The Times They Are a Changin’ — News in the Digital Age

Brian Todd, Detroit Free Press Web Editor
Brian Todd of the Detroit Free Press.

Students in Washtenaw Community College‘s “Journalism for the Web” class got a behind-the-scenes look at the world of web journalism last Saturday when Brian Todd, a Detroit Free Press Web Editor, spent the morning with them.

Todd, who has worked for the Free Press since 2001, showed the class the “back-end” of the website and described how online news production has changed in the 11 years he has been in the business.

The students, some of whom had only reported for print publications, also learned how editorial decisions are different for Internet news. Todd said the paper rewrites content for its website because online news must include the key words that will help stories rank high in search engines. The goal, he explained, is to get as many key words as possible into the headline and first paragraph of the story.

For example, Todd said, a Free Press print article about Kwame Kilpatrick might run in the Free Press with a headline referring to “The Former Mayor.” But that same headline would be rewritten for a national audience searching online for news of Kilpatrick, with added details, referring instead to “Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.”

One student asked whether online content is also rewritten to give readers snappier language so they will stay on the site. Todd replied that web editing at the paper is done strictly to improve rankings in search engines such as Google and Yahoo!, a process known as search as search engine optimization (SEO).

Todd also told students that the paper’s online content management system has a feature similar to Google Analytics, allowing Gannett Corporation, which owns the paper, to keep track of which stories get the most “hits.” Sports and crime stories drive more readers to than anything else, he said.

Todd noted that Free Press reporters receive daily updates about which stories receive the most online hits, and said that reporters will often choose assignments they believe can give them top ratings on the website.

A Web Editing Retrospective

Todd said that when he first started in the role of web editor, he personally created all the code for the online news every night! That meant going into work at 9 p.m. and coding until 5 a.m. to be ready for the next news day. Now, he said, the paper uses a content management system prescribed by Gannett, and most of what he did before is accomplished automatically in the software.

The work is less creative now, as the software also includes a page template that pre-determines the look of the online paper with a format that limits layout options and increases the space allotted for advertising, Todd said. But, he said, it does have one advantage. Work hours are much more reasonable now since the software now automatically codes the online version of the paper. What used to take a whole shift and a lot of people only takes one person a few hours now, so he is able to report to the office as late as 7 p.m. and leave by 2 a.m.

Todd said that he eventually became bored after so many of his responsibilities became automated, so he transferred to the paper’s art department though he still retains his web editor job title. He demonstrated his artistic bent by showing the class a Photoshop trick to create a photo “mash-up.”

A native of Detroit, Todd said he became interested in journalism as a student at CMA (Communications & Media Arts) High School when Free Press staff led a program there. Todd eventually did an apprenticeship and internship at the paper, which led to his employment there. His colleague, Reporter Elisha Anderson, is the instructor for the class.

~For Washtenaw Community College, January 2012.

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