Two topics on tap today: writing headlines so search engines and, more importantly, the readers who use search engines can find the story, and the Washington Post’s changes to and in its editing processes. Both topics are hot ones for students in my Intro to Digital Communication class, who this semester have spent quite a bit of time discussing changing notions of credibility of information online, online sourcing and applying disciplines of verification.
But first, writing headlines. This subject is fresh on my mind, having spent a good amount of time today editing Chapter 5 of a textbook I’m working on for Routledge/Taylor & Francis, a book called Writing for Digital Media. The chapter focuses on hyperlinks and headlines, both categories of navigational aids and ways Web writers can slow down us monsters of impatience hurtling through Web space like bumper-chasing dogs.
I thank The Virtual Chase‘s Genie Tyburski for pointing me to a column written by Aussie columnist Trevor Cook that discusses The Sydney Morning Herald‘s headline for the story on actor Heath Ledger’s death. For the breaking story in January this year, a Herald copyeditor wrote the hed: “Heath Ledger dies.”
Drab? Dull? Indeed, but that misses the point. Cook describes the Herald editors as trained in “Search Engine Optimization,” a skill any of us COM pros need to hone in a WWGD age (“What Would Google Do?). Search (and its sisters — filters, recommendation and ranking systems, taxonomies and folksonomies) dominates the Web. Key words fuel search.
The Herald headline generated traffic because people using search engines could easily find the story. Compare it to the Herald’s competition, from The Age: “Dead in Bed.” How would a Googler stumble upon the Age story? The key here is that Internet users aren’t searching for The Herald or The Age, they’re searching for information on Ledger’s death. They aren’t looking for a story that inspires them with clever headline writing; they just want the information.
Though lacking in glamour, search engine optimization is a multi-billion dollar business that is fueling how content is found or lost online, and at a time when news organizations are struggling to develop long-term profitable business models for online news, dull and well read beats clever but lost every time.
How do we write SEO-ready headlines? Start by selecting the key words that convey the meaning of the content. Think about how the content would be indexed in a book or found by Google. WWGD? Online headlines should be intuitive, not cryptic, vague or leading. Simply by reading a headline the reader should be able to grasp what the story’s about, as he or she can with “Heath Ledger Dies.”
As Cook cautions, writing plainly, directly, does not meaning producing the merely banal. By banal, Cook means wacky headlines such as those in favor at CNN.com, such as the recent, “Baby pandas! Baby pandas! Baby pandas!” Oye vez!
He also cautions or warns of a trend toward micro-measurement of media, of individual stories, of individual headlines in an increasingly fragmented media landscape. “Something valuable will be lost when the profit (or loss) is calculated on each and every story,” he laments. And he’s right, both in the caution and in identifying this trend. Both the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times have reported that most of their stories are accessed directly, through a search, rather than after passing through the online lobby, the homepages of their respective sites. This means those newspapers’ articles are marching out into the information world one by one, competing with the rest of the world on that particular topic. It is a daunting reality, but a reality nonetheless.
Did someone say The Washington Post?
Slate.com reported Friday of big changes at the paper in how its editorial team will edit copy. From an assembly line approach, a model that has been the norm in newspapering for decades, the Post is moving toward more of a network process, one that allows different editors to perform different tasks depending on the news need.
A memo from Executive Editor Leonard Downie also describes removing editing layers, or “touches,” increasing flexibility throughout the newsroom, and thinking Web first.
A pull quote: “We will create truer alignment of editing for the web and for the paper, recognizing that deadlines for many pieces are defined as the earliest moment they can be edited and published online.”
Specific changes Downie describes include
New assistant editors who will begin their work earlier in the day. They will “have broad responsibilities for moving early copy to the web and for the next day’s paper.” Here’s a change: “They will provide the first read on some stories and the final edit on others.”
A new night desk with responsibility and flexibility across the news enterprise, for speed.
New copy flows to allow for, among other things, continuous editing during the day. Wow again — an acknowledgment that pre-determined deadlines are increasingly a thing of the print past.
Earlier decisions. “Editors of words, photos, graphics and layout will collaborate more closely.” This new approach is precisely what Berry COM is re-configuring to prepare students to be able to do.
Fewer “touches” on some stories. This is the part where the layers come out. Downie describes A section stories edited by a half-dozen different editors. “Under the new model, many stories will be handled under a ‘two touch’ rule; they will have a first editor and a second editor.” Another Wow.
New tools for assignment editors. Hidden in this bullet item: “Working headlines will also be welcome from reporters when they file.” Again, it’s what we’re doing here at Berry. Cross training, collaborating, converging. Seeing it elaborated by one of the finest news gathering operations is gratifying.
Eliminating “meddlesome editing,” as Slate’s Jack Shafer refers to it, is of course a good idea. The concern is compromising the discipline of verification, the key differentiator between credible news gathering and reporting organizations and most of the derivative blogosphere (a description that is neutral, not pejorative, writes me, a card-carrying member of the derivative blogopshere).
And that really is one of the more intriguing online riddles: How to accelerate processes and quality assuring editing and fact-checking, while still participating in the breakneck, never-ending 24×7 news cycle of online, or retaining those aspects of first-order journalism that truly inform a self-governing democracy, while acknowledging the tremendous time pressures and at times overwhelming competition on any one story.
“We believe this evolution is possible while ensuring the quality of our editing and the quality of life of editors,” Downie wrote, acknowledging the riddle.