Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Teaching online newswriting

Commentary: Understanding search engine optimization and the need to work quickly can help journalists write more effectively for the Web.

By Robert Niles

The best online newswriting differs from print newswriting; and journalism students can, and should, learn those differences. This week, I talked with my graduate online journalism class at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism about the differences in form and style between online and traditional print newswriting.

Since so much news on the Web is simply repurposed from print newspaper and magazines, one might question the need to teach online as a distinct writing skill. But just because too many news organizations fail to take full advantage of the medium's opportunities does not mean those opportunities do not exist. Online publishing offers at least four unique writing formats for journalism, and savvy online reporters ought to learn how to use write in ways that enmesh their work within the robust context of the World Wide Web. And... to do so swiftly, to remain viable in the far more competitive online publishing market. To that end, I wrapped up the class with a competitive exercise that took my students by surprise.

I don't use textbooks in my classes (college students have enough expenses as it is), opting instead to direct students to readings available free online. To prepare for this week's class, I asked my students to read Mindy McAdams' guide to online newswriting, as well as OJR's wiki on the topic. I would recommend both resources to any journalist eager to improve his/her online writing skills.

Outside the traditional print-derived story format, online journalists write in blogs, wikis and discussion forums. They are also often called upon to write heads, decks and short article summaries that fuel RSS feeds and e-mail newsletters.

Unique online writing formats

Blogs offers the closest comparison to print newswriting, particularly the column form. Not all blogs need be first-person opinion, indeed, the best blogs, like the best columns, are built upon strong original reporting. But a great blog offers a distinct voice that grabs the reader's attention and draws them into the piece. Blog writers must draw upon their personal life experiences and sharp observation skills to put their reporting into a context that their readers will understand quickly and intuitively. And, oh yeah, it helps immensely if those bloggers can do this in minutes and several times a day.

Wikis are the ultimate in online "writing by committee." The natural comparison to the print world here lies with the copy desk, revising and clarifying the work of others. Of course, wikis should not derivative, and require writers who can blend fresh information seamlessly into the existing article. Of all formats of online writing, this might be the toughest to do well. I continue to suggest that newsrooms should make more aggressive use of wikis to bring new readers up to speed on news stories, and to draw more search engine traffic into their websites.

Discussion boards have stymied newspaper websites for years, but allowed solo web publishers to build immense audiences online. The best discussion leaders take the skills of a great interviewer and apply them to their online communities, writing with a style that acknowledges and builds upon previous comments, sustaining the momentum of threads and eliciting knowledgeable responses. Smart, personal and well-informed words help these writers make their readers feel that they cannot possibly spend even single day away from the conversation.

Feed writing takes the traditional print skill of headline writing into a new medium, where the primary goal is not communication within a defined number of spaces on a page, but writing heads and decks that elicit clicks, forwards and "Diggs" from as many readers as possible. A print headline strives to get people to keep reading the article underneath, but a feed headline faces a tougher challenge: to get the reader to click through to an article from an RSS feed or e-mail, or, better yet, to motivate the reader to forward that link to others via e-mail, instant message and/or social bookmarks.

What are some the specific skills that online writers can employ to distinguish their work in these formats? As my class suggested, traditional qualities of great newswriting still apply: active voice, clear construction and careful vocabulary. But what else?

Writing for search engines... and reaching your readers

I suggested that my students first focus on single task unknown to print journalists: search engine optimization. I am aware that the suggestion that journalists write to please algorithms at the Googleplex will infuriate some journalism pros. But when you write a piece to score highly in search engine result pages, you craft a piece that serves its readers, as well.

To place well in search engine results, an article must be sharply focused to the keywords that readers are likely to use in an effort to find the piece. To write such articles, I asked my students to put themselves in the position of their potential readers (never a bad idea for a writer!), then envision what one or two words and phrases a reader would use to search for their piece.

This forces the writer to (a) figure out just what exactly their piece is about and (b) narrow that topic to one or two key ideas. It's a great way to clarify before writing a piece. Then, I asked the students to make sure that they used their keyword or phrase in the headline and lead paragraph of their piece, then several more times in the remaining copy, to stay on focus and keep the piece from wandering.

If the story's moving into another direction, then you need another article. Hyperlink them for context, as necessary.

And that's the second stage in writing well for online. Hyperlinking is essential, both to make full use of the deep context and background available on the Web [see my commentary from last September], and to enmesh their work within the Web, increasing its chances to be moved up into the top pages for search engine results. In addition to keyword relevancy, an article needs inbound links from other websites to rank well in search engine results.

To increase an article's chances for search engine (and therefore, readership) success, I told the class that they should one day learn how to configure their online publishing tool to ensure that each article appears under a single, distinct URL, so that their pieces get the full search engine benefit of all inbound links to it, without duplicate content penalties. But, I assured them, that's a "how-to" topic for a later day.

The speed quiz

We wrapped up the class with an exercise that, I think, drives home the challenge for online journalists to write well, and quickly.

I gave each student a section from a recent Los Angeles Times newspaper and told them to pick the three most important stories within that section, then to write a head and deck for each story, as they would if they were crafting an RSS feed or e-mail newsletter. They would be graded on news judgment, use of keywords, active voice and economy of language. Each head/deck combo would be worth 13 points, on a 50-point scale.

That made for 39 points. The other 11? Well, there are 11 students in my class, and the final points would be awarded on Borda Count scale. The first student to send their summaries to my e-mail in box gets 11 points, the next 10, on down to the last student to complete the assignment, who would get just one point.

Most students gasped when I told them this, but their competitiveness soon kicked in. I warned them: if you rush to get your piece out first, and make an error of fact or spelling, you'll end up with fewer points than if you proof-read your piece and turned it in last. And from past years giving this same assignment, I've found that many of the faster writers getting lower grades than their slower classmates.

A "teaching moment," indeed.

From Online Journalism Review,
Annenberg School of Journalism, University of Southern California

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