Four editors who have handled breaking news online for their publications offer the following suggestions. Although their publications vary in size and format, they agreed on many of the same tips for online editing.
The editors are: Steve Buttry, director of community engagement at tbd.com; Emily Ingram, overnight producer at The Washington Post; Andrea Panciera, editor of projo.com; and Patrick Smith, assistant online editor/sports, Lincoln Journal Star.
1. When in doubt, go without. News may need to be posted quickly, “But if there is any question about whether that news is accurate,” Panciera said, “it’s not going to go.”
2. Keep it short. Online readers are skimming. They resist clicking too many times.
3. Think inverted pyramid. Make sure the news is at the top of the story.
4. Be transparent. “Tell us what you know and how you know it,” Buttry said, “and tell us what you don’t know.”
5. Use links to tell the story. Provide key background or contextual information with links. Editors should link to previous stories on the same topics. They also can link to original documents.
6. Headlines matter. Online, the headline may be the only element readers see. Tell them as much as you can about the story to draw them in.
7. Use key words in headlines. Be specific and direct in headlines. Clever may not work online. Smith pushes for locations in headlines. “I feel cheated if I see a headline that says ‘Man killed in rollover accident’ and it’s in Chadron,” he said. “I’d rather know it was a Lincoln man killed or it happened south of Lincoln.”
8. Quality counts. Although it’s true that you can easily and quickly fix mistakes online, readers notice sloppiness whether online or in print. “If you look at any mistake and look at the comments, you’ll find people who say it’s a very big deal,” Ingram said. “You can’t be cavalier about it. People get vocal if they think the level of editing has dropped.”