Eight Things I Learned as a 40-Year-Old Intern

The worst thing a professor can do is stop learning. That’s why, after three years out of the newsroom, I wanted to be a 40-year-old intern this summer. My inspiration was a session at the American Copy Editors Society national conference, where I participated in a discussion about the Web’s impact on editing. As worthwhile as that session was, I knew I needed more firsthand experience at a newspaper Web site. I needed to learn.

To that end, I landed an “internship” at the Web site of the Los Angeles Times. (Disclaimer: My official title was “contractor,” and I was paid $3,000 for my work.) I’m grateful that the paper found a place for me, given its problems with the economy and new ownership. In my seven weeks in California, I brushed up on my editing skills and picked up new ones. Here’s a look at eight things I learned:

1. Prepare to work hard. The AM copy desk, which edits much of the content on the LAT site, has to work with a sense of endless urgency. The copy flow is high, and time is tight. The pace can be both exhausting and exhilarating. And fewer “touches” on content raise the stakes for that single copy editor who may read something before it’s posted. As Henry Fuhrmann, the senior copy desk chief for the Web, told me on my first day: “Editing for online is like drinking water from a firehose.”

2. Be flexible. Web editors are like copy editors on a universal desk for a print newspaper, even more so. They edit everything, often without a smooth transition: One morning, I edited a blog post about Iraqi politics, followed by a story about a tennis tournament and then a photo gallery on C-list celebrities on reality TV. More than ever, this type of editing requires journalists to know something about everything. At the same time, the copy editors have to be aware how different types of content require different types of editing. That’s why a blog at the LAT is treated more like a column and less like a news story; a lighter editing touch is necessary.

3. Stand on many platforms. College students sometimes ask: What software do I need to learn to succeed as a Web journalist? There’s no simple answer because software is always changing along with the medium and always will. And journalists may need to use more than one platform at a time. That is the case at the LAT, which uses a blend of CCI for news stories, TypePad for blogs and an in-house content management system for photo galleries and other Web-only content.

4. Expand your news judgment. The “gatekeeping” function of the media has changed radically thanks to the Web. What should the centerpiece on the site’s home page be right now? In 30 minutes? An hour? What news merits a post on a reporter’s blog, and what is worth a full-fledged story? Or is there a difference? Which stories should allow reader comments, and how do we handle those comments on stories? The answers are evolving as the medium evolves and challenges our news judgment.

5. Develop new ways to tell stories. New media require new ways to convey information. Photo galleries can be more than just images and captions. The LAT site has used them in a time-line format to chronicle the rise and fall of the Hillary Clinton campaign. Another was a “tale of the tape” comparing Lou Ferrigno and Edward Norton in their performances as the Hulk. The paper also uses databases in new ways, including a searchable list of soldiers from California killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ideas for these storytelling forms can come from anywhere in the newsroom.

6. Prepare for new ethical challenges. A graffiti “tagger” who sought fame by posting his exploits on YouTube has been arrested. Should the story about his arrest include a link to his profanity-laced YouTube videos? What about “spoiler” headlines on the home page that tip off unwary readers about the results of their favorite reality TV show? Do we tell readers when an interview with a source was done by e-mail? If so, how do we phrase that? These types of questions are ones that Web journalists must deal with all the time.

7. Understand search engine optimization. Many readers of newspaper sites visit through Google searches, not through the home page. That means editors have to consider how stories will appear in Google search results, where the headline is king. Editors at the LAT carefully monitor this through Google Hot Trends, which measures sudden spikes in search terms. That can affect what words copy editors use in headlines. For example, when couples of the same sex began applying for marriage licenses in California, headlines and text described this as “same-sex marriage,” as per LAT style. But when it became obvious through Google Hot Trends that potential readers were searching “gay marriage” instead, editors decided to allow that term in headlines. That leads to a larger question: To what extent do journalists let Google guide what they do?

8. Know that editing still matters. The sorts of errors copy editors catch for print — style issues, grammar mistakes, mangled sentence structures – are the sorts of things that they also catch in online content. And yes, some fact-checking may be involved. In addition, editors have to watch out for hyperlinks and video links that don’t work. Some of the changes I made were picayune (a lot of comma errors) while others were more significant (a potentially libelous paragraph in a crime story that was sent back for a quick rewrite).

Overall, my brief time in Los Angeles was a rewarding one. The experience recharged my passion for editing and for teaching. I’m looking forward to returning to the classroom this fall, with the knowledge that my own education is still continuing.

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