HACK TIP: How to write for the web… even if you used to be a journalist

4751731545_1ecb77d188_oJust 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


FUTURE CODE: Are web developers today’s news photographer?

359759173_9c5939d67f_bA 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?


HISTORY PICS: How English Heritage are doing cool Flickr things

Okay, so I was wrong. I used to thing English Heritage were a crusty bunch who jealously guarded castles.

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.

Forget leather patched tweed jackets, those people at English Heritage are actually pretty cutting edge.

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.


WEB: So, what makes a good council website?

Jason Santa Maria / Flickr

This was drawn-up after the ‘What makes an ace local government website?’ session at #ukgc10 by Liz Azyan from Camden Council and also the #ukgc10 WordPress session. Some extra thoughts were inserted after…

You’re in a rush. You’re going swimming. You’ve three minutes to find out when the nearest leisure centre closes… and you’re face with a council website.
 
This could be a pleasant experience and for many it is. But if you’re unlucky  you’ll be faced with a sprawling brick wall behemoth of a website written in a funny language riddled with jargon.
 
Oh, Lord.
It’s not gritting information, for example. It’s a winter service plan.   
Your opinion of your council suddenly plummets and you hurl abuse at the screen.
 
But ladies and gentlemen, it doesn’t have to be this way.
 
Liz Azyan’s session at the UK Government Bar Camp ’10 at Google was a thought provoking session with some cracking points.
 
Cards on the table at this stage. I don’t work in a web team. I work with them and more to the point I’m a council taxpayer who uses one.
 
Here are some points that emerged from the session — sprinkled with some that struck me afterwards.
 
What do people want?
 
They want to find the information they are after. Simple.
 
 

What do they often find? 
A website written in council speak with difficult to find pages presented poorly. In short a frustrating experience.
 

Tech frustration by CCB Images / Flickr

Tech frustration by CCB Images / Flickr

So, why bother with a council website?
 
It’s an argument that – surprisingly – seems still to exist in some quarters. Isn’t it just a big waste of money? Actually, no. Quite the reverse. After getting attacked for wasting money by TPA Lincolnshire Council responded with a cool, calm and brilliantly argued piece that argued that the cost of web was staggeringly lower than employing people to help face-to-face or over the telephone. It’s worth taking a look at.
 
What’s the average cost of contact via a council website?
 
For contact, read an occasion a member of the public needs to contact the council.
 
            Face to face              £7.81
            Telephone                  £4.00
            Online                         £0.17

 
Which does make you think. Vast resources get put – rightly – into a help desk or a one stop information shop. Often, web is seen as a poor relation.
 
There is also a theory that telephone numbers should be hard to find. If you have cost savings in mind pushing people towards the £4 option may not make good sense.
 

 

Do Local Government websites pay enough attention to design and appearance?
 
The hell they do. Some of them look utterly dreadful. There’s an organisation called SOCITM who seek to raise standards in government. Every year they survey Local Government sites on a checklist. Accessibility is key. So is usability. But nothing seems to get assessed on design.
 
One point that Devon’s Carl Haggerty made very strongly – which I totally agree with – is the need for this to change. Design and look IS important. If the website looks poor people won’t even get as far as starting a search.
 
As someone who has worked on newspapers and has put together magazines the look of something is fundamental. Look across the news stands. From the unscientific straw poll in the session colour seemed to be important.
 
Why should we bother to make websites better?
 
We need to improve because people’s expectations are higher.
 
We need to improve because at a time of tighter budgets web is a cost effective solution.
 
We also need to improve because while once council websites had a virtual monopoly on local information those days are changing.
 
As barriers are lowered – by things like WordPress and by the surge in hyperlocal blogs – others can do the job themselves. The case of the tech-savvy Birmingham residents who knocked up their own council website – bcc.diy.co.uk should send wake-up calls throughout local government. If you don’t do it, they are basically saying, someone else will.
 
As more and more data gets released web developers will find their own uses for it. Leisure centres? There’s an app for that. The days of the council website being a monopoly are ending. Smart people are just starting to wake up to that.
 
Yes, but it’s all about the home page, isn’t it?
 
The figures can vary widely. Around 15 per cent of people came onto the site through the home page from one council. That’s not much more than one in ten. A piddling figure. Especially when you take account the time and effort that goes into it. But in another council researched after the session was around 90 per cent.

Brent Council's opt in less busy webpage.

Brent Council's opt in less busy webpage.

The moral of the story to local government webbies  is to research your web stats before changes are made.
 
 
Can you make your homepage less busy?
 
Yes. Brent council offers the option of the traditional busy page and a more simple one. That quite appeals to me.
 
So how do people navigate around your site if they do do that?

 
There’s your website search box. Which often isn’t that great. Even if it’s a google one, apparently. From the experience of several councils much time and effoft is wasted bu users here.
 
There’s your A-Z of services too.
 
There’s also the postcode search which to me seems rather attractive and far more relevant. If I lived in Baswich in Stafford, wouldn’t it be better to tell me what was on offer for me there?
 
There’s also the novel idea of a pictorial map. You point at it. You hover over the bits you want and you click through there. Directgov have a rather attractive planning map that does that.
 
Widgets. Redbridge Council have use this. It’s a similar theory to the igoogle approach where you compose the page that you want from the information that you want. The idea is great but feedback suggests that only small numbers of people have embraced this
 
The message from Liz’s session was that as far as search is concerned you need to pick one way and stick to it. Sites that try and do absolutely everything in the way of search look cluttered, busy and turn people off.

How about open source (and what the hell does that mean?)

At the WordPress #ukgc10 session the idea of WordPress as a web content managament system was talked about. There is much going for it. It’s open source. Which for non-geeks means that you don’t have to pay someone a lorry load of cash to buy it and maintain it. It’s free. You can download it from www.wordpress.com and web developers who know what they are doing can build you widgets so you can customise things to suit your ends.

The downloadable version of WordPress is from WordPress.org while WordPress.com is where you get your hosted versions.

There are plenty of examples of Government using open source. The 10 Downing Street web site relies on it in parts for it’s press operation. So do almost half UK government departments in one shape or another. It’s great if you need an emergency website knocked up at short notice.

However, the feedback was that there was  a 500-page limit on WordPress. That’s probably more than enough for some sites but bigger projects may be hampered by that limitation.  

But how about the Birmingham City Council experience? (insert clap of thunder here.)

There has been plenty written about the Birmingham experience. But if you haven’t come across it it’s a tale to strike fear into local government web managers up and down the land.

In short, Birmingham City Council appointed consultants to build their website. The final bill was more than many expected and wasn’t as good as people were expecting. It led to Press criticism.

The Birmingham bloggers build a DIY site when they were less than impressed with the council version.

The Birmingham bloggers build a DIY site when they were less than impressed with the council version.

There is a thriving community of bloggers and the digitally-connected in Birmingham. They decided to build their own DIY council site by taking the data that was publicly available and constructin their own website.

Based on open source and while it may look rough at the edges, it is a site born of social media and built by community-spirited people eager to do their own thing. That it cooked a snook at authority to boot was for some a bonus.

They came up with something based on a postcode search and using stunning Flickr imagery of their home city.  

It’s legacy will be more than a website. It’s legacy is a warning shot that internet users have a powerful voice and if you don’t provide them with something they’luse and be impressed by, they may well build their own. As a warning shot to council it’s there to be heeded.

So, how about asking people what they think of your site?

I’m impressed with the Camden Council Facebook group set up to see what people thought of their site. An impressive use of social media. Bold, imaginative and connecting directly to the online community. Magnificent. And a template to follow.
 
 
In a nutshell: So what would NINE really good things to do be?
 

 
1 Use pictures better. Pictures tell a 1,000 words and are a brilliant way of showcasing your organisation. Not just the arty commissioned ones. The Flickr ones too.
 
2 Choose a way for people to navigate about the site. And stick to it.
 
3 Don’t make your site busy. It looks awful. Simplicity works.
 
4 Don’t get too hung up on the homepage. Remember that few people can get onto your site that way.
 
5 Speak to the people in the calls centre. What subjects come up most often?
Shouldn’t that play some role in what appears on the homepage? And be well designed and put together?
 
6 In an A-Z of services think Yellow Pages. Put links in several places. For example, people could be looking at household waste in several places. Waste, rubbish or even trash
 
7 And finally, wouldn’t it be good if SOCITM took more account of design and look? That way we may all have better websites.

8 Use social media to see what people think. Use Twitter and Facebook. If social media is about a two way conversation then what better way of connecting with web-savvy citizens? 

9 Don’t rule out open source. It’s free. And one day someone with vision will come up with something that government can use.
 
Input for the #ukgc10 ‘What makes an ace website?’session included points from Dan Harris, Ally Hook, Liz Azyan, Sarah Lay, Martin Black, Stephen Cross and Andrew Beeken.

Flickr pics used with creative commons licence laptop (Jason Santa Maria) and frustration (CCB Images).