Editor shares how the Internet has changed journalism
Photo courtesy of Charles Flesher
By Bailey Schulz
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Charles Flesher hadn’t always wanted to work in journalism.
The 39-year-old University of Iowa alumnus graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English, and said he found a passion for journalism through electives his junior year.
“I started taking journalism classes by chance,” said Flesher, who is a community publications assignment editor at The Des Moines Register.
He added journalism as a minor, and after graduation he “eventually started looking for journalism jobs and just was in the right place at the right time.”
Flesher said that while he was in college, he never could have predicted where journalism would be today.
“The Internet has changed news drastically,” he said.
Along with forcing newspapers to release content much faster, the Internet has made additional changes to the industry.
“Newspapers have had a dramatic decrease in value and in number of employees over the past 10 years or so,” Flesher said. “Newspapers have not totally figured out how to monetize the website… that’s going to be the major focus on the industry. How do we make money doing what we do online?”
While the Internet may have affected sales negatively, the introduction of social media has brought in a whole new form of sharing and interaction with readers. Flesher manages about five Facebook accounts for the newspaper’s suburban communities.
“I can tell you right now, as soon as this story is posted on Facebook, the numbers (of views) just skyrocket. It’s something that’s going to become a bigger and bigger part of news coverage in the future.”
In his 17 years in journalism, Flesher has been a reporter, designer, copy editor and managing editor. He started off as a reporter and then a managing editor at a series of weekly newspapers before moving on to The Des Moines Register, where he’s been for approximately seven years now.
Gannett, the company that owns The Des Moines Register, restructured the newspaper at the end of 2014.
The reason for that restructure, Flesher said, had a lot to do with the way newspapers are changing under the pressure of the Internet. Gannett is retraining staff to have a “digital first” focus. Essentially, the new focus of the Register should be on the website’s content rather than the print version, Flesher said.
“We don’t ignore the print publication, but our first focus should be on getting a story, getting it online and at the appropriate time, rather than the way we used to do things,” Flesher said.
Back when articles were first being published online, the content was posted in the morning at the same time the print version came out. Now, readers expect to see breaking news immediately, he said.
“We have additional first focus, which is really trying to get those things out as they’re happening or immediately after they’re happening so people can have that immediate response to the news… and that’s just totally changed our lives here,” he said.
Along with forcing news to be released faster, the Internet has changed the way newspapers interact with readers. While social media isn’t a large part of his job, Flesher recommends beginning reporters and editors master that medium as they prepare for a career in journalism.
“If I was a young reporter, I would put a real big focus on creating my own brand as a reporter,” he said.
He recommended that reporters build a following on social media, interact with their audience and chat online with readers via Facebook or Twitter.
“Those are tools that can help you generate readership and also generate story ideas and connect with folks in the community that you should be connecting with,” he said.
One story that spread rapidly with the help of social media was the Younkers fire in 2014, the largest fire in the history of downtown Des Moines.
“It was a big project,” Flesher said. “There’s plenty of city issues that carried a lot of local controversy that were fun to follow and fun to report on. I don’t get out of the office to do a lot of reporting anymore, so I don’t have that contact with a lot of sources like I used to. But it’s still fun to work on those things from the editor’s chair.”
Before Flesher had that editor position, he worked on the copy desk for six years. Years later, he still believes that AP Style is an important thing for reporters to master, although it may not be as valuable in the future.
“To tell you the truth, it’s becoming less and less important in the industry, which I think is unfortunate… I think it shows people that you care about the product you’re putting out. I also think that it goes a long way to people not misinterpreting things. There’s a reason that all those rules exist, for the most part.”
Even though Flesher started his journalism career as a reporter, he believes that the editing side suits him much better.
“Overall, I would say that I’m a much better editor than I ever was a reporter,” he said.
“Being an editor really gave me more control over what I was doing. (It gave me) more control over the publication itself, let me decide what was going to be covered… so I was interested in it from that perspective – being a decision maker.”
For those wanting to make it as an editor someday, Flesher said that the ability to work with others is an important skill.
He said that the best editors “don’t just give (reporters) marching orders, get their stories, rearrange them, do what they want with them and then never say anything to the reporter. I’m not saying that I’ve never done that… It actually is something that happens all the time, but it’s something that you have to talk to your reporters about and make sure they understand (this is) why I’m doing things.”