The digital copy desk

When I saw the new Ask the Recruiter post this morning, about making yourself more valuable as a copy editor, I had a hunch that the skills in question didn’t necessarily have anything to do with editing.

I was right, more or less.

The three main skills mentioned all have to do with Web content: search-engine optimization (SEO), tagging and analytics.

SEO is a skill that most copy editors possess even if they might not know it. Whenever you write a Web headline and are thinking of words that will make the story pop up in a search engine, you’re practicing SEO. Tagging is similar, although it’s more of a behind-the-curtain thing. And analytics basically breaks down your site traffic to determine what days, posts, pages and so on drew the most traffic.

The post reminded me of the shift in copy-editor education and workload during my last semester at the Kansan. For several semesters before, uploading Web content had been the domain of a nightly Web producer. Having done it myself, I can say that it was a pretty thankless job. Also, I kind of had to sit in the corner of the newsroom when I did it, something that kind of stung…

During my second semester as managing editor, we took a new tack and upgraded the Web producers’ jobs to more multimedia-based work, “hiring” students in the online reporting class. The job of uploading nightly Web content fell to the copy desk, which I’d worked on the previous semester.

Before the semester began, I typed up a (ridiculously minute) step-by-step guide for every copy editor. It was basically a crash course in Ellington, our CMS. I tried to think of every pop-up error and red flag that had ever plagued me, and gave troubleshooting instructions on how to fix it. How to set the time stamp? In there. Correcting a rogue ampersand? Done. Priority levels? Check.

The biggest issue was selling the idea to the copy editors. Why should they have to do this when someone else had always done it before? Cue my spiel about online priorities, well-written Web heads, the need to be flexible, the need to think beyond the print medium and, most importantly, the fact that they were going to do it as part of their grade.

After almost three straight weeks in the newsroom every night training the copy desk, I finally trusted them to help each other and fly solo. By the end of the semester, most of them had it down cold, several of them told me they preferred Web uploading to their actual editing duties and the midnight, panicky phone calls had stopped.

While I’m sure most of them saw the work as tedious (occasionally), difficult (when the system was pissy), beneath them (not really) or boring (guilty), they all left their editing class with something to add to their CVs: They had experience using a CMS, knew basic HTML and could write a Web head that would land on the top of a Google search. And I daresay those things will come in handy during their job searches, more so than even their (gasp!) print-based editing.


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