Just because you used to be a journalist doesn’t mean you can write for the web.
There. I’ve said it.
Several times of late I’ve had the same conversation.
Firstly, a confession. I was a journalist for 12-years and a public sector comms person for eight. Much of my work was crafted to be cut and pasted into newspapers either through a news story or a press release.
But those skills that work to create a punchy frontpage lead or impress a news editor doesn’t always work on the web. They are two different things.
And by the way, writing for the web isn’t the same as writing for social media. Writing for the web is writing for a webpage. Social media very often should be informal and conversational. But that’s for another blog post.
What does transfer
Brevity. Getting to the point. Paper shortages during World War Two meant that British journalists had to be concise. Waffle was cut. ‘Keep it short and simple’ ruled. Handy. But…
But a lot doesn’t transfer
On the web, words no longer rule. They are one of many tools available. Your aim is not to scream from the news stand to persuade a passer-by to stop and buy one. It’s to flag down a passing search engine.
Google is the biggest search engine in the world. It has an algorithm that rates each page. The exact recipe is a closely guarded secret and changes often. But some things do work. There are more than three billion searches a day on Google alone, so it’s something to take account of as they have almost 75 per cent of the market globally.
Less than 30 per cent of the words you write will be read on average so you have to be canny.
Metadata is your friend
Metadata is the information that a webpage carries to flag-up to search engines what’s on the page. Tags do this job. They can be key words or the author of the page. For this post the tags will include ‘writing for the web’, ‘tips’, ‘metadata’ and ‘comms.’ Use them. They score you Brownie Points with search engines.
For a simple picture alone, there’s more than half a dozen places where metadata can crop up. From title to description what camera took it, when and where. It all counts. Use it.
Rich content; yes, please!
If words no longer have supremacy, what does? Simple. Pictures, slides and video work well with people so search engines like them. So, when you are creating something use a variety of content. This also works if you are sending something out to try and entice a journalist to carry your story. Send them words, sure. But send them rich content like a picture or video they can use on their site.
Text: Chunk, list, sub-headings and bulletpoint
People will glance at your webpage. There’s some really good tips on the US government website usability.gov for how to present the text you have.
- The eye scans to bullet-points easily.
- It likes sub-headings too.
- They break-up the page.
- White space is alright too.
Headlines: Straight to the point
On the web, the cunning headline to amuse and entice the reader in doesn’t work. Algorithms don’t really do irony or word play so be very literal. As the BBC Journalism website says, an ambiguous headline of ‘Queen sells pirate music to fans’ doesn’t work. What about clickbait? That’s all over the web, isn’t it? Yes. But that’s writing for social media and a very particular take on it.
And add links, for heaven’s sake
Back when I was a journalist I wrote thousands of news stories. I never added one link. Tom Foremski’s landmark ‘Die Press Release! Die! Die! Die’ from 2006 was written out of frustration. You should read it. It rails against the habit of text only communications. It begs for the kind of rich content this blog points to. Add links. They give the option of more. Like this econsultancy list of 23 tips for writing on the web.
Picture credit: Crysostom / Flickr / https://flic.kr/p/8eTSeX
A major US newspaper announced plans to fire its entire picture desk a week or two back. All 28 of them. To go.
As someone who has worked on newspapers and now deals with them as part of their job that’s a significant step.
It also underlines in it’s own small way this whole ‘the landscape is changing and pr people need to develop new skills’ thing that I’ve been writing about for the past four years.
Of course, it’s really tempting to dismiss this as the death twitch of an industry that is on it’s knees and move on. What really stopped me in my tracks was a blog by Andy Ihnatko an occasional contributor to the newspaper in question the Chicago Sun-Times.
In it he recognised the pain this step was causing but rejected the idea that newspapers just deserve to die.
He makes an excellent observation that newspapers need to get new skills and as the web and mobile web get more important. What struck me was the observation that perhaps the web developer is now doing what the photographer used to do. Their ability to produce eye-catching content that brings pages alive are now playing the role the snapper and picture editor used to.
Newspapers are a machine, he writes, adding:
“The machine was fantastic at manufacturing what readers wanted from 1850 to 1999. But it now needs to be retooled to manufacture what readers want in 2013.
“What if it fired photographers, but hired more web developers, and gave that department extra resources? Photographs aren’t than just pretty pictures; they serve many practical functions for an edition of a newspaper. They allow for a more attractive page design, they make the newspaper easier to visually navigate, and they offer the reader an alternative method of engaging with the stories.
“ A well-designed, responsive web page does the same things…with the added modern benefit that it allows a story to look great on any device. “Your photos aren’t anything special” is an aesthetic complaint. “Your site goes all screwy when I access it from my iPhone” is a report about a bug that prevents the user from reading the content.
“The point is that if a newspaper really wants to double-down on the value of their content, having a great team of web developers on staff is critical. I’d be less concerned about the sub-par photography of a site than I would about a site that’s hard to read on the device of my choice.”
So in summary, web developers are critical.
When you consider how mobile-first my own life is that has a ring of truth. My holiday frustration at the webpage that doesn’t show on my mobile to tell me the swimming pool opening times, for example.
What are the lessons for local government comms people?
It’s the importance of knowing that to present your story on the web you’ll need to present it well and in a way that people can read it. It’s getting more important that you’ll need a good web developers in your team to help you tell your story.
It also means that submitted pictures to newspapers in times of cut picture desks have real value. For now.
So, it’s back to that changing landscape stuff again really, isn’t it?
Like lighthouse keepers, you’re glad they’re there but nothing too much to get excited about.
Actually, that’s not totally the case at all. If you’ve children, you must take a look at their website for their family orientated programme.
Romans at Wroxeter in Shropshire I can vouch for. Select a venue and then take a look in the bottom right hand corner . There you’ll see a really great use of Flickr.
By posting into an English Heritage group you agree that you don’t mind if the image is linked to via the organisations’ website. That’s a brilliant idea. They’re also upfront about it too.
Can this idea be used in local government? No question. Does it cost money? Not a penny. But what it does do is this:
- It provide an extra resource for people looking to browse for a place to visit.
- It creates a presence on a popular social networking site.
- It builds links with the community who can really feel as though they own a small slice of the website.
At a time when budgets are tight and very painful cuts have been made at English Heritage, this is good work by the history geeks.