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Online news writing

...class notes from Bob Stepno

Exploring styles of writing on the Web
is a valuable exercise for anyone studying newswriting, even if "online" isn't the form of news writing you plan to do... and even if "news" isn't the "online publishing" you're most interested in.

This page started out in 2004 as a note for another teacher who was wondering what to do on the "online techniques" day of a news writing survey course. A year later, I started giving the whole thing to the students as "class notes" whenever I talk about the Web in newswriting classes. Later, I expanded the page -- and threw in some watermelon for color. 

To practice what most "new media" instructors preach about Web writing, this page really should be broken into smaller chunks and made more visually interesting. However, its present one-page format allows students to print it out for review, so I've kept it this way.

Online newswriting shares characteristics of newspaper, broadcast and public relations writing, three topics covered in many "News 101" or "Writing for the Media" classes. Online journalists, whether professionals writing for http://washingtonpost.com or "citizen journalists" self-publishing at http://blogspot.com, practice the fact-gathering and fact-checking skills learned in reporting classes, as well as the headline, caption and summary writing taught in editing classes.
slice
of story about watermelon
Bite-size pieces of news
from myrtlebeachonline


Writing for the Web has similarities to all kinds of newswriting: Clarity, Accuracy and Brevity are still good things.

Students entering 21st century professional journalism are already writing for news media that are printed, broadcast and delivered digitally -- to desktop computers, laptops, handhelds, iPods and mobile phones. Editors may have to work harder to fit their products onto those small screens or to break stories into smaller chunks, but in most other ways the Web is a bigger canvas for storytelling.

Online, journalists can conquer time and space...
  • be free of time-scheduled broadcasts and press runs
  • offer more depth than "on air" minutes or "in print" spaces allow
  • link to source materials, related stories and more
  • use multimedia when words aren't enough
  • know their audience -- even collaborate with viewers on stories through the interactivity of e-mail links, blogs and online discussions.
Is there an online news writing style?

Many kinds of news writing are being published online, much of it adapted from newspapers or television news scripts. Web producers may write different headlines and story summaries for their home or "section" pages, to give skimming readers a better idea of the the stories' contents and encourage them to click-through.  Or they may keep the original headline, but add a line or two of "second deck" to supplement the headline.  Look at these newspapers' online editions for examples:
TV news departments have come up with crossover writing styles for the mostly-text versions of stories their websites. If both a text and a streaming-video copy of the broadcast are on the site, you can see how the Web story was (or wasn't) based on the broadcast script. See http://cnn.com, http://wate.com and http://wbir.com for a start.

Broadcasters can't just "shovel" their scripts online, so someone (usually called a "Web producer") has to  create a new version of the story, adding facts the script leaves out. Sometimes they even do extra reporting.

Few online sites built by newspapers completely rewrite stories; more of their energy goes into writing summaries, teases and new headlines to lead readers to the stories, or writing photo captions and scripts for slide shows and multimedia features.

To see original news writing online, explore publications that were born on the Web, including "webzines" like http://slate.com and http://salon.com, as well as blogs like http://blueridgemuse.com or community news sites like http://newhavenindependent.com and http://barista.net.

For years, researchers and teachers have suggested that online stories be tightly edited and "chunked" into smaller segments. In your own online news reading,  see how many examples you can find of such treatments.

Borrowing from broadcasting

Like radio and television, the Web is "24/7," and Web writers for news websites often emphasize the "up to the minute" aspect of stories. They update stories throughout the day. Sometimes they write in the present and present-perfect tenses to emphasize a "happening right now..." angle, much like  broadcast news.

At the same time, online stories must stand up to reading hours or days after they are published, so time elements must be clear in the body of the story. In some cases, a site's Content Management System automates the process, adding a "last update" date and time to the top or bottom of a story. (On the other hand, one local news site in Radford, Va., has had a "just a week away" coming event item on its home page for two months.)

Like broadcast news announcers who "tease" upcoming stories before a station break, Web producers need to invite the reader to stick around. Story summaries and headline lists can go on a home page, or on "section" pages like World News, Local News and Sports, or in the narrow columns called "rails" along the sides of other story pages.

Writing in layers, chunks and "microcontent"

Summaries and headline lists aren't just "teasing." Web writers, editors and producers must compensate for the difficulties of reading on a computer screen. A newspaper or magazine reader can take in two broadsheet pages at a glance, skim the headline and a few paragraphs of each story, flip through pages or spread out a double-page chart of election results.

Online, a writer's headlines and summaries become navigation tools that lead readers to "inside pages" of the site. Writing effective headlines and summaries takes practice; so does expanding broadcast news scripts into stories that can be scanned quickly without the audio or video.

Writing clearly and concisely is even more important online than it is in print. See "usability" researcher Jakob Nielsen's essays at useit.com. By testing different versions of stories, he has reached some of the same conclusions stressed in every news writing textbook: Readers are in a hurry; make it easy for them to find and absorb information. Follow the old "print journalism" advice; use the active voice, strong verbs, summary leads, inverted pyramid structure, tight writing and punchy headlines. (That's "punchy" in the sense of direct and hard-hitting -- not stumbling around like Rocky in the next-to-last round.)

(As an exercise, search Nielsen's writing pages for "inverted pyramid," then for "promotional writing." His conclusions should interest public relations and advertising writers as well as news reporters: People appreciate facts and an attempt at objectivity, not "soft" adjectives, adverbs, platitudes and marketing puffery.)

So what's "microcontent"?

Most news sites also recognize the value of what Nielsen calls "microcontent" -- smaller units of information. He means headlines and summaries, but also things like captions, subheadings, "lift-out" quotes and bullet lists. What do you think? Is this bullet list easier to scan than the preceding sentence?
  • headlines
  • blurbs
  • summaries
  • captions
  • lift-out quotes
  • subheadings
  • bullet lists
The idea of making text "scannable" by emphasizing keywords (another Nielsen favorite)  doesn't have as wide a following. I have experimented with it on this page, but too many bold words or blue hyperlinks can be annoying. (This page may be an example!) As a reader, what do you think? Should we stick to the  headlines, subheadings and other features readers are accustomed to in printed newspapers and magazines? Do the bold words or the blue link words make the text harder to read?

Are "layers of news" a new thing?

Newspapers have told stories in layers for a century and more. Look at the way the Titanic's sinking was covered with pictures and multiple-deck headlines. Newspapers, as well as Web sites, generally confine themselves to one or two headline decks for most stories, possibly with a summary "blurb" before the story's lead paragraph.

Another layering approach, in both print and online, is what a Poynter Institute article called "non-linear narrative."  One of its examples was a Sun News feature about spring planting. The story was a natural for slicing into smaller pieces like the watermelon wedges at the top of this page. In the full-page newspaper layout, each vegetable or fruit had its own "wooden" box.  Online, a designer might separate the boxes into individual pages linked to a pile of vegetables or a map of a garden -- with  hypertext links leading to a separate page for each fruit or vegetable. The same short "chunks" of text probably would work on the Web page or in the newspaper layout without much rewriting.

On more complex topics, breaking a story into parts can require advance planning by the writer and editor. How much background does each chunk need, especially if the  reader doesn't follow a set sequence through the collection? (Hypertext novels have been written, taking advantage of that uncertainty to experiment with literary theories about storytelling and "closure." News writing should solve mysteries, not create them.)

Using hypertext links, many news sites offer readers collections of background stories on recurring topics in the news. Sometimes called "shells,"  such pages assemble "evergreen" links to stories and other information. For examples, see the Times topics pages on people, places and issues, or the Washington Post politics page, which links to a database of congressional voting records.

An online story may be presented in several forms -- one designed for reading on the screen, another for printing, another for downloading to a Palm organizer. Sometimes that will be a matter of reformatting a single text, but it also might mean writing separate versions.

Invitations to Click


Headlines and summaries are especially important online because they serve a dual purpose. They provide information, but they also provide navigation: They invite the reader to "click through" to a full story or to investigate additional chunks of a multi-part story. Readers can't scan down the first column of an online story the way they do a newspaper front page. Headlines must work harder to tell people where they are going.

Should the summary risk giving away too much? Or should it "tease" the reader to enter, and risk not telling enough? Professional site designers apparently have come to different conclusions.

When most of a news site is "shovelware" from a print newspaper, the online editor should write fresh and functional  headlines and story summaries for the "front page," not just shovel the headlines and leads into a home page template. Why? On a newspaper page, the headlines, lead paragraphs and photos work as a team. Break up that team and readers may not be able to tell what a story is about. If the paper makes a habit of two-part headlines, but its website design allows only one line, the effect can be disastrous. For example, what information does this menu give you about the individual stories?
  • Sundown Rises
  • Something to bark about
  • Happy campers? You bet
  • Reward given for job well done
Almost no information at all, right? Unless the reader came looking for cliches, platitudes and generalities. Readers of the print edition of the News Sentinel had better information about each of those stories. For instance, the first of those headlines looked like this:

Sundown Rises
Big crowd greets first concert in Knoxville's summer series

For a more detailed discussion (and the long versions of those real headlines), see the second half of this article about http://KnoxNews.com. In the paper, each of those headlines had a second part that told more of the story. The KnoxNews headlines do seem to have gotten better since I first posted this page. However, they still slip up now and then. (Don't we all.)

For more examples of summary and headline treatments, see the home pages and section front pages of a few more news organizations. Are the page one summaries the same as the story-page leads? Are the headlines the same ones that appear in the printed newspaper? Or something better?
Next, notice the print-style stories, headlines and summaries at "broadcast" sites. Do they tease like some television lead-ins, or do they invite you in with more information?
Possible exercises:
  1. Clip some stories from a printed newspaper without looking at the online version. Write your own summaries, then compare them with the newspaper website's version. 
  2. Study headlines from the printed newspaper or an online version. If you couldn't see the summary or lead paragraph, would the headline tell you enough to decide whether to read the story? Can you do better in 12 words? Or eight? Or six? Some Web page designs can be that limiting. 
  3. Tape a news broadcast or find a news video clip online, then write a print-style story from it. Notice what gaps the TV station's Web editor would have to fill. (Check the spelling of names; use more print-like attribution, more time elements and details...) See Cory Bergman's notes on converting TV scripts to the Web (bottom half of page). Since writing that essay, Cory has updated his ideas to point out that just rewriting isn't enough -- additional reporting may be needed to make a broadcast story "readable" on the Web. (In fact, some of the best synergy comes from using the Web to add depth and detail to a here-it-comes/there-it-goes broadcast news story.)
The news style of writing summaries, stories and lists also shows up on organizational sites practicing the latest in online public relations. For example, see the front pages and press releases at  http://www.tennesseeanytime.org/governor or http://www.ci.knoxville.tn.us


Blogging & Citizen Journalism

The frequently-updated Web sites called "blogs" use many writing styles and address many topics. Informality generally rules on personal weblogs. Others take a more journalistic tone. A few consciously try to fill the gaps in local professional news coverage. (For example, see http://h2otown.info and its publisher's video explanation.)

Many blogs are what early blogger Dave Winer calls "the unedited voice of an individual," while others are group sites that may enforce some simple style rules for consistency's sake -- although I doubt that many bloggers keep an AP Stylebook next to their keyboards.

Some, like Winer, filter the Web for their readers, leaning toward short summaries of headlines, links and a few comments. The most famous local example is UT law professor Glenn Reynolds' http://instapundit.com. Other blogs take the form of longer stories or essays and invite readers to join a dialogue in "comments" at the end of each original message. Here are two of my favorites:
And some are mixtures of approaches:
With so many people able and willing to write to a Web audience, contributors to a news site may include both professional journalists and amateurs -- people who just want to tell neighbors what's going on in town. They are sometimes called "citizen journalists" or "the people formerly known as 'the audience.'" Part of the online journalist's job should be to listen to those new voices and make news reporting more of a "pro/am" conversation.


Photos, multimedia & hypertext

The Web is all about hypertext linkage. News sites can link to earlier stories, documents, background source materials and public discussions, to images, documents, databases and multimedia presentations. Some organizations may see choosing significant links as the writer's job; others may consider it part of the editing process -- especially if a story was originally written for broadcast or print, with a separate "online producer" responsible for adapting it to the Web.

Today's fast Internet connections allow Web writing to take greater advantage of multimedia, from video blogs to YouTube. But there have been strong examples of multimedia storytelling for almost a decade.  One of my favorites is the online version of a Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper series that led to the book and movie titled Black Hawk Down. The "writer's job" for author Mark Bowden included daily online conversations with  readers. Their comments helped him check his facts and led him to more people to interview, adding more detail to the final story.

The project may have been for a newspaper, but it had plenty of "multimedia": Bowden turned over his audio-taped interviews to the paper's Web producer, who added sound clips of voices at strategic points in the Web story, emphasizing the authenticity of Bowden's sources, increasing the "transparency" of the reporting process that went into his long-form dramatic storytelling. Photos, military video, maps and other graphics also added weight and authority.

Along with choosing from an array of media, the editor or producer's job for an online news site may include writing the text menus, lists, summaries, word balloons, photo captions and narrations that go with multimedia presentations like Bowden's Somalia piece. For more recent examples, visit sites that draw on both newspaper and broadcast news professionals, such as combined or "convergence" news operations like Tampa Bay Online:  http://multimedia.tbo.com

Perhaps the simplest multimedia packages are slide shows, with captions, transitional texts, or even a spoken narration. "Writing to the visuals" may be the job of a staff writer, or a photographer may have to do it all, including the voice-over -- another convergence of news workers' roles.

Many of those multimedia examples are thanks to the combination of fast Internet connections and a program called Macromedia Flash. The result is a new composite style of storytelling, blending writing with photography, visual design, animation, video and computer programming. Rather than rely on the browser's navigation tools, Flash programmers can build-in their own navigation, video players, moving graphics, scrolling text and transitions. The end product may be as interactive as a video game, filling all or part of the Web browser window. That smaller space for words is yet another reason for writers to practice the clear, concise, active and accurate writing that we teach in journalism classes.

partly updated Nov. 28, 2008
but in need of much more


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© Copyright 2008 Bob Stepno.
Last update: 12/7/08; 5:31:35 PM.