Sunday, 20 February 2011

Writing for the web and the future of journalism

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Another old piece from my MA work. This was, in fact, just a small part of a wider essay that I wrote to accompany a portfolio of webzine articles. I have therefore now edited and expanded upon it certain places in order to round it off. I'm posting it in the blog for the future, and hope somebody may yet find it useful... even if they just fish the quotes out of it.


Writing content for online publication shares many of the same key skills as traditional journalism insomuch as the content must be relevant, written in a dynamic and easy to follow manner, and correctly formatted for the medium of publication. The Jennifer Kyrnin article, ‘10 Tips For Good Web Writing’ published on About.com, breaks these down into a list of ten easy to remember rules:

  1. Write relevant content.
2. Put conclusions at the beginning.
3. Write only one idea per paragraph.
4. Use action words.
5. Use lists instead of paragraphs.
6. Limit list items to 7 words.
7. Write short sentences.
8. Include internal sub-headings.
9. Make your links part of the copy.
10. Proofread your work.1

However the first major difference between writing for print and the web is in the formatting of the articles. As in traditional journalism, style guides differ from publication to publication depending on the audience it caters for but many web-based publications today will have accessibility on a global scale in mind. For example, MSN news will keep the sentences short, with one idea per paragraph, use contextual hyperlinks and include sub headings in bold and italic type. The logic behind keeping the style simple and the format easy to navigate is due to articles on a screen being harder to read, and according to the London School of Economics website:

“People who use the web do not behave like people reading a book. They are usually looking for specific information. Web authors must make it easy for them to find what they want.
Studies show that people read online text a lot slower than printed text. Reading from a screen for an extended period of time is generally an unpleasant experience for most users.”2


When taking this into account we can see a definite gap begin to emerge between the styles of the articles written for print and the web. For instance, in the daily newspaper The Independent on the 14th of August 2010, the article Not stopping at the next station – there's no driver, about a runaway maintenance train on the London Underground was featured. On the MSN UK news website, an article on the same subject appeared titled Tube line cleared due to runaway maintenance train. The first major difference is visible in the titles themselves. The Independent article is ambiguous and draws you in, whereas the MSN article is immediate and full of information. One reason behind this is what is known as Search Engine Optimisation – the practice of including certain keywords in articles in order to gain listings in search engines such as Google. Another reason according to Jakob Nielson is that:

“In print, you can spice up linear narrative with anecdotes and individual examples that support a storytelling approach to exposition. On the Web, such content often feels like filler; it slows down users and stands in the way of their getting to the point.”3

This example is best illustrated by the opening paragraphs to each article. In The Independent the opening paragraph is a sentence containing a brief summary of the story with little information yet it uses dramatic words such as “Chaos” and “Hurtled” to peak the reader’s attention.

“A runaway train brought chaos to London Underground yesterday as it hurtled through six stops on the Northern line.”4

However in the MSN article we can immediately see that there is significantly more information included in the opening paragraph, although the overall length of the sentences doesn't differ by much.

“A runaway train went through six stops on a 13-minute journey on the Tube on Friday with other Underground trains having to be cleared out of its path.”5

Another area where web journalism differs from print is in the presentation of articles, which differs significantly in many areas. The principle formats for print articles are broken down into three categories; News, news in brief and features. For online journalists the formats can include these and sub-sections thereof. For instance a feature may be included amongst a web of articles that are connected by hyperlinks. It may be broken down into galleries with photographs providing the lead ins. Audio and video may also be included to give more contextual background and interactivity that doesn't detract from the conciseness of the text. According to Robert Niles, writing for‘The Online Journalism Review, the opportunity is also there to utilise other formats than the web article to create a rapport with the reader by crafting an article that will create a discourse between the writer and the audience.

“Online writers can communicate with their readers in many more forms than the traditional news article. Blogs, ‘Wikis’ and discussion boards dissolve the barrier between writer and reader, creating a more informal and interactive writing environment. Take advantage of this opportunity and distinguish yourself by writing in a clean, active, conversational style that will make your readers feel as comfortable reading your words as they feel when talking with a close friend.”6

Many publications do operate both print and web services; The Independent, for example, includes all the articles available in it's newspaper and magazines and re-prints them on the website. These articles remain unchanged from the way they appear in print form, but are incorporated into the web layout with links to similar articles within the website. This is a common practice among magazines and newspapers that were published in print before adding a digital wing as well. This has the benefit of making the content from previous editions of the publication archival and allowing people, who didn’t purchase the physical copy in time, to go back and find articles.

However some publications have begun to switch over to purely digital content and as such have archived their print editions as pictures in JPG, PDF or Flash formats. These differ in effectiveness as to the search-ability of the content on the web as search engines do not as easily index JPG and Flash files as they do a PDF file. This has led some web publications to also create downloadable PDF versions of their articles as an electronic publication (E-Zine etc.) which can either be sold for a nominal fee or downloaded free of charge. Provided the downloader has a portable computer or tablet to view the document on they no longer need to be connected to that site to view the content.

The final difference is speed. Although a news site may receive a story from the same source as a newspaper, the speed at which they are published differs greatly. A news site like BBC online compared to The Independent can break news within an hour or so of it happening, if not instantly. This is due to the speed at which content is written, checked and published. This is why an initial report will often be short and sketchy on the details, and followed up with several more to clarify things, which is not dissimilar from the way modern rolling TV news operates. As a blog or webzine publication most news will be broken from a press release or taken second hand from another news source. These lead to a lot of repetition on sites as contributor’s copy and paste press releases or directly quote large chunks of other stories in an attempt to break news quickly.
In stark comparison newspapers and magazines may have to wait up to between a day and even a month before the same story can be published. This therefore gives them more time in which to be able to write original content and allow for more clarified information to come through before committing to publication.


With major publications invested in digital content, and new magazines, journals and newspapers increasingly opting for a web or other electronic platform to reach more readers, it is safe to assume that web writing is a skill that all journalists will need in their arsenal in the future. Newly qualified journalists will also have to have an increasing awareness of not only web writing, but also in the construction of websites. Basic skills such ass hyper linking, creating and adding pictures and graphics to HTML will all be part and parcel of prepping articles for publication. That is of course barring the irreversible collapse of the Internet overnight.



End Notes:
1 Kyrnin, Jennifer. 10 Tips For Good Web Writing. (webdesign.about.com/od/writing/a/aa031405.htm)
2 Writing For The Web. (www.lse.ac.uk/resources/webEditorsHandbook/bestPracticeGuide/editorialWriting/writingForTheWeb.htm ) 2009
3 Nielson, Jacob. Writing Style For Print Vs Web. (www.useit.com/alertbox/print-vs-online-content.html ) June 2008
4 Woodman, Peter. Not stopping at the next station – there's no driver. Independent (London), Saturday 14th August 2010. pp 11.
5 Tube line cleared due to runaway maintenance train. (news.uk.msn.com/articles.aspx?cp-documentid=154392333), Saturday 14th August 2010.
6 Niles, Roberts. How To Write For The Web. OJR: The Online Journalism Review (www.ojr.org/ojr/wiki/writing/), March 2008.

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