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World-Herald online editor emerges as liaison between print, Web

Ben Vankat edits online content for Omaha.com.

Ben Vankat edits online content for Omaha.com.

By Anna Gronewold
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

It takes a large group of people with differing interests to put a newspaper together. Writers think differently than designers. Add an editor and photographer, and putting out a newspaper can be a tough balancing act.

Then try to put the news online.

It takes a middleman to run a news content through multiple media outlets. Ben Vankat, online editor at the Omaha World-Herald, is that man.

Online content requires fluency in what seems to be a foreign language – computer. Vankat has carved out his own role as a “translator” between newsroom staff and Web developers.

“I laugh because we are in the communication business, essentially, but the most difficult aspects are communicating with staff in the building,” Vankat said.

His role as the World-Herald’s online editor changes as often as the Internet itself. But it always hinges upon communication. Vankat markets himself as one instrument the World-Herald staff can use to converse between departments at a modern newspaper and its website.

He didn’t set out to become a middleman or an online editor. The Omaha native graduated in 2006 with a news-editorial degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and began working  at the Omaha World-Herald in sports design.

That meant, he worked nights. When Vankat heard about a new position opening in online content, he “selfishly” jumped at the opportunity for a day job.

With new opportunities, however, come new responsibilities.

“The work is similar; I’m still designing, but the tools are different,” Vankat said.

Vankat had to teach himself a new skill set, including the ability to “speak design” to Web developers and explain search engine optimization (SEO) to editors.

The World-Herald’s website, Omaha.com, was unchanged from its inception to mid-2008. With the help of a consultant, the paper revised its online site that year. Those changes lasted until last summer when editors decided to revamp the entire website.

The new renovations focus on the principle of knowing the audience. For the first time, Omaha.com is examining data for which types of stories people read and how they browse content.

“It was almost like flipping a light switch for the people looking at the numbers,” Vankat said. “It’s all just a big game, really; you’ve got to figure out how to get your stories up higher in search results.”

Through research, trial and error, the World-Herald staff is learning how to produce an attractive and effective online presence. Vankat explained the following strategies:

1)   “Give more headlines on the home page.”

Web headlines are different than print. Clever word play doesn’t work in search engines. Webheads rely on SEO – key words used to find anything through a search engine like Google.

2)   “Simplify structure. Make the site easier to get around with basic design tweaks.”

While page views are important, Omaha.com needs to be a site readers will like and feel comfortable navigating. Simplicity is key.

3)   Notice which types of stories site visitors read during specific times of day.

Readers tend toward information earlier in the day. Omaha.com breaks hard news during the morning and afternoon, reserving lighter news for evenings.

“We do our own enterprise reporting … but what we’ve seen is that those aren’t the stories that get huge traffic online,” Vankat said. “[People read] stories about crime and sex. For us it’s been sort of a fine balance to get the stories out there that people want to read and the stories that we want people to read more of.”

Though Vankat’s job requires him to have a jack-of-all-trades mindset, he said he doesn’t think that needs to be the case for all aspiring journalists.

“There’s so much talk about all these journalists that need to know how to do everything,” he said.  “I’ll say in reality… find those one or two things you’re really good at and go in that direction.”

Vankat said variety is good, but passion is more likely to lead to long-term success.

“If you want to be a photojournalist, be a photojournalist,” he said. “That sort of confidence will let you go in the direction that you want.”

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