The Case for a Web Editor-in-Chief


Who is guiding your content strategy for the web? An editor-in-chief is an essential role to stay on course.

Web content workflow and governance include many moving parts. In order to keep the wheels turning, roles and responsibilities must be defined to make sure that all work gets done and that content contributors have clear expectations about their own and others’ responsibilities.

As described in Content Strategy for the Web, 2nd Edition by Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach:

"It’s critical for each person to know what their role is and how it fits into the larger content process. This is why defining ownership and roles is one of the most important aspects of workflow and governance."

Yet, one of the most important roles is also the most neglected. Let’s talk about why a web editor-in-chief is an essential role for all higher ed institutions and the false barriers that often prevent this role from being filled.

Why You Need a Web Editor-in-Chief

Content governance needs ownership

Content guides, tools, processes, and tasks require ownership to ensure they are complete, accurate, and effective. Without ownership, content governance breaks down. And without roles and responsibilities, confusion prevails regarding who is responsible for what.

"Web Editor-in-Chief" is not necessarily a job title — in fact, it rarely is in higher ed. Rather, it’s a role and set of responsibilities that need managing.

Halvorson and Rach offer this description: "The web editor-in-chief helps to establish and enforce all web content policies, standards, and guidelines." This person makes sure that your content strategy works and is being maintained. Content requires a lot of care and support from requestors, editors, authors, subject matter experts, analysts, publishers, and many others. Who’s paying attention to these working relationships and your content workflow? Content governance needs ownership.

Politics will kill your content strategy

One of the biggest contributors to poor quality content is internal politics. With seemingly competing institutional priorities and content goals, it’s often hard to get things done. For content, politics can be deadly.

The foundation of content strategy is the establishment of content goals that align business-unit goals with institutional goals. In other words, it helps to get people on the same page about content goals and priorities. However, this is all for naught if no one has the power to enforce your content standards. Your institution needs an editor-in-chief so someone can say "no."

Without an editor-in-chief, bad content gets published, good content gets neglected, and content communication goals are in conflict. In this game of "my way is better," no one wins.

Someone needs to break the silos

Departments tend to focus on their own work independent of other departments. However, content can’t function effectively in separate silos. It requires internal communication to make sure it supports other departments and the institution as a whole. For example, marketing content should support admissions, and academic advising content should support career services — and vice versa.

An editor-in-chief sees to it that content communicates clearly across all content areas.

Why You Don’t Have a Web Editor-in-Chief

You fear giving up control

Web professionals often worry that by assigning an editor-in-chief, they will have to give up the ability to control their own content. They fear this role will interfere with their work and prevent them from taking the actions needed to meet their content goals. These are unfounded fears.

The editor-in-chief is responsible for supporting your content goals, not hindering them.

I think the real fear here is that people don’t understand what their communication goals are, so they can’t trust that an editor-in-chief can support them. That’s a legitimate concern. If this is you, it’s time to return to the basics. Without communication goals, your content can’t succeed with or without an editor-in-chief.

You don’t think you’re a publisher

While most web professionals agree that content is important, many still don’t consider themselves publishers. They treat their website as a series of projects rather than as a continual process that requires defined roles, responsibilities, workflow, maintenance, and measurement.

The truth is, if you’re involved in the planning, creation, maintenance, or measurement of content, then you’re a publisher.

Publishing is a process, not a project. It requires many different skills and oversight. As I mention in Evaluating the Mantra "Think Like a Publisher", we all need oversight to ensure that the content we create and publish is on-brand and supports our communication goals, not detracts from them.

You worry about political turmoil

As I mentioned earlier, internal politics is a huge problem for content. And many people think an editor-in-chief will exacerbate this problem by causing conflict through power struggles. However, the reality is that an editor-in-chief resolves conflicts by helping stakeholders see how the content they create aligns with other departments and supports those departments’ communication goals.

This benefit is a big win for institutions that struggle with limited resources and expertise to maintain an effective website.

Why a Shared Role Doesn’t Work (And When It Does)

In order to gain support for an editor-in-chief and safeguard against political fallout, institutions often try to divide the responsibilities of this role among more than one person. This becomes a problem. Remember, we’re publishers. Imagine a traditional daily newspaper with multiple editor-in-chiefs — each making decisions about content priorities, scheduling, and roles and responsibilities. It would be impressive if that paper ever went to print on time.

Without clear leadership, content governance can easily fall apart. Here are a few of the reasons why a shared editor-in-chief role doesn’t work.

Shared responsibility:

  • Limits ownership and accountability
  • Hinders messaging and communication (Because no one person oversees communications, there is risk of duplicate or competing messages.)
  • Causes content goals to become misaligned

However, in my experience, the most important guiding principal for content governance is that your plan is realistic, not idealistic. So, while I strongly recommend that the editor-in-chief be a role filled by one person, there are institutions that have made a shared editor-in-chief role work.

For example, as highlighted in Content Strategy for the Web, 2nd Edition, the folks at Normandale Community College have developed a shared leadership model — see "Higher Ed Rocks Confab: Web Governance at Normandale" for our video interview with the group that led this charge. It’s a wonderful case study that helps break the stigmas associated with governance in higher ed.

Although a shared editor-in-chief role can succeed, it puts additional responsibility on the two or more people sharing the role to regularly communicate, especially if they’re not involved in all content planning and policy meetings. Shared ownership is therefore a risk that needs to be actively managed.

How about you? Do you have a web editor-in-chief at your institution? If not, who owns content governance? We’d love to hear about your success stories or any governance problems you have yet to solve.

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About Rick Allen

Rick Allen has worked in higher education for over twelve years, helping to shape web communications and content strategy. As principal of ePublish Media, Inc, a web publishing and content strategy consultancy in Boston, Mass., Rick works with knowledge-centric organizations to create and sustain effective web content. Keep going »


  1. Really love this concept, Rick. Often a struggle in these technical fields. The separation and overlap of roles between development staff and content strategists.

  2. Great, great article–so much of this is relevant across industries, but especially when working in higher ed. Our *customers* have to use their institution’s website regardless, and there needs to be someone who can help balance what students need to know with what they need to do.

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