How editing processes are evolving at college-media outlets

A guest lecturer told my students last month that one of things he was most excited about in his new job covering Ohio State athletics was working with editors again.

Thinking I’d misunderstood him, I asked if his stories were edited before being published online.

The answer was no.

This was a recent alumnus working for an online-only outlet that required dozens of stories per month, but I was still surprised. Surprised, but also reminded of an exchange with the sports editor during my first summer as adviser for The Lantern. He had been posting content — often well-done stories and commentaries — without anyone else on staff seeing it first.

As adviser, that made no sense to me for journalistic and legal reasons. The more editors involved the better, for everything from copy-editing to fact-checking. There’s also the fact that in this learning environment the only way to get better at editing is to edit.

After some initial pushback, the Lantern editors and I agreed on a minimum of two edits for everything, even in breaking-news situations and even if an editor is producing the content. For print, there are always at least five edits on every piece and often more, and at least one page proof, with two common.

I reached out to a half-dozen college-media outlets to see how their editing processes differ between online and print, including the number of edits and personnel involved. For the most part, print processes were similar, though many are works in progress. Online editing ranged from no editors required to two or more, while multimedia elements often received fewer edits than traditional print pieces. (For a look at how college-media outlets can work to prevent plagiarism and fabrication, this Poynter piece is excellent.)

Print edits extensive, evolving

George Washington University in Washington, D.C. saw its twice-weekly paper become a weekly earlier this month. Cory Weinberg, editor-in-chief at The GW Hatchet, said that conversion has given his staff even more time to edit print pieces.

Typically, the section editor takes first read for a day or two, then the managing editor and Weinberg take a look, all before production. During production, those three edit again, along with a copy editor. Once stories are on the page, the copy chief, managing editor and editor-in-chief all edit again, Weinberg said in a phone interview.

At the University of Kansas, everything starts with a section editor who reviews stories for style, structure and bigger-picture issues, said Trevor Graff, editor-in-chief of The University Daily Kansan, in a phone interview. The article then goes to the copy chief to assign to a copy editor for a comprehensive edit, including AP style and grammar. After that, it’s back to the copy chief for a cursory look and then to the design desk for laying out on the page. The issue is printed on 11×17 paper for page proofs.

As editor-in-chief, Graff doesn’t need to see all articles before publication. He said he takes on the bigger stories, which often cover more-sensitive subjects. One recent example was a story about students from Syria that had obvious political and religious tensions.

“It’s on me to coach reporters and editors through the tougher situations,” Graff said.

The biggest change at the Daily Kansan this year is that the same copy editor takes the story through the whole process. Last year, there were different people copy-editing, writing headlines and photo cutlines.

“We did that to enhance consistency and make sure the copy editors assigned the story can see every element of the story,” Graff said. “We missed some headlines last year.”

Brittany Horn, editor-in-chief of The Daily Collegian at Penn State University, said in a phone interview that the process is similar there: She doesn’t edit all stories, but focuses on the most important and potentially controversial ones. The managing editor and copy chief read everything before publication.

The Opinion section is different, however: Only that section’s editor and Horn read the columns before publication. The Daily Collegian also recently debuted two sex columns written anonymously. For those, the paper’s adviser and Horn are the only advance readers.

Casey Fabris, editor-in-chief of The Daily Orange at Syracuse University, said in a phone interview that all print stories get at least six edits — including her own — before publication. It’s a similar set-up here at The Lantern, where the process begins with the section and copy editors and ends with the editor-in-chief, managing editor for content and the copy chief, all of whom read everything before publication. Stories are often proofed twice on the page.

Online, multimedia editing standards vary

While there are deep, structured print-editing procedures at these college-media outlets, the online-editing workflow varies, especially for breaking news.

At Syracuse and Ohio State, all online articles get at least two reads. Once the item is posted, editors will look again to ensure no obvious copy-editing or other issues exist. Here at Ohio State, a multimedia editor and two assistants are responsible for the editing and quality of the video content. The Lantern photo editor and assistant work on individual shots and slideshows, while captions get at least two additional edits.

Fabris said The Daily Orange created a video-editor position this spring, with that editor shooting much of his own content but also helping edit other submissions. The managing editor and Fabris look at those video packages as well, she said.

At Penn State, Horn said reads by at least two editors is standard for online articles, but major breaking news could be done with one edit, though that rarely happens. If editors are geographically spread out, they edit via an email chain.

Sam Stites, editor-in-chief of the University of Oregon’s Emerald Media Group, said the staff tries to be strict, “but in breaking-news situations sometimes only two pairs of eyes (reporter, editor) see the story before it’s published online,” with a copy-edit after posting.

“We actually have been playing with a new feature that sends a status update to the next editor, copy editor or manager whenever the status of a story is changed on our website,” Stites said via email. “This allows us to be notified when we need to look at something for quick editing.”

Graff said for online stories it’s “not as many eyes, but more-experienced eyes,” as the staff attempts to recreate the print workflow without the traditional structure. Stories rarely go out with only one edit because the Kansas paper has a handful of paid reporters who are supposed to be on call.

The photo editor in Kansas plays the same role as any section editor, working to select the best sports and news images to illustrate that day’s stories. The copy editor assigned to the story also can see those images while editing, Graff said. The photo editor reads captions for online-only shots, while any cutlines in print go through the normal editing process.

Weinberg said only four people have online-publishing power at the GW Hatchet; it’s OK for one of those top editors to post something and then have it read online by other editors. Typically, the section editor and then the managing editor or Weinberg reads a news article before it’s posted. They are trying to determine where a copy editor should fit in that process.

Weinberg said he thinks the balancing act between prioritizing stories and “absolute, minute carefulness” is a struggle for many college newspapers, adding that “we are still trying to figure out the right balance, the right mix.”

Weinberg also said the Hatchet staff realizes the need to quickly put structure around the online editing process before a major gaffe forces the issue.

That’s smart — while these college-media leaders are some of the most-talented journalists in the country, everyone needs an editor. It may sound great to work without one, but like the recent Ohio State alum who spoke to my class said, you miss editors when they’re gone. They force you to get better.

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  • slowp

    Heh heh heh. I was Editor-in-Chief at a college without a journalism dept. Editing? Fugggeddaboutit! We had to REWRITE everything.

  • Gerald Grow

    Very good! I have been disturbed not only by frequent grammatical errors in online publications, but in the way so many writers don’t distinguish fact from opinion, fail to register their degree of certainty about facts, neglect to attribute material to their sources, and are careless in statements that could be libel.

    The excellent editing of yesteryear was in part the result of lawsuits skewering publications for inaccuracy and defamation. Will online publications have to suffer similar losses in court before they recognize the value of good editing?