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Setting off on a new journey into digital curation

29 Nov

Since I began this blog in August 2011 things have been moving fast. That’s why I haven’t posted for a while. I started getting interested in content curation and it became all-consuming. Once you try it, you’ll see why!

It came about through my work as a freelance writer with Paper.li (a tool that lets users curate and publish a newspaper made from a mix of automated feeds such as Twitter, and hand-picked content selected from the web).

So the scope of this blog is widening to include digital content curation and its uses — which I’m only now starting to explore.

Lots more to come on that in due course.

Meanwhile, I’m reposting below an article I wrote for the Paper.li community on how old-school editing skills fit with Web 2.0 curation tools and practices.

Love to hear your feedback!

A brave new world for editors from the old school

What happens if we marry the old-school craft of editing with the tools of content curation? Being an editor, I’d say something pretty exciting. Here’s a chance for editors like me to do what we love doing — selecting, highlighting and contextualising, and putting out vibrant, thought-provoking, coherent content on tools like Paper.li so much more easily than ever before.

What got me thinking was Karyn Campbell’s post Return of the Editor: Why Human Filters are the Future of the Web. And what is keeping me thinking is how, exactly, can I and my fellow ex-journos use our old skills alongside our new ones?

As Campbell says, we’ve come full circle. Before the web, I was one of the people who sorted, edited and displayed content in various newsrooms around the globe. Then I quit the newsrooms and along came aggregators and algorithms to collate relevant content in one place. Who needed editors any more? But change is never-ending. Now the web is such a seething mass of data that we need people to make sense of it again.

In Campbell’s vision “the smartest companies will calibrate expertise with automation, math with emotion” and who could argue?

Her reasoning is this: because content is important for driving traffic, because the quantity of information is overwhelming and time and attention are limited, and because people want to trust what they’re reading.

As an editor I want to know, how can I contribute? Where do my old-school skills fit in? How can I create a brilliant publication using Paper.li to collate content and then edit it? This isn’t an original question — Andy Bull, one of my contemporaries, has already asked it. Personally, I’ve only just begun experimenting but already I’m beginning to see how human filters can add the value.

Walking down Memory Lane, the old-fashioned newspaper workflow goes something like this: stories and other material like letters and opinion pieces flowed in to various editorial desks from many sources, some professional, some not. A ‘copytaster’ or editor read this raw material, selected what was useful and junked the rest. Sub-editors, designers and section editors arranged everything in a logical order, added signposts such as headlines, and complemented it with images. Then everything was proofread and proofread again. Result: high quality information which had gone through a rigorous process.

Now I’m a lone editor with a laptop and a curation tool but I can follow the same process to improve on what the tool alone gives me.

For a start, I can look for fresh material, and junk what’s too old to be relevant. Old-school copytasters continually ask what’s new in a story. They’ve followed it over time or checked the clippings and, if there’s no new angle, it’ll probably go.

Maybe I will want to strengthen a story or make a package, so I’ll add to what the curation tool found, manually clipping other items I find on the web.

When I have sufficient content, or it’s time to publish, I’ll create a hierarchy of information. On a newspaper back bench, editors discuss, dissect and eventually decide on the front-page story after much debate. Now I’m the only human filter I’ll still switch the content around to reflect its importance. I know from usability studies how people read online, so I’m going to position the best stories to reflect that.

Maybe I want to add a framework to a clipping, as we print sub-editors used to with our carefully thought-out headlines, crossheads, captions and pull quotes. Curation lets me add my own headline and a short introduction – maybe a summary of the original or a few lines of opinion or analysis – to further contextualise the material for my readers. This way, I can also give them the option of scanning my quick snapshot or clicking through to the full version, or both.

Choosing images can be a part of the curation process. Curation tools seem to save us the bother by presenting us with a whole package of text and photos clipped from somewhere else. But I might want to add more context or insight with additional images — perhaps I have an infographic from one source that sits nicely with a story from another. Maybe there’s an image that’s superior to the one in the original clipping.

Then there are questions of the law and good taste. The human filter is like the letters editor on a newspaper. The curation tool picks up the posts – the letters – and drops them onto the page. But it won’t necessarily screen out anything libellous or distinguish a justified criticism from a cruel jibe. It probably won’t identify a culturally or racially unacceptable post or a sick joke. The letters editor selects diverse content reflecting contrasting views but dumps the racist, the spiteful and the inane.

Of all editors working on the newsdesk or the subs’ bench, the letters editor is perhaps closest to we human filters in that the material crossing their screen sometimes comes directly from the public, not always from professional journalists.

As we curate more and more, we can adapt these skills to make them more relevant to the online world. While everyone can be a publisher, I agree with Karyn Campbell that the successful ones will develop the craft of editing, spending time on curating their publication to make it trustworthy, factually accurate, fair and balanced, timely and fresh.
And of course there will be new skills for the online world that we old-school editors have never heard of.

Despite that, for us it’s a renaissance. Not only can I use those skills that the glorious era of print taught me, I can help others to develop the craft of editing too.

Photo credit: Karen Horton / Flickr

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