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Omaha editor says online editing requires sense of immediacy

Larry Sparks worked as an online editor for about two years before moving back to print at the Omaha World-Herald.

By Kyle Cummings
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Larry Sparks has spent his entire career working at the Omaha World-Herald as an editor for the print newspaper or for its website. Sparks worked as an intern at the World-Herald before graduating from University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1984. After graduation, he returned to the paper where his role has changed several times. He recently moved back to print after spending about two years working on the paper’s digital side. In a phone interview with Sparks, he explained how editing for online keeps changing.

Q: What was your typical work day as an online editor like?
A: Honestly, when I was doing it, and it has changed considerably since then, a lot of what I was doing was simply posting stories. Stories that were in our print edition required recoding and sometimes rewriting headlines, adding photos or graphics, that type of thing. At that point, we were doing that as a separate operation. Now the copy desk online is kind of a part of the copy desk (print) operation.

Q: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced with the drastically changing aspect of journalism?

A: Part of my job was getting breaking news up before it had been in the print edition, and the biggest challenge was getting reporters to realize they needed to file something for online. We’re getting better, but they’re a print mindset at most newspapers. Sometimes they forget that we need to get things online right away. I think we’re getting much better at it, but we’ve still got a ways to go.

Q: Social media has also started to play a big role in journalism. What type of work did you do with social media outlets such as Twitter or Facebook?

A: Not much. They’ve started up since I have moved back to the print side. I occasionally posted a couple of breaking news things on Twitter and things like that when nobody else was around, but they are doing much more of that now. Again, it’s just a part of the posting operation that we try to get things on Facebook and Twitter and send out breaking news alerts as necessary.

Q: Now that you have edited for both print and online, what would you say is the main difference between editing for print and editing for online content?

A: The immediacy obviously for online makes things a little different. You can’t edit them as well; there is just no way you can. So I guess that is one thing. Just the size of stories, there is a little tendency I have seen … (to think)  we can’t get everything in print, but let’s put the full story online. Well, most evidence that I have seen actually show that online readers want shorter stories, not longer stories, so that has kind of been a bit of a battle at times.

Q: Which do you prefer to edit more, print or online?

A: I would prefer to go back to online, but that’s not where I’m needed now, so I’m not there.

Q: Videos are becoming ever more popular online, even people preferring to watch a video than read a story. How would you decide what videos to play for specific stories and did you do any editing of videos?

A: I was never trained at actually editing video, but they were already edited. To me, if it’s a video that is added to a story, it needs to truly add something to the story not just repeat what is in the words of the story. We’re starting to do a lot more stuff now. We’re doing a lot more videos, but as part of a bigger story.

Q: When you put content online, how would you organize the content that you feel the readers would respond to the best?

A: Our Web design is pretty locked in. We don’t have a lot of flexibility as far as how it looks; the flexibility is in where you place the story. Everything I ever saw was, the higher it was on the home page, the more hits it usually got. So we tried to obviously play up our most important stories, but we would also try to rotate a lot so the website looks fresh when people go to it.

Q: As an editor, what would you say is the most important editing skill a journalism student could have coming out of college?

A: I think just the belief that being right still matters. I once heard somebody say don’t sweat the accuracy; that it was more important to get it up online and I could not be more opposed to that. I know immediacy is important online, but I think getting stories right is also very important. I am less concerned about following every AP style rule on a story you need to get up quickly, but I still think it’s absolutely vital to make sure you have got the story right.

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