How to pick the perfect web editor

Publications professionals are worth their weight in gold to a corporate site, and the 24-carat variety command a rare combination of qualities, David Bowen says.

The scarcity of proper web editors is a source of bafflement to me. Whenever we work for organisations, we always say that they need someone who is in charge of their websites editorially (see my 9 April column, on governance). Our logic is always accepted: your main website is your biggest publication – judged both by size and number of visitors – so clearly it needs an editor. What publisher would think of having a magazine without an editor? It would be madness gone mad.

There have been signs that others agree. Coca-Cola has rebranded its corporate site Coca-Cola Journey and runs it like a magazine. Several companies, including Siemens, have set up physical ‘newsrooms’, based on the established newspaper model, to encourage people in different departments to mingle and hold ideas-swapping meetings.

And yet, looking across the large website landscape, it is still rare to find proper editors.

The job of an editor

I will come back to what I mean by ‘proper’, but let’s keep to the parallel with a magazine editor. It is someone whose job is to make sure the quality of the product is as high as possible. That is, it is appropriate and engaging for the audience and – this is where it differs from Vogue or Forbes – it does the job its owner wants it to (it is in essence part of the PR/marketing machine).

Two of the current buzz phrases in online communications are ‘content strategy’ and ‘stories’. As many (I’d say most) corporate websites still are nothing but a filing cabinet – somewhere that text or pictures are put without any thought to their quality – that should mean the need for decent editors is even more obvious than it was before. But the fact that it is only now – 20 years into the life of the corporate web – that these words are being bandied around shows how limited the thinking has been so far.

Ask magazine editors about ‘stories’, and they will shrug and say ‘of course’ – every writer knows that a narrative is the most naturally readable form. Ask them about ‘content strategy’, and they will be baffled – ’what goes where’ is so much a basic part of the job that it has never before needed a label.

The essential tools for the job

Coming back to that ‘proper’ tag, what qualities should an editor have?

First, they should be able to straddle ‘old’ and ‘new’ successfully – that is, be able to mix old-fashioned editorial standards with an understanding of the specific needs of the web and, most likely, social media channels.

Some things old…

It is much easier to learn the new than the old, so I would every time go for someone with the old skills of handling words rather than someone who is on top of the latest online techniques but does not have a feel for language. (Which language is another issue – you need an editor for each of your main ones.) Being good with words is a surprisingly uncommon skill and turning a bad writer into a good one is, unless they are very young, a hopeless task. If you are looking for a source of such people, consider how many high-quality journalists have been thrown out of work by the internet in the last decade – then seek some of them out.

Editors will be able to write well themselves. Do they need to be experts in ‘web writing’? Well, some familiarity or training is an advantage, but one core skill of experienced journalists is the ability to adapt the style to the medium. There is much more difference between the style of a tabloid gossip column and that of theFinancial Times than there is between either and a corporate website: journalists worth their salt will be able to pick up what they need quickly. The same is true if you need them to write on social media channels: journalists tend to enjoy the tight discipline of Twitter, because it reminds them of headline writing.

Talking of which, seek people who know how to create good headlines. You will need them particularly on the home page (the front cover of your publication), to write lines that tease people into clicking (making them take the magazine off the shelf to look inside).

They will also need to be able to edit. This requires both skill and patience, for they will surely be faced with reams of turgid prose from their non-writing colleagues. The art of turning these into slick and digestible pieces is a tedious yet satisfying one.

They will need to have a good eye for images and graphics – not all print journalists have to do this, but most have at least some understanding of what differentiates the beautiful from the banal.

…some things new

On the ‘new’ side, they will need to get to grips with the things that set websites apart from print.

Video, of course – unless they come from a video background, they will need training. Interactive graphics and the latest clever things you can do with multimedia. And, probably, alternative channels. Some of these will be alternative platforms (YouTube, Pinterest, Flickr), others will be true social media (Facebook, Twitter). Whether or not your people are required to run these personally, they must understand well their uses and the differences between them.

A way with people

But behind all these skills is a tricky one: the ability to get people to do what they, the editor, wants. Web editors will have to roam the group, physically or virtually seeking out stories and persuading their colleagues to give them the time or even the words to create a fine story.

I say this is tricky because many journalists are by their nature individualists, not team players – relatively few use charm as a professional tool. So when you are looking for your web editor (I hope you are), set them tests that measure their ability to get their own way.

If they can do this, and can write and edit, and understand the new technology, you have yourself a piece of gold. Hang on to it.

First published 23 April, 2014
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