Monday, April 21, 2008

Smokin' ACES: Copy editors are stuck in middle of new media

There's our dull pencil, somewhere near the middle of all the confusion.

Doug Fisher, a journalism professor at the University of South Carolina and blogger at Common Sense Journalism, blogged a few of my posts about the American Copy Editors Society conference in Denver.

It's interesting to see how someone from an older generation with knowledge of the new tools of the trade reacts to the sometimes naive thoughts of yours truly, a self-proclaimed "next-gen" journalist. I like to be snarky and blunt, a tactic that runs the risk of seeming less intellectual at times, especially when I use words such as "stupid" and "dumb."

But it's difficult to avoid those terms when today's journalism, Dumb, still learns from yesterday's journalism, Dumber. Times are changing, and words and attitudes are changing with them.

So that's why I found it a bit humorous how some people reacted to the tools and concepts Fisher presented at ACES. If you look at his handout, which I posted earlier, there are many of them - too many to divulge to any great extent in the 90 minutes he had.

By listening to the questions asked of Fisher, I thought there were some misperceptions among the audience members about why copy editors need to know about Web 2.0. They also had a very basic knowledge of social media and its positive and negative influences on journalism. That's why I said copy editors' collective pencil is a bit dull when it comes to new media.

The overarching of these misunderstandings is that copy editors think they are going to edit Twitter entries, "citizen" blogs and online reader comments as though they are newspaper articles. After all, that's what copy editors do: They edit. Unfortunately, I don't think people were thinking about my "masters of all" theory of copy editing, which states that we must know it "all," whether it's by reading books or by monitoring Joe Schmoe's Twitter page.

Despite the urge to edit Schmoe's ungrammatical and libelous Tweets, as Fisher mentioned during another session ("Moderating Online Communities: A Potential New Job for the Desk"), it's better to take a hands-off approach. I've even heard FLORIDA TODAY's lawyer say it: If you touch something a reader writes, it's yours, and you're liable for it. But if you leave it alone, you're simply an innocent host.

On, people who register with the site can published their own blogs through the Pluck platform. It's in its infancy here in Brevard County, but the service should stimulate a robust community conversation. It already has shown promise toward this end in the humorous, critical and sometimes good blogs started by FLORIDA TODAY readers.

Copy editors - no matter how strong their editing urge is - won't be able to touch this conversation unless it's to contribute, as I have done, or to wholly prevent comments on a news story.

Fisher mentioned the comments last year of The Ithaca Journal publisher: Once I give you a voice, I have to accept that voice. Journalists are no longer the only people with a voice. We must get that into our heads.

But he said online communities create so many legal conundrums that cannot easily be answered outside court. "Someone's going to get sued and lose," he said. "I just hope it's not me."

I hope he's wrong (about the first part).

No, seriously, 'What's RSS?'

Misperception No. 2 (though it's more of a misconception) in the first Fisher session was more technical than theoretical. It's about how RSS works, hence the "What's RSS?" question I portrayed copy editors as posing (my headline for that session post was "Know-it-all copy editors ask, 'What's RSS?'").

It seemed that many editors in attendance thought that an online story must be perfectly edited with a perfect headline before it goes live because, as it's posted, an RSS headline goes out, and it cannot be changed later. False. If you rewrite the headline and recache the story, the new headline will overwrite the old.

I know this is the case with The Offlede headlines, but I wanted to see if it were true for a real news site, too. So I experimented with Here are the results:

Headline No. 2 in this list - which is a screenshot of my RSS reader, iGoogle - "Students scurry to shine for their last dance" was too long. "Dance" bumped over to the second line. So I decided to take out "their" to shorten it. I went into our online content manager and took it out. Then I waited.

Sure enough, about 30 minutes later, a new headline showed up on my iGoogle desktop via RSS. It was "Students scurry to shine for last dance." So don't worry, newbie online editors, you can change a headline, and RSS readers everywhere will know about it.

Of course, if you have subscribers who get automatically generated e-mails containing RSS headlines (through a service such as Feedblitz), you'll want to make sure the headlines are all right before that e-mail goes out. But really, how many people do this; how many people want more e-mail in their inbox?

It's difficult to say what role copy editors will play in this new-mingled-media landscape. Will we be editing more? Will we be sitting on the sidelines waiting for something big to happen before we step in? Or will we take our usual, humble position as we have in the newsroom for years: Will we be stuck, somewhere in the middle?

Some terms for online conversation communities:
  • Flamer: person who posts just to make people mad
  • Sock puppet: person who creates multiple identities or monikers and starts conversations with themselves
  • Troll: someone who posts off-topic or off-the-wall remarks to make others become emotionally charged or to kill the forum discussion
  • Troll whisperer: moderator, not editor, who deals with difficult posters without depressing the conversation
Session information
  • Title: "Moderating Online Communities: A Potential New Job for the Desk"
  • Time: 2:15 to 3:45 p.m. Friday
  • Panelists: Doug Fisher, University of South Carolina; Travis Henry,
  • Description: "Social networks and comments on stories are all the rage - and rage sometimes is the operative word as conversations get out of hand. As news organizations open their sites to comments, blogs and other community-generated content, this might be a new opportunity for savvy copy editors, or just something else the desk will have to handle. So you want to be a troll whisperer? Find out what has been learned from sites like YourHub and Hartsville Today."
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