Digital editor manages content, not people
By Dean D’Angelo
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Howard Sinker is the digital sports editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s webpage. The Star Tribune is the largest daily newspaper in Minnesota, published in both print and online format. In a phone interview he shared his thoughts about being an editor in today’s industry and gave advice for up and coming journalism students.
Q: Why did you initially deicide you wanted to work in the media industry?
A: I had never really done any newswriting until college, and, probably like a lot of people, I took a reporting class and really liked it and had an opportunity to do an internship and just found it was something that not only I enjoyed but people seemed to think I was reasonably good at it. The thing I liked was that, yeah, OK, you’re a journalist or a news reporter but while you have that title there are any number of things you can do. … If you’re a college professor in a given field, you may be a little bit limited in the kinds of things you can teach but quite frankly, with being a news reporter, I’ve been a writer, I’ve been an editor, I’ve worked in news, I’ve worked in sports and now I’ve made the transformation from print journalist to web journalist. And all the while I’ve been able to do some radio work, too. I’ve never really been bored.
Q: What does your current role entail?
A: I am pretty much entirely responsible for what you see on the sports web pages of startribune.com. I choose the content, how it’s displayed, what goes with it. I also coordinate the multimedia stuff that our other writers do, whether it’s their video appearances on our website or whether it’s live chats or whether it’s to encourage and promote their other blogging. So it’s basically always trying to do about 10 hours worth of work in an eight-hour day.
Q: What would be an example of your typical day?
A: Well I’m usually on the computer by 6:15 in the morning. It’s not as bad as it sounds. I work the first part of my day at home, so basically I can roll out of bed at 6:14, grab something to drink and go downstairs and be at work. And what I do in the morning is I go over everything that’s happened since the previous evening. I update stories, I update the design of the webpages, I update our Twitter feed and our Facebook pages, I send out newsletters for our top stories of the day, so those get sent out, then I try to do some planning for he rest of the day, you know … what I think is coming, trying to drum up some help for video and other stories I think might be breaking.
So I work at home in the morning, and I come in around 10:30 and we have a staff meeting of the sports editor and all of the assistant editors, and we kind of coordinate our strategy, you know, print and web for the day. And I spend the rest of my work day updating the website and working on some projects, you know, maybe find video to go with stories we have.
I am in charge of two blogs. I have a baseball blog [called A Fans View] that’s my own work, and we also have an aggregator blog called StribSports Upload, and I try to find an item or two per day for that. I write some stuff for print, which is designed to get people to go from the newspaper back to the web, for more information kind of things.
Usually by that time it’s about 4, and we’re ready to start all over again tomorrow. And the thing about the web is, if I go home and I see something that’s not quite right, I can log on and fix it in about 30 seconds. Or if there’s a big breaking story I can just sort of climb aboard from wherever I am. I don’t want to say it’s a 24/7 job, but if need to do something, if something needs to be done, it’s not like I need to call somebody else and say, hey, can you do this? As long as I have web access I can pretty much make the updates on my own.
Q: What are some of the challenges you face as an editor on an everyday basis?
A: There’s a lot of competition for sports journalism traffic. I want to make sure that our staff is providing a product that people are going to come to, either first or to the exclusion of other Twin Cities-based websites. I consider us on any story to be the go-to website for people during the day. … So far we charge for our content, once you’ve been on the website for a certain amount of time. We’ve still managed to hold our position in the Twin Cities, and I think we are nationally competitive, too, I think if people know that if there’s a big story, that serves the Twin Cities, people are going to come to us before they go to another newspaper website or TV radio website here.
Q: What might be some of the differences between being an editor 20 years ago, compared to being a web editor today?
A: The big difference is, I used to supervise people. When you’re supervising people, you know they have issues. I was a pretty good supervisor, you know, people seemed to like to work with me, I did justice to their stories, I was an advocate for them. I think most people would say I was pretty good at taking their work and making it a little bit better. Now instead of working with people I work with content, and content never gets sick, content never takes a day off. It’s really kind of nice, you know. Content doesn’t have to leave the office early to pick up their kid or go to the doctor, or anything like that. So it’s a lot more introspective. I’m not relying on other people as much as I’m relying on the material that comes across through the Internet.
Q: Looking at the broader picture, how do you see the industry evolving?
A: Well, as journalists, we’ve been so bad at predicting the future, which has gotten a lot of news organizations into the mess that we’ve been in at times. I’m just not very good at prophecy, you know. Having formats that are going to translate well to tablets and mobile devices is going to be imperative from a content standpoint, and I think that news organizations have to find ways to become successful as some of the web-only kind media is. Whether we’re talking Yahoo or Facebook, their advertising models are generating revenue because professional newspapers can’t sell advertising on the web. We’ve so far not captured the same formula as others, and that’s totally outside of my area. My responsibility is to create the content, but, boy, if we don’t sell the advertising, you know, I’m probably going to be working the Monday night bartending shift at the Zoo or something like that, you know. It’s a real issue. The Star Tribune has been more successful than most in terms of selling web advertising, but we still need to become more successful. We need to do better than we’ve been doing, I think any industry expert would tell you that.
Q: With the nature of the changing industry in mind, what advice would you offer journalism students?
A: Well, I would say have a blog where somebody will see your work. You can say here are a dozen samples of what I’ve done. I would tell them to have a passion for things to write about, whether it’s religion or movies or sports or politics. I would tell them to definately be fluent in a second language. Journalism, when I started out in college, was very specialized, you know. You were a reporter or you were a photographer or you were a copy editor. Now if you’re going to become a journalist, you had better know how to shoot video, you had better be in-depth about blogging, and you had better be able to multitask, because nothing is linear anymore. It’s a larger skill set. You might not have to be as good at everything as you were. Today, if you were maybe 80 percent as good a writer, plus you had the reporting skills and the video skills and the Internet skills and web research skills, then you’ve got a pretty good package to sell to a potential employer, whether its a traditional news organization, or it’s web only.