Social Media and Copy Editing

By Yanick Rice Lamb, Howard University, Associate Professor/Sequence Coordinator, @yrlamb

Students use social media in their daily lives, but they don’t always think about using those skills as journalists. We are revamping how we teach Copy Editing to place a greater emphasis on Interactive Editing for newspapers, magazines and the Internet in print, on the Internet and on mobile devices. Social media is also a key part of the curriculum. However, we stress the importance of solid reporting, sound editing and high journalistic standards so that students don’t focus on speed, bells and whistles at the expense of quality.

We teach the traditional skills of copy editing as well as top-editing, assigning and skills traditionally used in other editing positions. It is important that students understand the changing, and in some cases expanding, role of copy editors in the context of downsizing, outsourcing, revamping to two-touch” operations and the growing reliance on technology. We also looked at copy editors who shifted into social media positions, such as Carla Correa, who is now a community coordinator at the Baltimore Sun.

For those who don’t plan to become editors, we explain that reporters with good self-editing skills tend to be better writers and that reporters, especially those who blog, are often expected to turn in cleaner copy, write headlines and summaries, and make their copy “sticky” — through social media and other interactivity.

The Basics

First, we discuss how students are already using social media and help them translate these practices to copy editing. We emphasize that journalism is increasingly a two-way conversation with readers. In the past, we printed stories and readers wrote letters to the editor. Now, the conversation often starts long before reporting and editing, for example, in seeking reader input for stories, story ideas and other leads to information.

Through discussions and examples, we help students understand how the Internet works and its potential. We discuss the differences between print and online stories, as well as the headlines. They learn about social media policies; Search Engine Optimization; how, where and when readers consume information; audiences for various news outlets; how to interact with the audience; how to tailor information to them; online comments; forums, chats, list serves and other types of community; crowdsourcing; mapping; interactive databases; and different ways to extend the conversation: Digg,, Del.icious, Reddit, Mixx, Delicious, blogs, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Twitter, Skype, Foursquare and Buzz.


Preliminary discussions focus on how students use social media. We also ask them to cite examples in which they or other members of the public learned about news via Facebook, Twitter and other social media. We critiqued uses of social media, examined best practices, and employed social media techniques in classroom exercises and for publication. Here are examples of exercises to stimulate critical thinking, news judgment and creativity:

Using Twitter

A Power Point presentation on something as seemingly narrow as Twitter? Imagine that. As it turns out, Twitter is useful in helping students focus on the focus of a story. It also assists them in writing headlines. We discussed using links, keywords, hashtags, facts and quotes within “tweets” to tell readers about stories, provide updates or share information. We also explained how journalists also use Twitter to monitor beats, solicit ideas and information from readers, or build their personal or company brand.

To practice, students were directed to one of the many sites that shorten links to create “tiny URLs” that take up less space within tweets. We suggested, which not only shortens the link, but also shows users how many characters they have left. We encourage students to leave a little leftover space so that “followers” can re-tweet their tweets. “U don’t hv 2 write lk ths n twts,” we remind them, discussing style and showing examples from different publications. Afterward, students can then cut and paste their tweets into their classroom and homework assignments, or send them out to “followers.”

These are examples of tweets that we discussed from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Miami Herald and Heart & Soul magazine:
Lessons From Haiti

The use of social media related to the earthquakes in Haiti provided teachable moments, from the vantage points of users and journalists.
  • What types of tweets came from everyday people?
  • How did journalists use Twitter?

How are publications represented on Facebook?

What Would You Do?

Students were assigned to explain how they would improve three articles and headlines in the campus daily, write online headlines and summaries, suggest follow-up articles, write 140-character tweets and give examples of how they would enhance interactivity through social media and multimedia techniques (i.e., video, audio, hyperlinks, graphics).

One Topic: Three Ways

We asked students to bring in examples of how various sites present the same topic. How do they differ? What works? What didn’t?

You’re the Editor

As a long-term assignment, students had to come up with three story ideas and explain how they would enrich them with social media and multimedia. One idea was for the campus website; the second was for a community-focused website; and the third was for a national student magazine. After we gave them feedback on the ideas, they had to find writers; assign and edit the articles; write the headline, summary and tweet; and execute the social media and multimedia plan.

Questions on the midterm and final included:
  1. Explain the differences between headlines in print and online.
  2. What makes an ideal summary for a story on the Web?
  3. How are the roles of editors changing?
  4. Explain SEO.
  5. How are news organizations using Twitter?
  6. Write a print headline and an online headline for article below. (One article was on the D.C. Council’s reprimand of Marion Barry; the other focused on flights disrupted by the volcano.)
  7. Write a summary for the Web.
  8. Write a 140-character line for Twitter.
  9. How would you make this article interactive?

“Think Like an Editor: 50 Strategies for the Print and Digital World” by Emilie and Steve Davis (Wadsworth Publishing, 2010)

“Journalism Next” by Mark Briggs (CQ Press, 2009)

American Society of Copy Editors:

Short and Tweet @


Mashable, the Social Media Guide:

News University:

Poynter Institutes:

The Editor’s Desk:

Breaking Tweets:

Teaching Online Journalism:

SEO for Journalists:

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