What is the role of an online managing editor?

At the conferences I speak at, and more and more often via e-mail, I frequently get asked what I think the role — and even the daily responsibilities — of a new-media managing editor should be at a newspaper that wants to truly embrace the Internet and all of the other goofy stuff that’s swirling around us.

After recently doing an interview with Bryan Murley at the Innovation in College Media blog, where I touched on this topic a little, I thought I might go back and expand a little upon that initial discussion.

I can really only speak from my experiences in Naples, Lawrence and Topeka, so let me throw out a few hypotheticals before I post what I think an online M.E. does (and did in the organizations I helped lead before I came to Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive).

Since nearly all of my experiences are from smaller newspapers, I have a better grasp of what those types of organizations require than I do at say washingtonpost.com.

And yes, it’s obvious to me that an online editorial leader’s roles are different based upon the size and roles of the overall organization, as well as the size and roles of the new media team.

That being said, my guess is that if your newspaper’s new-media organization is between three and 20 people (which would be the vast majority of the newspaper web sites in the United States), then the examples I’m going to give likely apply to you. I’m also guessing that because newspapers across the nation have handled new media so differently across the board that these things probably apply to online managing editors from 10,000-circulation papers all the way up to 250,000-circ papers. Maybe even bigger.

Here goes …


There needs to be a real new-media editor at every newspaper. Not someone who just makes sure that things get posted to the site, which — in my mind — is not the only thing that an online M.E. does.

In the local news organizations that I’ve been a part of, the online M.E. was someone who knew when stories needed to be posted early (and actually did the vast majority of the writing and posting), knew when stories needed some sort of multimedia, knew when stories needed a live chat with a key source, knew when a story would be better by scanning in some supporting documents, knew when a database would be hugely important in helping to tell a story, knew when a poll or forum would better engage the community for a particular story, knew when to use stories from the newspaper’s archive to help the audience have a better understanding of a story topic, etc…

Not to mention all of the other things that go along with being a real new-media editor — such as use of alternate-delivery methods (e-mail, SMS/text messaging, podcasts, etc…), at least a rough understanding of the technologies used to do all of this, etc…

In nearly every local news organization I’ve been a part of, the online M.E. wrote the majority of the breaking news stories that were phoned in by reporters in the field, wrote the breaking cops stories each morning before our audience got to work, wrote the morning weather story if appropriate (which would often be one of our most-read stories of the day), edited the audio from reporters’ tape recorders, conducted the reporter interviews for the audio and video podcasts, helped with the podcast scripts, etc…

As a matter of a fact, in nearly every local news organization I’ve been a part of, the new-media managing editor actually did the majority of the things I’ve listed above except for the things that required programming skills, such as building databases, etc…

The online M.E. would even edit and shoot some videos when needed, as well as take the 360-degree “steerable” virtual reality photos when needed.

The new-media managing editor also should be a key person in the planning of future enterprise pieces, as well as giving guidance to the newsroom about how different stories are performing on the site — which, as we used to do it in Lawrece, could change a story from a brief to something that was a full-fledged story on A1 or the metro front.

I think that for an online newspaper that’s not The Washington Post or New York Times or L.A. Times or Chicago Tribune to succeed with new media, the most important hire very well could be the online managing editor. I think you’re looking for that magical combination of a very solid journalist who understands what all of this technology means to local journalism, along with a healthy dose of work ethic.

I’ve been very lucky, because in Lawrence, Topeka and Naples, our team got to work with two of the best new-media managing editors in the business — Tim Richardson and Dave Toplikar.

I think in order to succeed in today’s day and age, every local newspaper needs someone like a Tim or a Dave as the online managing editor.

(Note: Dave is no longer the editor of LJWorld.com. He is currently the Lawrence operation’s multimedia reporter and tech columnist.)

Here in Washington, we’re working on our hyper-local strategies, and I can’t even imagine tackling those without Tim around.


If anyone is interested, I might try to post an overview of what I think new-media editorial staffing should look like at most newspapers. If this sounds like something that might be useful to you, just send me a note.

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