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Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Education Toolbox

'Editing is everything,' but it's evolving

By Jeff South

Edit a story or create a Storify? Enforce AP style or craft an SEO headline? Attend SPJ or head to ONA?

Copy editors in today’s digital newsrooms face tough choices, as do copy-editing teachers and students.

It can be a struggle to infuse online skills into curricula geared for print or even broadcast journalism. We know the future lies in Web, social and mobile platforms. But many of our students start at newspapers steeped in tradition, where the emphasis is on cleaning copy, not curating the social media stream.

Curriculum development can be a zero-sum game: For every skill or topic we add, we often must subtract something. And teachers are not psychics. We don’t know if Twitter or another tool du jour will be around in five or 10 years.

Still, experienced journalism educators have found innovative ways to weave new-media sensibilities into editing courses. They understand that by learning to use social media effectively, students develop critical thinking skills that editors will always need.

“I’m a big advocate of teaching editing students far more than they used to be taught in the past. I stress visual editing and social media, and try to help them become literate in the Twitter culture,” said Leslie-Jean Thornton, an associate professor at Arizona State University.

In her advanced editing class, students not only master traditional print skills, such as AP style and newspaper/ magazine layout, but also learn social-media and multimedia skills, such as designing Web promos (the text-image packages of featured content on a home page).

A debate over what to teach in editing courses was ignited by journalist and journalism educator Robert Niles a few years ago, after some reporters panned AP for replacing “Web site” with “website.” Niles tweeted: “Really, j-schools need to ditch AP style and start teaching their students SEO instead. More valuable to their careers.”

In the Online Journalism Review, Niles elaborated on his quip.

“Today’s online publishers, editors and reporters need a new style that most effectively allows their words to reach their intended audiences. Unfortunately for them, the print-inspired AP style is not that. Today’s (and tomorrow’s) journalists need to learn search engine optimization techniques as much as, if not more than, their predecessors who worked the print industry needed to learn AP.”

In an interview, Niles said journalists need the writing style that will reach the most eyeballs — a Google friendly style that favors clarity and keywords over cutesiness and cleverness.

“You need to think like a person searching for the story you’re writing and include the words and phrases that person will use to try to find your piece,” Niles said.

During a breakout session at the Excellence in Journalism 2012 conference, Teresa Schmedding, president of the American Copy Editors Society, emphasized not only SEO but also SMO — social media optimization. That means conveying news with Facebook, Twitter and other tools.

“It’s not a one-way conversation. You need to ask questions, respond to readers, carry on a conversation and interact,” said Schmedding, an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald Media Group in suburban Chicago.

She said it’s more important for students to learn strategy than buttonology. “You have to understand why we’re using these platforms and who you’re trying to reach,” Schmedding said. “These are critical editing skills and critical thinking skills.”

Kelly Fincham, who teaches editing at Hofstra University, has her students apply those skills with Storify, which allows an editor to select and arrange content from You- Tube, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and other social media sites.

“In the same way that copy editors would put stories together based on wire reports from Reuters, AP, PA, AFP et al, Storify gives copy editors the ability to put together rich-media stories from a wide array of social media sources,” Fincham said at an Excellence in Journalism session on “Copy Editing for the Digital Age.”

While SPJ was holding its conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the Online News Association was meeting in San Francisco. That conference also attracted many editors and editing teachers, including Deborah Gump, a visiting professor at the University of South Carolina.

“Editing is everything,” said Gump, who developed the resource EditTeach.org. She said students must learn to apply high journalism standards to new media. Just as editors seek to ensure that print stories are accurate and fair, they must do the same with the hyperlinks embedded in an online article and with the elements of a Storify.

Verification is more important than ever in today’s social- media landscape, Gump said. She advocates making editing “part of everything we teach” — not sequestered as a single, often-optional course.

Doug Fisher, a veteran editor and senior instructor at South Carolina, agreed. “We’re not trying to train students to work as copy editors but as journalists who can edit copy,” he said.

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