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The Dirt on Online Magazines, Part I

Posted on Wednesday, March 31, 2010 at 3:36 PM

How the online medium has changed the name of the editing game.

By Meredith L. Dias

If you're an editor having trouble adjusting to online landscape, you're not alone. Gone are the days when a publication could subsist on print alone. As my editor, William Dunkerley, says in his blog article ("Distressed Print Publications Making Mistakes"), "The print-only model for many is a relic of yesteryear."

These days, there is a lot of hype surrounding online publication. Comments range from "Print is dead" to "Web content is king." There are those who dismiss print aficionados as mere Luddites, and also those who believe that an online-or-nothing approach is the only appropriate publication strategy in today's industry.

However, while the Internet presents exciting new opportunities for publishers, everything in the online publishing world is not as rosy as the hype would lead you to believe. Editors must not only adjust to new software and technology, but also amend their editing procedures in order to accommodate this medium. As if this weren't enough of a challenge, there are still no uniform standards for editing Web content.

To Digitize or not to Digitize

Editors must be simultaneously innovative and careful when approaching the digitization of content. Some fall prey to the erroneous perception that an online-only approach is appropriate for all publications, including theirs. Kim Howard, editor-in-chief of ACC Docket, cautions against this: "It is quite an attractive financial prospect to kill the print version of anything. But before [management] makes a drastic decision, they really should ask the members first. At least you would be armed with good info." Carla Kalogeridis, editorial director of Signature, agrees, "I would tread very carefully here, and if after thorough research and surveying you do decide that a digital edition is right for you, be sure to get the help of digital magazine experts/consultants who can help set you up for success." In other words, do your homework before making any drastic moves, and always keep in mind the unique preferences and needs of your audience. What works for Time or Vogue won't necessarily work for your publication.

The Columbia Journalism Review Report

Recently, the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) published the results of their magazine survey in a report entitled Magazines and Their Websites. The report highlights the respective roles of independent Web editors, print editors, and publishers in the online development of their publications. Editors, particularly those concerned with journalistic integrity and content standards, should sit up and take notice of these statistics. For example, approximately half of the publications surveyed reported that their copyediting standards online are less stringent than in print.

The CJR study also reveals something even more alarming: fact-checking takes a serious hit when content goes online. Fifty-seven percent of publications surveyed use the same fact-checking standards in print and online. However, 27 percent fact-check their online content less rigorously than print content. Even more alarming, 16 percent of online publications do not fact-check their online content at all -- and, more alarming still, half of those publications (8 percent) don't fact-check their print content, either.

That is a lot of unsubstantiated content.

Online Editorial Standards

So why do editorial standards tend to be more lax online? The answer is complex. In many cases, an online presence necessitates frequent updates and, consequently, the articles often go through a much shorter editorial cycle. This is particularly true of publications whose print editors also shoulder the responsibility of online editing -- there simply isn't time for thorough, multiphase editing. The Magazines and Their Websites report observes that online content tends to be less academic and more conversational in tone, and hints that editors of online content are more concerned with producing traffic-grabbing text than meticulously polished prose. However, all these factors aside, it is alarming to think that as many as 16 percent of online publications don't engage in any fact-checking whatsoever.

There are other issues at hand. First of all, there may be a training gap across the board. There is a crop of editors who cut their teeth on print and have had to learn new technology along the way. Similarly, there is a crop of online editors who have cut their teeth on digital technology. They aren't necessarily well versed in grammatical and journalistic protocols. This creates a sizeable population of editors who have spent so long in print that they don't know how to produce winning online content. Alternatively, they may have focused so heavily upon digitization that they don't understand the basic tenets of their editorial responsibilities.

It doesn't help that online editing is still in its foundational phase. In the September 2009 issue of Editors Only, my article, "Errors Published Online," discussed some of the gaps in online editorial standards. Publications still play their online correction policies by ear -- some make post-publication changes to their online material without comment, while others still issue correction and retraction notices. Some correct grammatical and typographical errors without notification to the reader, while others (particularly bloggers) use the "strikethrough" function to alert readers of even the most marginal fixes. In the absence of a universal standard, online editing becomes highly subjective, sometimes with very little consistency between publications.

Making the Online Transition

The hype and buzz surrounding online publication is, to a point, justified -- it is nearly impossible for a publication to survive and thrive without some sort of online presence. However, it is also important to remember that online publishing is hardly a panacea for all that ails the industry. It is still, on many levels, untested. It has no history, and few norms.

Publishers and editors are still struggling to find the best online payment model, the most judicious means of producing content for a Web versus print audience, and the proper harmonization of print and online editions. They are still, in other words, winging it.

It won't always be this way. Eventually, editors will hit their stride and come to a consensus regarding online editing standards. In the meantime, all you can do is what you have always done -- represent your publication online with content as clean and accurate as your resources allow. Because some online publications are scraping by with minimal editorial acumen, you have a rare chance to set yourself apart from the rest of the pack. Be engaging. Be factual. Be meticulous. Online readers are not dumb. They still recognize quality content when they see it.

In Part II of this article, we'll explore some of the perks and pitfalls of digital editions, the Audit Bureau of Circulations' recent revision of its definition of digital magazines, and comments from top editors and digital platform providers.

Meredith Dias is the research editor of Editors Only.

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