next game.

Other Sunday features also emphasize the week in review. The desk has created a The Week’s Most-Read Stories feature, with summaries of the 10 most-read stories posted the week before on ColumbiaMissourian.com. We also edit the community outreach team’s The Week in Comments (which includes the week’s best posts from our loyal commenters) and build The Week in Photos gallery. (The Week in Photos, by the way, is not just an opportunity to showcase our photographers’ best work. We also can summarize and link back to the photo galleries and stories where that work first appeared.)

Sunday is not the only day the ICE desk builds such content. Throughout the week, our editors create aggregated stories that guide readers to current news events. As examples, ICE desk editors wrote a guide to the Missourian’s coverage of the debate about transit service in Columbia and collected some of the best journalism in the aftermath of 9/11 and on the 10th anniversary of the attacks. I’ll have more details in a future post.

In the newspaper business, aggregation has a bad name. We blame news aggregators for stealing our original content and contributing to the downfall of our industry.

In truth, aggregation can help news websites as much as it can hurt them. Aggregation exists at three levels, each progressively adding more journalistic value.

The first level of aggregation takes from other websites without giving them much back or adding anything for the reader. This takes the form of listing headlines or copying and pasting the first few paragraphs of a story and providing a link to the original version. Don’t get me wrong. This level of aggregation is legal if done correctly. Moreover, a link from the Drudge Report, The Huffington Post or Yahoo News can bring hundreds of thousands of readers to a website — and smaller sites should welcome the exposure such links can bring. As it turns out, however, these readers probably aren’t as likely to return in the future as those who land on a news site in some other way — at least based on the traffic data I’ve seen at the Missourian and elsewhere.

The second level of aggregation can be a public service for readers. It involves providing links to useful information — and summarizing what readers should expect when they click through to those links. (An example from the Missourian’s website is a quick summary of coverage from a recent Monday evening meeting of the Columbia City Council.)

The third level of aggregation is as much storytelling as providing links to other online information sources. It involves creativity and synthesizing more than copying or summarizing. At this level of aggregation, writers might not be reporting, but they are researching. Instead of calling a source on the phone or attending a meeting, they’re turning to other sources of online information — stories on our site, commentary elsewhere online and direct background material — for their own original stories. This level of aggregation involves not dropping our standards. We should insist on the same level of accuracy and fairness — and we should verify information — just as we would with a story written by a reporter. (An example from the Missourian is our very popular The Week in Missouri Football feature.)

At the Missourian, our interactive copy editing desk has been busy creating aggregated content at the levels of public service and storytelling this semester. I’ll have more details about their work in a future post.

It’s not just a copy desk. It’s also a content desk.

One of the strengths of the Missourian’s interactive copy desk is that our editors also have been trained as reporters. They know how to gather information. They know how to write. They understand storytelling.

Of course, throughout the industry, copy editors and journalists with desk backgrounds contribute to the creation of news content. On the print side, in addition to writing headlines and other display type, copy editors compile packages of news briefs and content such as celebrity-news columns. At the San Jose Mercury News, the skills and knowledge of Silicon Valley I acquired as an editor on our copy desks transferred easily to my most recent job as an online editor and writer. Numerous former copy editors, for that matter, have found work as producers, editors and writers for news websites. Levi Sumagaysay, my former colleague on the Merc’s business copy desk, has brought her voice and technology-industry expertise to SiliconValley.com’s popular Good Morning Silicon Valley blog. Jeremy C. Owens, my successor as writer of MercuryNews.com’s daily 60-Second Business Break online newsletter, is also a veteran of the Merc’s copy desk.

The news industry, of course, has been in an often painful transition as readers shift from print to online — and now mobile — news sources. It’s been a struggle for many of us, but I’m optimistic about the future. The new CEO of the Merc’s parent company believes that “digital revenues can pay for newspaper newsrooms.” Publications throughout the country are shifting to a digital-first model while still maintaining high standards for their print publications.

The Missourian has been a leader in the transition to a “Web first” newsroom, and copy editors have been central to that change — literally. The Missourian moved its copy editors to a new interactive copy editing desk (affectionately known as the ICE box) in the center of the newsroom, adjacent to a hub desk staffed by news and city editors. Nick Jungman, my predecessor as the Missourian’s Knight visiting editor/visiting assistant professor, chronicled the transition on this blog.

Thanks to the efforts of Nick and other Missourian editors, the ICE desk editors are the day-to-day producers of ColumbiaMissourian.com. In addition to editing stories and writing headlines, they curate links and build features such as photo galleries. They help moderate comments and bring Missourian stories directly to readers via Facebook and Twitter. They are also bringing a storytelling approach to aggregated content. (Read more about that in a future post.)

I’m excited to join the Missourian in this transition. I’d also like to learn more about how editors throughout the industry are contributing to their newsrooms’ online and mobile efforts. Please join the conversation by leaving a comment.

On his blog, design consultant Ron Reason offers a great assessment of what’s working on a great front page. Full disclosure: This is a page from the St. Petersburg Times, where Ron and I worked together in the mid-’90s. The Times is a paper that obsesses over readers and the details that compel readers, and Ron offers an excellent rundown of how that plays out on a Page 1A focused on the second-day story of Osama bin Laden’s death. This is how great editors and designers work.

(Hat-tip to Jacqui Banaszynski, who passed this along to me and several other faculty members.)

Fred Vultee — a Mizzou Ph.D. and former Missourian news editor, now teaching at Wayne State University — offered a session on some of his research, answering the question “Do readers notice good copy editing?”

Vultee finds that readers notice when a story is well edited. They are particularly sensitive to details and good grammar. They are less sensitive to structural problems. Internal consistency is particularly important, but fine points of style are lost on readers. They expect stories to sound “professional” — better than what they could do themselves. Heavy users of news are much more sensitive to editing than casual users.

An interesting conclusion for Vultee is that editing varies by platform. Online readers seem to have different expectations than print readers. This might point newsrooms away from universal copy desks and in the direction we’ve taken at the Missourian: to separate production desks for print and online. How exactly do they differ? Online readers seem to have different expectations of story organization. They are more likely to see a well-edited story as badly organized, and they are more likely to see an unedited story as well organized. Vultee’s research doesn’t explain this, but I wonder if this speaks to the idea that online readers don’t want a traditional Point A-to-Point B story but need something more packaged and “nuggetized.” We may be hearing echoes of the Jakob Nielsen research on how online readers read and the need for us to more often do “scanner-style” stories online. It appears we might need different copy editors focused on print and online, working in different ways. I think that means more copy editors, not fewer, in a hybrid print-online news organization.

Vultee doesn’t claim that editing makes publishers more money, but if you consider what Mizzou’s Esther Thorson et al. have found about newsroom investments — that they do translate into revenue, probably because readers notice product quality — and you add Vultee’s observations that readers notice editing quality, you have the very beginnings of a case for hiring, not firing, copy editors.

The estimable John McIntyre, night editor at The Baltimore Sun, has a post on his blog today that very much fits in with the theme of the Standdown for Accuracy and the discussion at this morning’s Missourian budget meeting. Here’s a snippet:

… the editor is trammeled by the limitations of his or her skills. That is why it is essential for you, if you work as an editor, to be honest and clear-headed about your own defects as a craftsman.

If, for example, you tend to go too fast and miss details, you will need to find some way to compensate, perhaps by requiring one or two additional readings before letting go of the text. Or if your tendency is to edit too slowly, perhaps you need to set yourself a deadline for each text you pick up.

You should read the whole thing.

Today, one of the most prolific entrants to our Show Me the Errors contest, Stephens College professor Jim Terry, was on a roll. Over the course of an about an hour, Terry submitted 21 separate errors, almost all of them simple and unarguably valid. The majority of them I would put in the category of “Careless.” If our editors had been paying a little more attention, none of these errors would have seen the light of day. I compiled the errors in this Word document for our editing staff, if you care to take a look.

This problem of failing to edit for detail reminded me of something I learned from a longtime colleague of mine at The Wichita Eagle, Roy Wenzl. Those of you here at Mizzou might have met Roy a few weeks ago when he was on campus working with some of Jacqui Banaszynski’s students. Roy’s expertise is in narrative reporting, and many of his pieces win a lot of attention. Nieman Storyboard recently did a great interview with Roy about his latest work.

Back in about 1997, we were having some editing problems at The Eagle, which once upon a time was infamous for having eliminated its central copy desk*. A lot of little errors were making it into print. Roy — the leader of the crime and safety team at the time — circulated a memo describing something he called “The Dink-Dink Solution.” I was a pretty fresh copy editor then and found this technique immediately improved the consistency of my editing. I adapted the technique, but it owes a lot to Roy’s memo. Here it is:

  1. When you’re copy-editing a story, the first time you read through it, you try not to touch it. You can fix very obvious, simple errors, but your goal is to read the thing from top to bottom and to try to understand it. You’re asking yourself: What is this story about? Do I understand it? Will the reader understand it? Is it fair and accurate? Any fiddly editing you do at this point is only going to distract you from answering those fundamental questions.
  2. You’re now going to pass judgment on the story. Does it accomplish its purpose? Did I understand it? Will the reader? Is it journalistically sound? If it’s flawed, can I fix it? If the story is misconceived, this is the point at which you have a conversation with the assigning editor or the night editor about it. There are some fundamental problems that a copy editor can’t, or at least shouldn’t, fix.
  3. If you still have the story, it’s time to really go to work. From top to bottom, fix the problems you find, whatever they are. Do the copy editing. And when you’re done with this pass of nuts-and-bolts editing. …
  4. It’s time to go “dink-dink.” If you have a way to hide your editing notes, do it. Now, start at the bottom of the story, with the last paragraph. Read it slowly and closely. Ask yourself: Does each word and each phrase mean what it says? Are there details here that I missed in my first pass? And when you’re done with the last paragraph, move up to the next-to-last paragraph and do the same thing. And then up to paragraph before that, and then the paragraph before that, etc. The idea here is that you’re divorcing yourself from the narrative of the story. You’re no longer going to get lost in what the writer is trying to say, you’re reading what the author actually wrote, in the way you edited it. This is what Roy meant by “dink-dink.” Imagine the staccato sound you make as you tap each paragraph individually, instead of the more continuous sound you make as you barrel through the story head-first. “Dink, dink, dink.”
  5. At this point, you’ve made three passes through the story. You might be done. Depending on how complex the story was, how much time you’ve got, how extensive your editing was, you might add a fourth pass, forward this time, just to read and understand the end result of your editing. And then, you move the story along to the news editor or slot.

When I’ve taught this to students, I’ve done so with this caveat: This is a technique — my technique. Try it. It might work for you. Or in trying it, you might figure out your own technique, just as I adapted this technique from Roy. The lesson here is that you’ve got to do something that forces you to read for detail. It doesn’t usually come naturally. Most copy editors are voracious consumers of information and tend to devour their recreational reading; part of our craft is cultivating the discipline to slow down.

———

* The Eagle’s copy editors were parceled out to topic-based content teams in 1995, and many took the opportunities offered to transform themselves into excellent reporters and assigning editors. The content teams worked out well, but the dearth of copy editing did not. By about 1999, a frustrated newsroom voted to make reconstituting the copy desk one of its top priorities for the year, and Executive Editor Rick Thames and Copy Chief Jann Nyffeler made it happen. I succeeded Jann as the leader of the reconstituted desk, a post I held for five years. Today, some of the desk’s denizens and alumni are among the most prominent members of the American Copy Editors Society.

I see way too much of this sort of thing on our site:

For the complete schedule, click here.

This is an extreme (but common) example of something we do all the time: We don’t provide adequate target or context for links, and we baby readers about what to do with them. This example is bad for three reasons:

  • The target — the space you have to click — is tiny. It’s a dexterity test to get your cursor to the precise point of the link.
  • It is too literal about what that underlined blue text means. Our readers know those are links and they’re meant to be clicked. You don’t have to explain to the reader what to do.
  • The anchor text — that’s the text you choose to be the underlined link — ought to describe what is being linked. Not only is this reader-friendly; it has SEO value. When Google has a clue about why you’re linking to another site, it has another clue about where it should index our page.

Here’s one alternative, which is clear about what you’ll get when you click the link.

The complete festival schedule is on Citizen Jane’s website.

You could better integrate the link into another sentence that’s already serving another purpose in your story.

The complete schedule includes 14 films, three shorts programs, four panels or workshops and one work in progress.

Although with that alternative, you might also wish to include the link in the infobox, more easily found by scanning readers.

Here’s another mistake I see in links:

The Kansas City Star reported that the woman would face murder charges.

Did you assume that link would go to The Star’s home page? Or to the story about the woman facing murder charges? It’s ambiguous at best, and I’d argue that choosing “The Kansas City Star” as the anchor text is telling the reader the link is to The Star’s main page.

I’d do this:

The Kansas City Star reported that the woman would face murder charges.

And I think this is defensible too, arguably better:

The Kansas City Star reported that the woman would face murder charges.

(And, no, we have absolutely no problem sending our readers to another publication’s site for a fuller story. In fact, we should never, ever mention another report available online without linking to it.)

Finally, one more plea: Don’t automatically link every proper name in a story to the home page associated with that name. Every time we write about the Columbia Public Schools, we don’t need to make “Columbia Public Schools” a link to the CPS home page. What reader needs to click on that? Is it that hard for the reader to find the CPS website if he needs to? Does the CPS home page add any layer of context to our reporting?

Instead, I’d suggest we make links only to context that provides helpful background to the story. If an organization is likely to be unfamiliar to our readers, or hard to find online, and integral to an understanding of a story, absolutely a link to that organization’s home page might be helpful. Does the reader need a link to www.missouri.edu five times a day every day? No. But we can find the specific page on MU’s site that adds context to this particular story.

Please don’t take this as a suggestion we link too much. We still don’t link enough. But we need to strive to find the links that actually make the story richer and more useful, not links for links’ sake.

We’re just about a week into the launch of the contest. Here’s Maggie Walter’s report:

Show Me the Errors contest was launched at 12:01 a.m. Friday, Oct. 1. Readers were invited to participate in the contest through the Dear Reader column — published online on Sept. 24 and in print on Sept. 26. Additionally, print editions on Sept. 29 and 30 and Oct. 1 and a banner on Oct. 1 on the website’s home page invited readers to join in.

Set up:
At the end of each story, readers see a submission box for the contest. The submission box also performs three functions:

  • Feeds an e-mail to mujourmissourianeditors@missouri.edu. This includes the originating e-mail so further contact can be made if needed.
  • Sends an automatic reply to the person who submitted the correction.
  • Gathers the sender’s name and e-mail throughout the month in Google analytics so that monthly winners can be determined.

In addition, there is a “what’s this?” link that includes an explanation of Show Me the Errors.

The automatic response states:

Thanks for helping the editors at the Missourian in their efforts to keep the copy as error-free as possible. Your points for the Show Me the Errors contest will be automatically tabulated. An editor will contact you if additional information is needed.

Results:
There was an immediate response from various writers, notably Rod Gelatt, about perceived grammatical errors in the column. Other readers also questioned particular word usages and punctuation.

Gelatt’s comment sparked a firestorm of comments in the world of editing and language blogs, in particular John McIntyre’s “You Don’t Say” blog and Mark Liberman’s “Language Log” weblog. As a result of an e-mail exchange with Dean Mills, dean of the Missouri School of Journalism, the contest’s name was changed to Show Me the Errors.

Online readers jumped on the bandwagon to point out errors and needed corrections. As of Oct. 6, there have been about 30 submissions, apparently all valid. Kate McIntyre is leading the pack.

Other issues:
A couple of misdirected comments have shown up in the contest submissions. News desk editors have been directed to contact the writer and ask them to resubmit their comments in the correct place. We’ll be monitoring these incidents to see if they continue and decide if we need to redesign the submission boxes to clarify the situation.