Christian music site editor talks about challenges of editing for Web
By Francesca Torquati
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
John DiBiase is the founder, president and editor of Jesus Freak Hideout (JFH), an independent entertainment website that has been reviewing Christian music and movies for upward of 15 years.He has a no-nonsense attitude about using correct grammar and punctuation online, so as I communicate with him I try not to use any Web abbreviations or forget proper grammar. I do slip up once, but he’s smooth and kind in pointing out the mistake, undoubtedly one he encounters with the many volunteer writers who submit reviews to JFH. DiBiase addressed the challenges of running and editing a Website in an email interview.
Q: What is a typical day at work like?
A: Good question. For me, my hours are pretty erratic because I work from home. So, typically, I get up, make some coffee and head to the office. Some people think working from home would be a kiss of death – you’d never get any work done. I actually have a problem knowing when is best to switch off from work mode. It’s too easy to be like ‘Well, I need to get this done, and this, and this…’ and just keep at it.
Things have changed a bit since we had our first child a year ago (a son named Will), but pretty much it’s a constant juggle of work and family until I got to bed. But typically, I’m glued to the computer for most of the day and some of the evening until I feel like I’ve accomplished enough for that day.
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges you face as an editor?
A: Another good question. Editing definitely isn’t easy. There needs to be a balance between making sure the article/review/etc. reads well and makes sense and retains exactly what the reviewer intended to say. I never want my editing to change or distort the meaning of what the writer intended to say. Not editing something means you’re likely to post typos and grammatical errors. Some still slip by me, so that’s my fault. But that’s another challenge – knowing that if an error gets published, it’s my mostly my fault. Another challenge is knowing that if a writer’s writing style isn’t really lining up with what you’re looking for – or it’s just straight up getting sloppy – you’re responsible for communicating that to them and working it out together.
Q: How would you go about communicating a problem with a reviewer, if there was one in say their style or grammar?
A: That’s a tough one. Well, it’s important to be straightforward but kind and understanding. I try to express my overall appreciation along with any corrective criticism. I appreciate all of our staff’s work, so I never want them to mistake constructive criticism for being unappreciative or overly critical. So far, it gets a good response, but there have been an occasion or two where no matter how soft the correction I give can be, the reviewer has gotten overly defensive. Needless to say, we ended up agreeing not to work together before too long.
Q: What kinds of editing skills do you think all journalism students should have?
A: A good vocabulary is so important. Also, knowing how to properly punctuate your work. In our increasingly more digital society with the Internet having its own sloppy language of sorts, it’s even more important to not let that kind of messiness seep into your writing. It seems like grammar and spelling is so much more undervalued today than ever.
Q: Jesus Freak Hideout operates entirely online. How do you factor search engine optimization into your headline writing?
A: It’s certainly important. You’ll want your headlines to be clear and consistent so that people will find it when they’re looking for the related topic.
Q: When you look at a potential employee, what skills do you consider?
A: Well, since most of our employees are volunteer writers, I always look for compatibility in personalities. I look for people who are team players. For reviewers, some experience would be ideal, but if they have a strong and professional writing style, I’m willing to give them a shot by submitting some example work for me to look over. And for reviewing, it’s important to have a good critical ear. For example, giving everything a good review doesn’t help anyone. I’m not saying to give a bad review for the sake of giving a bad review, but there is a varying degree of quality in music out there, so we feel it’s important to be honest and real about this. Highlighting the good is important, but pointing out the not-quite-as-good is also a way of making what really is excellent stand out more as such.
Q: Your statement about reviewers needing a good critical ear reminded me of a little Twitter “explosion” a year or two ago when JFH gave a Stellar Kart album a bad review. The book “Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock” by Andrew Beaujon also explored this a little bit _ the idea that Christian reviewers have a hard time giving an album anything below the equivalent of a C+ grade just because the music talks about God. Do you have to combat this unwillingness a lot with reviewers?
A: It’s true about Christian music reviewing…You can only be so honest in some people’s eyes. This topic often comes up with reviewers too – how critical can we be about art done in the name of God? I personally believe Christians need to make the best art possible, especially if it’s evangelistic. God gave us these great talents and we should be using them to the fullest potential. I understand the value of the heart being there too, but people’s tastes are pretty relative. One person can hate music because it has poor production and awful singing, but there will probably be more than one person out there who loves it and is reached by it. So who’s right and who’s wrong there? God still uses the work we do in His name. But at the same time, we’re given music to review as music. We want to be honest about that. We want to highlight what we feel is exceptional and call out stuff we feel is not.
When I was in college, I majored in advertising/design. We actually did all kinds of art projects and then hung them up for the whole class to see and then we had to critique each other’s work in front of everyone. That was a humbling experience. But you know what? It made us better at our work. Sure some of the students were overly defensive and didn’t want to listen to peer criticism – and I’m sure I was at times too – but in the end, we learned valuable lessons and input from our professors and fellow students. I think good music critiquing can have such value. I do want us to help point out what is great and what could use some tweaking.
Q: You have quite the history in design, and the JFH design is very consistent. In what ways are consistency and uniformity of design important to the success of a website?
A: Thanks for that! Well, I think consistency is important for your website to be user-friendly. You may tend to alienate your audience if you do a complete overhaul and they need to relearn everything about how your website functions. I remember this used to happen a lot about 10 years ago. If your readers can’t find your information easily enough, they’ll go elsewhere to find it. I tend to always view JFH as how I would like a site to be that I visit (and not run). It’s actually how I’ve always viewed the site since I started it 15 years ago. If too many ads on, say, a website about video games, drives me crazy, I’m not going to do that on JFH because I feel like it cheapens the content. It shouldn’t be a scavenger hunt on your website to find the content around advertisements. That’s just one example.
I tend to not do big redesigns of JFH. But I’m always thinking about improvements and changes. I may just revamp one section impulsively if the idea comes to mind. I actually did that two days ago with the main movie reviews page. Things change with how we may handle content or something, and it often calls for a revamping or updating of a layout to accommodate that. Or I may just suddenly get struck with the realization that something doesn’t really work all that great and needs to be changed. I know some people love redesigns and look for that, but I think tweaking sections and updating certain things here and there is more valuable and considerate for those not wanting to relearn how to navigate your content.
Q: In what ways do you plan to expand JFH? Though multimedia, social networking and the Web are increasingly popular in journalism, do you consider expanding into print similar to the way Relevant magazine expanded from print to the Web?
A: To quote a character from my favorite movie, “Print is dead.” …Well, I don’t believe that 100%, but there is some truth to that. With Kindles and SmartPhones and all kinds of gadgets making it possible to carry around your print digitally, paper magazines are becoming a thing of the past. I love paper books. I actually prefer paper books to an app, but I’m old school. When it comes to JFH, it would be an unnecessary expense to make a print magazine. I feel like that would be a step backwards. The problem with print magazines is that, once your magazine goes to print, your information is a month old. We post information that’s fresh up to the minute. But when JFH started in 1996, record labels actually thought the Internet was not a valid source for media and press. We actually were told that in the late 90s. Now, the Web is pretty much THE source for press and media – outside the mega press who’ve been around for decades. It’s crazy to see that kind of evolution.
Q: Has it become easier to work with record labels as the years progressed and the Internet became such a huge source in news and entertainment media?
A: Great question! Yes and no, actually. Mostly yes, but as the Napster deal went down and music piracy has become such an issue, labels see a great value in Internet media, but they’re much more guarded about giving out their music for review. It’s a constant headache and battle for us who legitimately have never leaked music. It still blows my mind how some other media (probably bloggers mostly) are leaking this stuff. Labels have instituted watermarking of their digital streams and files to help track who’s leaking something, so there’s definitely more at stake there. But with streaming, who wants to sit at their computer all the time as an exclusive means to listen to music and review it? Don’t you need to bounce it in the car and your iPod? Music shouldn’t be confined to headphones or speakers plugged into a computer. But anyway, I digress. Overall, yes, labels are much more receptive to, and see the value in, web-based media today.
Q: What are some major concerns you as an editor and founder face as the journalism industry grows and changes with the advance of technology? How have you overcome this?
A: I think it’s probably just making sure you don’t lose focus on why you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s important to keep up with the advancement of technology, but it’s also important to maintain the heart and integrity of what you’re doing too. Like I said about the changing “Internet speak” that is causing grammar and spelling to become undervalued, it’s important not to let that happen in your own work. I take JFH’s content very, very seriously, and I suppose that may be an old school way of thinking this day in age, so it can be frustrating to see others not take it quite as seriously.