How to Shift Web Duties to Your Copy Desk
When copy editors tell me how they feel lost in the Web-first world, I know how they feel.
When section editors tell me they don’t think their copy desk is ready for Web duties, I know how they feel, too. I know because I’ve felt the same way at one point or another in the past couple years. My background is primarily in copy editing, and I’ve made the move to the online side of our paper only in the past year. In that time, we shifted our Web uploading duties to our copy desk. It’s not a perfect system, but I think it’s a start.
The old system vs. the new one
We used to have one person come in late at night and upload the entire issue shovelware-style: no links, no related stories attached, no Web-first mindset.
Now, copy editors upload stories one at a time after they’ve been edited.
It’s not a perfect system and it’s not necessarily built to accommodate a 24-hour news cycle, but it’s an improvement. When most of your staff is in class during the day, it’s tough to keep the site fresh during the day, but we’re working toward that goal.
What I learned
I won’t pretend we’re perfect, but here’s some bits of wisdom I’ve picked up during our transition:
Quit making excuses
This is Rule No. 1, and it’s one that took my a while to get over. If you’re waiting for the ideal time to make the switch, you’ll be waiting forever. Take Nike’s advice and just do it.
Make a illustrated step-by-step guide
The more detailed, the better. If you’ve worked in WordPress or another CMS before, learning a new system can be easy-peasy. But I’m guessing this will be a first for more than a few of your copy deskers, so make things as painless as possible: Include screen caps with each step so they can see what to click and where to type.
I’ll admit, It’s not exactly fun to put together this kind of a guide, but multiple staff members have told me they like to have ours on hand as a reference. One who’d never worked on our site even used it as his only guide to upload a story while I was in class and no one else was around to help him. The copy editors who I’ve trained keep it in front of them as they upload stories, too, so it looks like it’s getting used.
Keep section heads in the loop
Let your higher-ups know that copy editors may be a bit slower at getting to their normal duties while they get the hang of things. No matter how much you prepare them, this is going to happen. Just ask your staff to be patient.
Getting people to show up for training can be half the battle
I’ll admit: Only 40 percent of the desk actually showed up for our mandatory training. That meant I had to do one-on-one training with the other 60 percent throughout the week. (Read: Inefficient use of time.) Advertise your mandatory training like crazy.
Show copy editors the benefits of these new duties
Internship recruiters want applicants with Web skills, and that’s exactly what this shift in duties will teach them. They should be playing this up on their resume.
A recent post by Mindy McAdams (@macloo) and a year-old classic post by CoPress member Greg Linch (@greglinch) both highlight the need for journalists to have a diverse skillset. And if you’ve worked in one CMS, it’s much easier to learn another. If it’s between you and another internship applicant, you never know when your Web skills might just give you the edge. That rationale can be a good morale-booster if your staff feels a little hesitant or overwhelmed.
Nothing will ever go off without a hitch – and that’s A-OK
When you alter your newsroom’s copy flow, try to avoid any foreseeable problems, but realize some will pop up nevertheless. Each night will be a learning process, so relax and enjoy the adventure.
An unexpected perk: Better Web headlines
Our copy desk was already writing Web-only headlines, but they weren’t very SEO-friendly. Training sessions and handouts didn’t seem to do the trick.
What did, I found out, was giving them complete ownership: They were the ones writing those headlines and they were the ones actually putting them on the stories.
I did give them a short list of pointers:
- Be specific and use keywords.
- Kill the cute stuff. (Search engines don’t grasp puns, plays on words, etc.)
- Be clear and concise.
So how about you? Do you have any tips from when your news organization consolidated editing duties? What problems have you run into? Comment away!