Journalists of all types are being asked to learn how to write for the web. I traveled to London in September for a two-day course 'Writing for the Web' run by the British Broadcasting Corporation. So just what are people being taught about the web?
Every editor and publisher across the world understands that having a workforce equipped to write for the web is no longer just a desirable quality: it's a must-have. We know the digital revolution has shown little mercy – hundreds of staff have been culled as audiences move from print to online editions. Advertising revenue has fallen as quickly as circulation. To make ends meet managers have been forced to slash budgets, increase the price of newspapers, and cut costs on print quality. Newsrooms are getting quieter and quieter, and those left behind have to think carefully about where they see their role in newspapers. It's clear that if any journalist wants to continue reporting the news they have to learn how to communicate with their new audience – an audience which googles for news rather than picking it up from the newsstand.
Journalists are going back to school
There's no way around it. Writers of every genre and background will have to at least know the basics. When I ask fellow journalists how they feel about 'writing for the web' courses, they huff and puff, “I'm not changing my copy for anyone.” Or, “Keywords? Isn't that what I'm putting in my intros anyway?” The majority I would argue fall into a category of journalist who is enthusiastic about learning how to write for the web, but they'll tell you now that the office is so short-staffed they can't get the time off to attend the courses.
BBC writing for the web course
It shouldn't have been a surprise to find that when I arrived at the BBC training course 'Writing for the Web' in London last month, I was in fact the only journalist in attendance.
The two-day course was taken by Susannah Ross, a former deputy editor of the BBC World Service News, and has been an author and trainer in web writing since the late 1990s.
Susannah, author of A Simple Guide to Writing for Your Website, has twenty years experience as a journalist, so despite the fact I was the only journalist there (three were BBC staff, one was from a business background designing websites, and the other worked for a museum in London) I was hopeful the course would be directed towards those who write regularly.
The first day was split into four sessions:
- Introductions and Objectives
- Story Structure
- Summaries and headlines
Back to basics
I have to admit the first day was way too simplistic for me. The course outline said the training was suitable for “writers with experience on the web”, so I thought it would be bit more advanced than it was. I felt like I was back in my first ever lesson at journalism school going over the who, what, where, when, why, how questions and inverted pyramid structure. In contrast, this was met with excitement and wonder from the rest of the class.
Put yourself in someone else's shoes
I enjoyed an exercise where we had to put ourselves in the web user's seat. We were asked to find out information on how you would set about getting a license to supply alcohol at an event. We had to visit a particular local authority website and talk about our experiences of using the website. This was useful for two reasons:
- It illustrated how people look for information – by entering keywords in the search box, looking at the A-Z, or clicking on a headline.
- It showed how important site structure is to the user.
I would recommend this kind of role play to anyone who wants to improve their site structure. Get a friend to sit down and search for a product you sell or a white paper you published some time ago. Observe how they search for that item and ask them to describe how they feel about using your site. They may say things like: the writing is too small, the headlines or descriptions are confusing, the links are poor, or they may tell you that they had to click six or seven times to find what they were really looking for. This is all good feedback for you to use when re-designing your site.
This is a subheading
Then we got on to the subject of summaries, subheadings and headlines. I have never really understood why journalists are being asked to think about this. In any newsroom the journalist writes the copy, it is then edited by a news editor, and they pass it to the sub-editors who are responsible for writing picture captions, subheadings and headlines.
Journalists aren't asked to write a headline for their story - well, they haven't been asked yet. The Express newspaper in the UK have just announced they are to cut more than 80 jobs (mostly in production staff) to make way for a new editorial system which would see journalists write some of their own stories directly on to the page, effectively rendering the position of sub-editor null and void.
The idea that a journalist should write their own headlines was scoffed at not so long ago, but today it's yet another responsibility looming over us.
At the BBC training course we were told that the page must be scannable, and the way to achieve this is through subheadings, lists and bullet points. We were then given a news story about Concorde and told to split the paragraphs up with subheadings. The exercise was good practice, but there was no mention of keywords and how important they are in headlines or subheadings.
Phew! Day one was over but I was excited about my second day at the training course because we were going to be talking about writing for search engines.
What the BBC said about SEO
Susannah Ross told the class that writing for search engines was a “vital part” of web writing. Most of the class had heard of Search Engine Optimization but didn't know what it entailed. I had an opportunity to talk about Wordtracker and how keyword research could help inform SEO but as a glaze fell over each class member's face I decided to shut up.
This part of the class was really rushed in my eyes, but I think that's down to the fact that it can be incredibly difficult to get your head around. We were told to read an article on Ambient Findability by Peter Morville (who authored a book of the same title) in our own time, which I felt was a bit unfair as we weren't given the opportunity to discuss SEO further. There was in fact no discussion on what ambient findability is!
Ambient Findability: What We Find Changes Who We Becomelooks at how people navigate to your site and how they retrieve what they are looking for once they've arrived at your site.
We galloped ahead, with Ross telling us that there were specific kinds of text such as the title, meta data, headings, links, alt text and drop-down menus, as well as site maps – all of which can help search engines.
It was all pretty basic stuff but I wondered if this was a help or a hindrance to people. When you are faced with something new like SEO and a bewilderment of new words and terms, you want to know more, you want to clarify what's being said. There was little opportunity to get deeper into this subject, which meant it was relegated to a bystander of web writing rather than an integral part of it.
The final session was on setting up a website for a mock conference called Terra 2008 which focused on sustainable building. We had to build a website (albeit a very crude one) which had a home page, a page on the guest speaker and a booking page.
It was helpful in the way that I had to think like a web designer, putting the user at the heart of the entire process. This is something, which journalists are rarely made to think of. Of course we think of whether an article will be understood by our audience, but we don't think about how they use the website we publish the article on. It's not our department, but that doesn't mean as writers we shouldn't know what it's like to be in the designer's seat.
On the mock Terra 2008 website we had to put the lessons into practice by writing links, subheadings, headlines and graphics; and we had to structure it in a way that would be user-friendly.
As I left the BBC offices I had to ask myself "what have I learned?" I guess it would be that websites, much like newspapers, have to have an editorial process. We must all work together as a team to create this one product. As journalists we understand this collaborative process well but as we lurch into the digital age, for some reason writers have been made to feel they have sole responsibility for the success of an article online. Surely that's not the case? What I'd like to see are dedicated writing for the web courses, not just for journalists, but for editors, managers, IT staff and sub-editors as well. By educating the entire editorial hierarchy, newspapers will have the best chance of succeeding online.
To read further articles on Online Journalism go to the Wordtracker Academy's Online Journalism section.
About Rachelle Money
Rachelle is a contributor to The Web Content Recipe book
Nowadays, Rachelle is Communications Manager at Scottish Renewables.
She graduated from the Scottish School of Journalism in 2005 where she was awarded an internship with two national publications - The Sunday Herald newspaper and The Big Issue magazine.