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Chapter Four: Writing for the Web
Web journalists at work

Melissa Worden and Patrick Beeson of The Roanoke Times look over the paper’s Web site. The Web offers almost unlimited space for publishing news, as well as the possibility of converging print and broadcast stories. The Roanoke Times/used by permission

 

Introduction

           Although the Web has been around for as long as you can remember, it’s important to keep in mind how new the Web is as both a resource for gathering information and – our focus in this chapter – a medium for disseminating news to audiences. Compared to broadcast and certainly print journalism, Web journalism is still in its infancy. We can expect it to demand a lot of care, and to continue to show some growing pains.

 

Characteristics of the Web

          The Web allows every newspaper, broadcast station and free-standing website to be both global in reach and intensely local in focus. At Washington and Lee University,  our converged news website, The Rockbridge Report, covers a tiny community, but it is seen all over the  world. Our blog and other feedback loops contain messages from alumni and other audiences in South Korea, Johannesburg and New York.

           Another feature of Web news sites that is not shared by newspapers and broadcast news is that, while they are still limited in their coverage by staff size and resources, you can throw out the window the old concepts of having to shoehorn stories into the space or time between ads or commercials. Because space on the Web is almost limitless, Tori Baxter knows that Web surfers in Valleydale, Steubenberg and Jeffersonville can all find plenty of local news about their widely scattered communities.

           Unlimited space can be a mixed blessing, though. Some online journalists who work for newspaper websites simply import print stories wholesale, with little or no reworking. Often that is dictated by resources: Many newspapers still treat their websites as merely another mode of distribution, like a printing press and delivery truck, so they do not maintain separate reporting and editing staffs for those sites. Until recently, most news websites operated at a loss, so there was a reluctance to spend huge amounts of money on them. While online advertising and other income streams are taking up some of the slack now, even showing modest profitability, they do not approach the revenues generated by other news outlets.

 

 

    

Box 4.1 Characteristics of the Web

1. Web sites allow every newspaper and broadcast station to be both global in reach and local in focus.

2. Blogs and other feedback loops on the Web make it much easier for audiences to respond to stories.  

3.  Space on the Web is almost limitless. By creating links to other sites, news organizations can share far more information with audiences than ever before.

4. Many news Web sites have only recently become marginally profitable. As a result, news organizations often do not invest enough in them to take full advantage of the Web.

5. The Web’s display characteristics and limitations create a challenge for writers and editors. Audiences are likely to encounter information first as free-standing one- or two-sentence “blurbs.” Those blurbs must arouse enough interest that audiences will

click one or more times to find the rest of the story. Writing Web blurbs well becomes critical.

6. The Web’s potential for instant dissemination can create the temptation to publish unverified information or present facts without appropriate context. 

 

 

           To say that the Web has unlimited space is not to say that it has no limitations at all. Even websites that contain only material that has been “shoveled” over from print or broadcast are challenged by some of those limitations, including the Web’s display characteristics. For example, unless your Web page is just a block of gray type (a sure way to send audiences fleeing), you won’t be able to get much of a print story on one page. That means that you rely on your audience to keep clicking or linking to other pages, a cumbersome process even with the most powerful desktop setup.

           We know that, as a result, many Web users surf Web pages for summaries of breaking and developing stories. They do not want to wade through long stories when all they are seeking is an instant refresher course on the day’s news. Their commitment to a story must be demonstrated not just by continuing to read or listen, but also to finding and clicking on a link.

           The Web has another limitation that can be even more serious. Like unlimited space, it is a weakness bred of what initially appears to be an advantage – the ease and rapidity with which we can get information to vast audiences. But, partly for competitive reasons, news organizations often couple the ability for instant dissemination and access with a requirement for immediate publication and constant updates. As a result, standards for verification of facts and presenting information in context have shifted. News organizations may post initial, unverified reports or claims online, and use the Web to revise, update, contextualize or even rescind that initial reporting later. The same problem happens with social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, which we will address in Chapter Seven.

 

Ledes and blurbs 

           Increasingly, effective Web operations rely on numerous one- or two-sentence story summaries —  called ledes, teases or blurbs – displayed on a single home or splash page, with a link to the full story on a separate page for those who are interested. Blurb is the term I will use in this text. You can see how crucial it is for the blurb to convey the impact of the story clearly in one or two sentences, just as it is with ledes. For effective examples of such summaries, see The New York Times online. You should also surf the Web looking for others.

           As you work through your journalism major, you will probably have ever-expanding opportunities to write and rewrite stories for the Web. You might learn to stream video and audio as part of your story as well. You will gain experience “chunking” longer print stories into more manageable Web packages. And you will learn to develop appropriate links from your stories to other stories on the same website or to entirely different websites.

           All those skills are beyond the scope of this course. For now, you will focus on writing effective, impact-oriented blurbs for a Web splash page. In the exercises at the end of this chapter, remember that the one or two sentences that you write will be all the news about that story that many in your audience will see.

 

The process

           Let’s go back and look at the print story Tori Baxter wrote about the city manager in Chapter Three. This was her lede:

           City Manager Don Prentice’s job remains secure for now. 

           In that chapter I discussed how that lede focused on the rational impact for a local audience, and on the relatively lower emotional impact for a regional audience. I showed how two elements – who and what – conveyed most of that impact. I demonstrated the impact of simple, direct words and a short sentence. I said that the lede would serve pretty well to begin a 30-second RDR as well. And I talked about the questions that the lede did not answer.

           Now look at that lede with the second sentence of the story added, and one other tweak:

           Valleydale City Manager Don Prentice’s job remains secure for now.  Last night Prentice survived  two City Council members’ latest attempt to force him out.

           Those two sentences would make an effective “blurb” for the Web. Why? And why do we need to add “Valleydale” to the first sentence, and add the second sentence for the Web?

           The short answer to the first question is that good Web writing depends first on the impact, elements, words process, just as print and broadcast writing do. We already know that those two sentences, in their print and broadcast versions, were the product of that process. A Web audience that is potentially bigger than either the print or broadcast audience will still react to the story either emotionally or rationally. The who and the what still convey that impact most effectively. In writing for the Web we still look for short, active-voice sentences that are carried by nouns and verbs.

           But if just one sentence sufficed for the lede for both broadcast and print, why do we need a second sentence for the Web?

           Mostly, because of the work that a Web blurb does. If you looked at the examples of Web home or splash pages I suggested above, you noticed that full stories almost never run on those pages. Instead, the splash page contains the briefest summary, and the reader (or viewer or listener, if the story is streamed to the Web) must link to the story itself. That creates a filter that will lose the vast majority of the audience. While a print or broadcast lede must convey the impact in the first sentence, the reader, viewer or listener has immediate access to the rest of the story. The Web reader, usually, is a browser first. He or she will not see the rest of the story without making a positive, physical act of clicking on a link.

           So the consensus among Web writers is to make sure those folks will have enough information to make a good decision about whether to link to the story, and to go away from the blurb with what they need to know if they don’t make the link. Remember, that will be most of your audience. The second sentence – and the addition of “Valleydale” to the first – should provide enough information for that vast Web audience to make just as effective a decision as the narrower newspaper audience can from a one-sentence lede. 

           If you study well-prepared splash pages, you will also notice that most of the blurbs stick to the 20-word sentence. You are more likely to encounter blurbs comprising two 20-word sentences than to find a blurb of one long sentence. You already know the reason for that: Two short sentences are almost always easier to understand than one long one. They are also more likely to reflect a careful thought process on the part of the writer. Impact, elements, words.

 

Search engine optimization

           The Internet has become a staggering information resource. Never in human history has it been easier for audiences to find information, though judging the reliability of that information is a challenge. But the vast potential of the Web as an empowering resource also presents a challenge for news organizations and individual journalists: How can audiences find a particular story or series of stories – ours — in the bewildering and ever-expanding online universe?

           You are already familiar with one answer that hundreds of millions of people worldwide rely on every day, probably several times a day: search engines. The best-known and probably most comprehensive is Google, but there are myriad others, most of them more topic-specific than Google. The easy accessibility of search engines to audiences does not solve the problem I referred to above for journalists and news organizations: How can our story or website rise to the top of the list of sources a search engine can generate in milliseconds?

           More and more, news organizations are relying on their journalists to focus on search engine optimization, usually called SEO, in their writing for the Web. Journalists are expected to include keywords and key phrases that the search engine algorithms will home in on. The search engine will use those keywords to shuffle the resource deck so those stories will rise to the top of the list that a web surfer’s keyword search generates.

           So, in addition to their focus on impact, elements and words in writing blurbs, ledes and stories, journalists who write for the Web are expected to incorporate keywords into that process. Most of the time, fortunately, this is not as complicated as it might sound.  After all, careful focus and scrupulously chosen words are already the key to well-written ledes, blurbs and stories. Incorporating search-engine-friendly key words and phrases dovetails pretty well into our impact/elements/words process. Operationally, many web- and blog-writing templates or engines provide a separate slot where journalists can insert the keywords from what they have written.

           If there is a significant difference in writing SEO-friendly copy, it might be in the specificity that keywords add to traditional lede-writing. A young online journalist I know who blogs for a well-known automotive website explains it like this:

           “’Tagging’ posts with keywords is essential….  If you write a post about a guy whose 1956 Cadillac de Ville got ruined by Hurricane Katrina and subsequently restored, your [keywords and phrases] would look like this: ‘1956 Cadillac de Ville’; ‘Hurricane Katrina’; ‘New Orleans’; ‘Cadillac’; ‘de Ville’; ‘restoration.’  You read the post [you have written], figure out a bunch of key search phrases, and tell the blog engine that the post should be associated with those words when people search them.

           “Not only that, [search engines] like it when those SEO-friendly words link to a page outside the article I am writing…. It’s the hyperlinks that make Google go nuts.”

           Think about our example blurb from above:

           Valleydale City Manager Don Prentice’s job remains secure for now.  Last night Prentice survived two City Council members’ latest attempt to force him out.

           One key phrase is obvious: Valleydale City Manager Don Prentice. But we need to be careful in this case not to substitute a shorter key phrase or individual keywords. To identify only “city council” for Google, for example, yields more than 77 million references to city councils from around the world. Similarly, “Prentice” turns up 38.5 million references. Even “Don Prentice” results in 3,900 hits.

           But because this is a local story, limiting the first key phrase to Prentice’s full name and title should push any story about him to the top of the search results. As you worked through your story, you would of course tag “Eaton Wise,” “Rondah Bullard,” maybe “Valleydale fiscal irregularities,” and so forth, if you wanted your web surfers to see only those stories about Prentice and Valleydale.  (Not surprisingly, my Google search for “Valleydale City Manager Don Prentice” did not yield any results. Remember, I made up Valleydale and all its residents and public officials.)

           In addition to your specific mention of Prentice by full name and title, you should create links from Prentice’s name to other stories about Prentice and his difficulties on your news organization’s website. That gives your audiences the chance to catch up on the issue quickly, and in more depth than you can do in a nut graf. It also increases the likelihood that a search engine will bump your story higher in its search results. (“Remember, it’s the hyperlinks that make Google go nuts.”)

Interactive Web map

In addition to being able to watch and listen to streamed video and audio on some Web sites, Web audiences can take advantage of interactive graphics that allow the user more control. The Roanoke Times/used by permission

 

Ethics

           Writing for the Web presents at least four issues that can be addressed ethically. One or two might be beyond the scope of this website and your work in this course, but they bear thinking about just the same:

           1.  Where does the information you find on the Web come from, and how do we judge its reliability?

           2.  How should we appropriately attribute and credit material we find on the Web?   

           3. How much information should we share with our audiences?

           4. When have we verified information sufficiently to post it online, and does that help our audiences decide whose information to trust among the myriad sources on the Internet?  

           Let’s look at each question in turn.

           The author John Updike was moved years ago to observe that much of what is on the so-called Information Superhighway is road kill. Information from The New York  Times, the federal government and the Ku Klux Klan and other fringe groups is equally accessible on the Web. For journalists, the Web is a staggering resource. But that also underscores the importance of understanding how information ought to be used. For example, if you believe it important for your audience to know a fringe group’s reaction to proposed legislation regarding immigrants, a visit to the Klan website could be illuminating – for you and your audience. But it would be another matter to depend on  that same website for factual information about the proposed law. And it would be worse if you relied on the Klan for “facts” and then put them in front of an audience without telling that audience the source. More about that in a minute. Many Web surfers have a hard enough time judging the value and reliability of information they get from various websites. Others don’t even try to make those distinctions. When the journalist colludes in that confusion by being equally careless, audiences are ill-served.

           The second ethical question concerning the Web has to do with how we attribute the information we decide to use. Making bad decisions carries risks of harm to both your audience and the owner of the website. Just as with other stories and sources, your audience needs to know where on the Web information came from. But it’s not enough to say simply, “according to http://www.democrats.org, the official website of The Democratic Party.” Again, if you are seeking to show your audience the party’s reaction to a Republican initiative, that’s one thing. If you are relying on the site for facts about the initiative, that’s something else, and simply attributing the “facts” won’t resolve that problem. We’ll discuss appropriate sourcing more in Chapters 6 and 8.

           When it comes to not attributing information at all, it’s not just your audience who suffers. You are harming the source of the information by taking what belongs to that source and passing it off as your own. Remember that that applies to graphic information as well – charts, graphs, photos and other images. Not only should graphics be attributed, you should ask permission of the source to reproduce that kind of material. Because information on the Web is so accessible, people often assume it is in the public domain, that appropriating it without citing your source is okay. It isn’t. It’s plagiarism. As we mentioned in Chapter One, some things that are characterized as ethical issues don’t really involve principles in conflict. With plagiarism the question is simply whether you will behave appropriately or yield to temptation.

           A third ethical question concerning the Web has to do with how much of your reporting you should make available to your audience. Because space on the Web is virtually unlimited, and access to information is easy and free, or at least cheap, journalists are increasingly linking audiences to the source material they used for their story. Sometimes this includes transcripts or video of an entire interview. Traditionally in journalism, the story was expected to speak for itself. Audiences were not privy to most of the material reporters used in making the story, or that revealed the way reporters and editors decided what would be in the story and what would not. There were good reasons for that, reasons that lately are being reinforced every day. Journalists worried that sharing too much information would not only confuse audiences; it would give police, prosecutors and other government officials and agencies the idea that journalists were an investigative resource to be relied on rather than a monitor of the power of the investigators.

           Still, the danger that audiences and government would begin to see journalists as part of the groups they should be monitoring must be weighed against the potential value of making available to audiences much more information than we ever could before. At some point, journalists must rely on faith that audiences will make wise use of the resources we are now able to provide them.

           The fourth question about reporting for Web audiences involves when – that is, after how much verification — we should report information. I find it difficult to argue for any standard other than that which applies for so-called legacy news media – print and broadcast. We should not publish information until we know it is accurate or has been verified by reliable sources. We should present facts in context, and fairly, after giving those involved an opportunity to be represented in our story.

           The argument that by allowing instant updates the Web permits a different standard is shaky. We have no idea how many in our audience will see the later correction of an initial fact error or the contextualizing of an earlier statement that was presented without context, or in the wrong context. And the potential worldwide reach of the Web means that those initial errors, inaccuracies or lack of context can be even more damaging than printed or broadcast transgressions. It is important to acknowledge the increased competition inherent in instant-update and instant-access media, and the resulting pressure to publish immediately.  But competition is a reality of the market – a temptation, if you will — not an appropriate defense for unethical behavior.

 

 

    

Box 4.2 Strategies for Writing Web Blurbs

1. As always, think clearly and carefully about impact, elements and words.

2. Keep your Web blurbs to one or two sentences.

3. Keep your sentences to no more than 20 words.

4. For now, don’t worry about writing a third sentence. That could cause your focus in the first two to become fuzzy.

5. Remember that your Web blurb will stand alone on a separate page from the rest of the story.

6. Read each blurb aloud. Remember, if it doesn’t sound right, it isn’t.

7. Verify names, addresses, jobs and other information by using your City Directory.

8. Use search engine optimization. Read your blurb for keywords and phrases that will prompt Web search engines to push your story to the top of the list. 

 

 

 

Strategies

           1. As always, think clearly and carefully about impact, elements and words.

           2. Keep your Web blurbs to one or two sentences.

           3. Keep your sentences to 20 words, no more. (Again, little words count, including a, an, and the.)

           4. For now, don’t worry about writing a third sentence. That could cause your focus in the first two to become fuzzy.

           5. Remember that your Web blurb will stand alone on a separate page from the rest of the story.

           6. As you have been doing with your print and broadcast stories, remember to read each blurb aloud. If it doesn’t sound right, it isn’t.

           7. Verify names, addresses, jobs and other information by using your City Directory.

           8. Remember search engine optimization. Read your blurb for keywords and phrases that will plug nicely into algorithms for search engines to push your story to the top of the list in a Web search.

Exercise Four: Web blurbs

           Write Web blurbs for each set of facts. Keep your blurbs to one or two sentences of no more than 20 words each.  When you have finished each, list keywords or phrases that you think would heighten the chances of a search engine pushing your blurb to the top of a search results list.

           1. Valleydale Police Chief Buford Hunicutt spoke to the Valleydale Rotary Club yesterday. Hunicutt said he employs women officers “just to keep the Equal Opportunity folks in Washington happy. If it had been down to me we’d still be an all-male force. Women aren’t as strong as men, and I think we’re letting ourselves in for some trouble. It’s bad news when perpetrators can start pushing officers around. I pray for the day when we see the end of this foolishness.”

           2.  About 9 a.m. this morning a Blue Ridge High School junior was hurrying to soccer practice in her Chevrolet Blazer. It was raining and she skidded on wet leaves in the road on Route 15 near WalMart. As a result the vehicle veered off the road. When she over-corrected it swerved across the center lane and into a tree on the other side of the road, with resultant death to the driver. She was alone in the vehicle. Police are withholding her name. Her family has not yet been notified because they are out of town. (Source: Sheriff Swofford)

           3. Construction is about half completed on Beausoleil’s new high school, to be called Erland Bromfield, just like the current, outdated one. The building is just three months behind schedule due to all the recent rain, said School Superintendent Holly Fairborn.

           4. According to a report from the Beausoleil police, a 53-year-old Beausoleil man, T.D. “Pete” Rollins, 501 Spruce St., is reported dead, possibly of a work-related accident. He was riding a sanitation truck this morning when a sudden heavy thunderstorm began. The truck pulled over, and Rollins crawled inside the compacter in the rear to get out of the rain. Driver of the truck apparently then activated the compacter to compact the most recent garbage, unaware that Rollins was inside. Cause of death was not officially determined, but police say they believe it was an accident, pending the outcome of an autopsy.

           5. At approximately 3 a.m. tomorrow morning a crew will replace a sewer line damaged during a recent incident in which a baby alligator was stuck inside it. As a result, city sewer service will be cut off to the Rebel Heights and Cematery Ridge sections of Valleydale for about 20 minutes. About 300 homes will be effected. Residents should refrain from flushing toilets during this period, commencing at 3 a.m. in the morning. They also should not take showers or baths or run dishwashers, according to city Public Works Director George “Adam” Apple. The sewer line replacement is expected to cost about $20,000.

           6.  When County Sheriff J. E. “Jink” Swofford stepped outside his house this morning to go to work, he discovered a slight problem. Somebody had stolen his car during the night. His wife had to drive him to work in her car. Sheriff’s car was later found parked alongside South River near Culleytown. The radar gun had been stolen. Case turned over to detective division of the sheriff’s office. No suspects named yet. [Source: Sheriff Swofford]

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