The web is where the work is

17 Aug

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John McIntyre writes:

Today, I have to tell you, working as a print-only copy editor is not a job with a future. A tremendous amount of content goes online, and it must be produced, formatted, and, yes, edited. If you can’t or won’t master these skills, the paper will find someone who will. This situation is exactly parallel to the introduction of editing for print on computers thirty years ago.

He’s right. There is concern in some places that the function of the website – hitherto, perhaps, an adjunct to an established newspaper – is starting to encroach on the production of the main event: printed pages. That’s certainly what’s happened here at the Tribune. Where once the uploaders meekly fished into a pool of print stories and put a few of them on a website as an experiment, now the whole day is arranged for the production of rolling live news online, and the print newsdesk is the one unobtrusively harvesting stories for the paper that have already been published for hours.

That sounds depressing: but it isn’t. In fact, it’s good news. The success of internet news is far from the worst thing that could have happened to copy editors.

Twelve years ago, before it was clear that newspaper websites were going to work, news publishers’ proposals for survival revolved around taking costs out of the print operation. There was a distinct prospect – which has become a grim reality in many places – of print subs being bypassed altogether for a model in which reporters typed straight onto pages drawn up by designers, and either wrote their own headlines or wrote headlines for each other. Redundancy has beckoned for thousands of subs, particularly in the US and the British local press.

Now, the economics of newspapering are far from being solved, and the gaps in some balance sheets are as bad as they ever were. But the spectacular audience success of news websites has presented some copy-desk managers with an even more pressing problem: suddenly, there’s just so much work to do.

Why? On a typical print paper, a designer takes care of the pictures, worries about where the adverts sit in relation to the editorial, and talks to the graphics desk, while the sub just takes care of the text. The visual work and the textual work are divided. But on the web, there is no designer for the article – or, to look at it another way, the webpage – that you are working on. Yes, the basic web layout will be a template: but you, the copy sub, are now the one flicking through the photo library, navigating round the downpage pop-up ads and wrestling with the embed codes for the bar chart, before you ever get to the headline and the text. On the web, you are the editor, the picture editor and the designer.

This transfer of emphasis from print to web has had another consequence too. When the paper was the flagship, all the management attention and agonising – over photoshoots, headlines, word counts, look and feel – was directed to the print pages. This was the period when the web was seen as being cheap and easy, quick and dirty – a headline, some text and maybe a pic semi-automatically ported into cyberspace. But now, as the website itself becomes the calling card of a news organisation, that attention is getting focused online. We have started to see the emergence of elaborate internet-only showpieces like the New York Times’s “Snowfall” or the Guardian’s “Carbon Bombs” – productions as intricate and labour-intensive as the most impressive double-page graphic. The management at the Tribune has now explicitly asked for more production time to be taken over web stories, to furnish them with extra pictures and other display items.

What does that mean? As an experiment, below is a representative sample of articles, ranked in length order, from my last two news shifts on the Sunday edition of the paper. I timed how long it took me to edit them for print, then stopped the clock and restarted it to find out how much extra time was needed to prepare the same article for the web.

The old production system at the Tribune, which we still use for the Sunday edition, is ideally suited for this experiment, because it’s an integrated print-and-web system that prepares articles for both formats. (Production on the daily edition, by contrast, has now split onto two entirely separate platforms.) Working on a Sunday article naturally breaks itself into a two-stage, print-then-web process. You edit, cut the copy and write the furniture just as you would for a print-only paper, with the only proviso that any copy sacrificed for fit but otherwise decent is put into ‘web-only’ mode, cutting it from the paper but not from the internet.

Then, after you’ve finished the article for print, you

  1. Create a separate suite of web furniture (headline, standfirst, trail etc) based on your print furniture, rewritten as necessary to improve search-engine optimisation.
  2. Add a picture to the web article from the electronic photo library and write an Google-friendly caption.
  3. Find and embed further pictures in the body of the text (about one every 600 words or so) to break up long articles.
  4. Create a URL slug (the part of the web address that comes after the main site name, thus: http://www.thetribune.com/this-bit-is-the-slug), based on your headline.
  5. Add reference tags (usually seven or eight, selected from a large database) to the article so that it can be indexed by author, subject-matter and section on the website.
  6. Preview the webpage for appearance, and check your new furniture for widows and orphans (sometimes it takes two or three attempts to get it looking neat).
  7. Clear your search-engine optimisation efforts with the audience team, who will advise on what popular terms ought to be appearing in the headline.
  8. Launch the article.

Here’s what I found:

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The lengths of time spent print subbing vary as much as you might expect: from an hour and a half for a 1,400-word double-page spread with all the trimmings down to less than 10 minutes for a single-stick news story with a one-column headline.  But the time taken to web an article after subbing it varies much less: from half an hour for the big piece (most of it spent on picture research for the additional photos) down to 12 minute for the short story. There’s an irreducible minimum of work needed to get an article online, no matter how insignificant it is: you have to follow at least seven of the eight steps listed above every single time. In fact, as the table shows, at below the 500-word mark, the time needed to web an article starts to exceed the time needed to edit it traditionally. In other words, short news stories now take more than twice as long to prepare as they used to.

The editor-free, reporters-typing-onto-pages model, if it was ever going to work, might have worked in an impecunious non-digital era where to fill two text boxes was to finish the job. But that’s not how it is on the web. The web needs work: work that is too time-consuming and technical for a reporter to do. And that’s why copy desks that embrace the internet may actually be good news: because in cyberspace there’s more work to do, not less.

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9 Responses to “The web is where the work is”

  1. Lisa Oliver August 17, 2015 at 6:52 pm #

    Great article. Loved it!

    Lisa Oliver Sent from my iPhone

    >

  2. Jeff August 18, 2015 at 8:51 pm #

    Interesting post, and also an opportunity to ask about callouts. On the Tribune website they often appear *after* the section of copy from which they’re drawn, which surely makes them a bit redundant. In fact, aren’t they altogether redundant on the web? I always assumed the point of callouts was to attract you to articles as you flicked through the pages, which you’re not doing online anyway.

    • edlatham August 18, 2015 at 9:27 pm #

      Yes, they shouldn’t be appearing after the copy in question – we’re under instructions to put them before the text as a sort of teaser of what’s to come. I think they do have some (marginal) utility on the web for that – and the idea is to put more print-style effort into web production now

      • Jeff August 27, 2015 at 12:55 pm #

        See this example: http://gu.com/p/4bpbp/sbl

        The callout is two-thirds of the way down but the quote is from the second paragraph.

      • edlatham August 27, 2015 at 1:07 pm #

        Oh dear, tsk. People have been specifically instructed not to do that

  3. Jeff September 13, 2015 at 10:46 am #

    This one is very lazy: http://gu.com/p/4cb4q/sbl The callout is *literally* next to the paragraph from which it is drawn!

    • Jeff September 13, 2015 at 10:48 am #

      Actually both callouts! Has someone misunderstood the rules?

      • edlatham September 13, 2015 at 11:35 am #

        Oh dear,yes – looks like it. And now we’re being told that actually the rules might be different again for mobile as opposed to desktop.

        That’s the other part of the problem – everything in digital media changes so quickly, in terms of SEO, browsers, devices, reading habits, etc, that some rules are only rules for a short period of time. The best practice on SEO, for example, is distinctly different now from what it was four years ago, and some people (wrongly, I think), are boldly claiming that ‘search is dead’ and that social referral is the only thing that matters. So there’s often a bit of a ‘rule lag’ while the latest message percolates through the production desks.

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