2006 Breakfast of Editing Champs
Professors & the pros come together in S.F.

By Lauren Raab, University of California at Los Angeles, and Alison Plessinger, Slippery Rock University

Today's editing professors have every reason to feel a tad conflicted:

* They teach a craft rooted in language skills that haven't changed in decades, yet the industry buzz uses new media terms that can change in an instant.

* They teach their students to speak for the reader at a time when readers are heard with a click instead of the turn of a page.

* Their own tech savvy may not match that of their wired students, for whom technology is as much a part of their lives as their ubiquitous iPods and cell phones.

So it's not surprising that many of the nearly 100 professors at the Breakfast of Editing Champions at this year's Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication convention wanted advice on how to prepare their students for a career in a rapidly changing craft. That's exactly what they got, and one of the first suggestions - from one of those wired students - drew a burst of applause:

"You have to understand that editing works across formats. Basic principles are what matter most because the format is always changing," said Adrian Uribarri, who had just graduated from the University of Florida and was spending the summer as a Dow Jones Newspaper Fund intern at the San Francisco Chronicle. "The future of convergence might be something none of us can anticipate. Focus on the basic skills."

Uribarri, now at the Los Angeles Times as part of METPRO, was joined by four veterans of new media operations: Eric Ulken, night managing editor at latimes.com; Randy Keith, online editorial director at the San Jose Mercury News; Steve Petranik, the Honolulu Advertiser's news editor; and Leslie Guevarra, deputy managing editor/copy desks at the San Francisco Chronicle.

Together, they led a discussion on how to teach editing to students who could be working for a Web site as easily as a print publication.

The Los Angeles Times is "in the midst of a reorganization that will bring the Web site and the newsroom together," said Ulken. "We're just beginning to cross that bridge." The Advertiser's print staff and online staff already are well integrated, Petranik said. "Everyone in the newsroom is trained to think online," he said. "It's the future."

Before the breakfast, Keith said that the Mercury News publishes "virtually all" of its daily stories online first.

"What I've found most interesting is that when you switch a newsroom over to an online mindset, you are actually returning to the days of a PM paper where you either get it first or you better do it better by pushing the story forward with analysis or storytelling or some new news nugget," he said.

It's the headine, baby!

Much of the discussion centered on the importance of headlines written for an Internet audience.

"Good headlines get more hits to mediocre stories than mediocre headlines get to good stories," Petranik said.

Guevarra agreed, adding that online heads have a "sass factor."

Keywords make headlines more search-engine friendly, Ulken said. Copy editors at the Los Angeles Times now write two versions of each headline: a print version, which must fit the page design and can rely on surrounding art to augment its meaning, as well as a standalone, keyword-laden Web version.

Times columnist Joel Stein wrote the ultimate keyword-based headline for his July 25 piece: "Secret Bible Verse Foretells Housing Crash, Spawns New Diet Craze and Scares a Porn Star Straight." Stein's column had little to do with his headline, but it rose to the top of latimes.com's "Most E-mailed" category, Ulken said.

The panel members agreed that headlines are key in getting readers to read full stories featured on news aggregators such as Google and Yahoo! news.

"If you write more better heads, they (readers) will click through," said Kenn Altine, director of editorial development for Hearst Newspapers, and a sponsor of the breakfast.

It's fast, but is it right?

The conversation heated up when several professors challenged the panelists about the practice of allowing reporters to post stories without having them run through a copy desk. The educators expressed concern about the legal and ethical liabilities of this practice.

Guevarra said that the the Chronicle does not allow rookie reporters to have the privilege of posting unedited work but that seasoned reporters who have worked with the copy desk are sometimes allowed to file their work without any additional eyes seeing the story.

"We don't like putting raw copy up, but sometimes you have to," she said.

The panelists said that the use of unedited stories has become more commonplace because of pressure to get information to time-challenged readers and that the results can be messy when these stories go online.

"It's a risk we are all living with," Ulken said.

Panelists and professors agreed that this risk can lead to serious mistakes and that corrections need to be made immediately on both the archived version of the story and on a live page.

The pros had this final piece of advice for the professors: Students must be trained to be comfortable editing across many kinds of formats and to make solid news judgments. And it was Uribarri, the former student, who hammered home that point.

"You're still trying to get the message across and the facts right," said Uribarri. "We're talking about this new world of journalism, but it's the same principles."

A record turnout of champs

This year's Breakfast of Editing Champions marked the largest gathering of editing professors in the event's five-year history. The meeting room at the San Francisco convention hotel was packed even at the relatively early hour of 8:15 a.m. - a time of day that few copy editors see with a smile or without coffee in hand.

"The enticement of free food has always worked on journalists," joked Altine. "Always has. Always will."

The breakfast was launched by Deborah Gump with a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Editing is at the heart of everything that journalists do, Gump said, and those who teach editing can have a profound influence on their students. The breakfast is a chance for professors to share ideas, swap teaching tips and talk to professionals about industry trends.

The goal is to "bring together the newsroom and the classroom," said Gump, who also runs EditTeach.org. "Together, they are stronger."

This year's session opened with a report on the value of editing courses: More than half of all entry-level print journalism jobs require editing and design skills. And copy editors earn more than reporters, photographers and designers with similar experience levels.

That was followed by a rapid-fire presentation of teaching ideas from professors, and no explanation lasted longer than five minutes:

* "I look up the home addresses of students," said Amanda Sturgill, a Baylor University professor, during her fact-checking presentation. "I will pull up images of Google Earth in class."

* "I have them list the five things they hated most about their most-hated boss," said Jim Sernoe of Midwestern State University, describing a teaching idea to help students understand management issues.

The breakfast was facing an iffy future last year after the Knight grant ran out. But financial help arrived from Hearst Newspapers, with encouragement from Altine.

"I love journalism," Altine said. "People who are teaching it, people who are doing it, and people who want to do both those things better."

Altine said the session was "a real simple way to have an impact not just on Hearst Newspapers, but on the industry."

To receive an invitation to next year's breakfast, e-mail Deborah Gump.

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