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Writing

In this section:

In 1988, good ol’ cynical Randy Newman performed a song titled "It’s Money That Matters." Well, there’s good news and bad news there for Webbies. The bad news is, of course, that many sites (which didn’t exist in ’88) had a short shelf life and went the way of the Edsel. The good news is the sites that aren’t kaput learned a lesson: It’s writing that matters. Sure, bells and whistles impress techies, but you and I want to click on sites that are informative and easy to navigate. So the writing has to be clear and presented in easily digested chunks. Remember, our readers typically read our updates at work, so they are in a hurry and want info jewels without having to dig in the mine and search for them.

How do we help our readers? These sites helped me figure it out as well as I could (I first turned to my brave new media world mentors):

Combine those sites and the overriding lesson is basic: Writers must keep their readers in mind and tell stories simply and clearly. That also means old geezer print reporters like us must begin, today, this moment, to think differently. (Even visually and I’ll get to that in a byte.) We must think about the Web — and what to put on it — every day. Let me momentarily play the part of the microchip in the gray flannel suit and say that since we know our beats and our calendars we must give the Web editor an advance on upcoming events. Then we must write the story for the Web as well as a similar version for print. We no longer work for a weekly newspaper; we work for a daily news provider. This chapter, then, is a brief guide on how to think online and how to write online.

Before we get to specifics, let’s have some fun with generalizations: Technology means change. For print journalists, the change is about writing and design. Web writing is like broadcast writing. It must be short and punchy and enhance or amplify text with other elements such as video, audio or still images. So keep in mind a computer screen’s dimensions and limitations and don’t think in terms of a newspaper’s column inches.

Web writing is also like broadcast writing because it is about immediacy. On Sept. 11, as rumors were quickly spreading about what planes crashed where, people turned to broadcast outlets and the Web for information. The quickest way to present such breaking news under that kind of pressure is the ol’ reliable inverted pyramid. Jakob Nielsen, an engineer and Web usability expert, says studies show people don’t read an entire story. They want to know what’s happening now (what planes crashed where) and, if possible, what it means. But suppose you want to stretch your imagination and shun inverted pyramid ledes because you think they’re boooring? What to do? Take heart, there is room for fresh approaches, innovative ideas and presentations.

Just as Roy Orbison knew about the heartache of the lonely, the Poynter Institute’s Chip Scanlan knows Web writing. He says the online writer must inspire the reader to scroll through some of the story, just as the newspaper writer wants a reader to go to the jump page to read his or her deathless prose on the latest sewage plant recycling plans. Scanlan says Web writers do that by adding layers. Living in Buffalo, we know all about dressing in layers, so Scanlan’s concept should bring warmth to our hearts. But it’s hard because we’re not used to dealing with multiple perspectives. Those layers — whether links, or images, or audio, or whatever the imagination conceives — must accurately add new info.

 

Doing that creative thing

Right now, Business First and the Buffalo Law Journal are not set up to offer video, audio and other elements. But who says we’ll always be this way? We may progress, we may regress, but we can still use our imaginations.

Don’t think of how a story has been done before or what we can’t do. Rather think about what we can do better, even if we aren’t capable of doing it that way now. Maybe one day we’ll be able to run with imaginative ideas.

If we accept the premise that good writing needs good reporting, then links add meaning to a story. For example, if you’re writing about curling you might want to add links to Olympic sites, sports sites or various national team sites that could provide rules, history, anecdotes, lingo, etc. That background in a link frees you up to write the story you want to write that may or may not include audio and video, etc.

 

Giving it form

Write in a way that adds depth to the entire mix of an online story’s elements because such a story can merge the best of print and broadcast. Its layers can use text to explain why the story matters (as a print story would), allow the audience to hear or see human drama (broadcast story), and engage readers interactively through links, polls, etc.

For examples on how others do this, click on www.cyberjournalist.net/storyforms.htm. (A synopsis appears below, sans links to the examples. If we do get the capability to do any of these forms, know how you’re going to tell the story first, then use the tools to plan the story. That gives your audience a choice of the depth of their involvement.)

The writing life

Ah, finally, the nitty-gritty of this chapter — and it only took a few pages to get to it (thus ignoring Suggestion 1).

Suggestion 1: Know thyself!

We should be the prime source in Western New York for business news and updates that business people, who are working at their desks when they click on our site, need or want to know. This also includes local angles or updates on big news. For example, on Sept. 11 the main shovelware story on the Web site of The Buffalo News was about a drought in Erie County. The stories on its Web site did not change during the day. But we repeatedly ran local updates on a compelling global story.

People far away from Buffalo can read online news. Therefore, give every reference a meaning for ex-pats and other strangers. That brings up another point: Online readers are proactive; they hunt for information. If we get seven feet of snow in a week, people from Honolulu to Jamaica will look for us and click on us to see what it was like here.

 

Suggestion 2: Tight and bright!

When I introduce my newswriting students at Buffalo State College to ledes I always tell them, "First tell your readers what’s happening." In other words, a functional inverted pyramid lede starts with the ending. ("The butler did it!" "The U.S. men’s curlers are the sport’s new golden heroes.") That’s followed by the rest of the information in order from most important to least important.

Internet researcher and guru Jakob Nielsen used to design pages for Sun Microsystems. He and others have done studies that confirm a Web reporter’s worst fear: Web readers don’t scroll. Instead, they tend to scan through a story or manual. So this makes an inverted pyramid lede all the more important. Give the people what they want.

The Web is at its best when the writing is sharp and direct, using active verbs with a hint of connotation and that ol’ devil denotation. (e.g. "The market tumbled today …") Make the nouns and verbs do the heavy lifting, avoid overusing adjectives and adverbs. Some contend that writers should not strive for clever, humorous or conversational approaches. Jon Dube, the technology editor at MSNBC.com and publisher of cyberjournalist.net, counters that we should inject a distinctive voice in our Web writing. So what to do? Strive for the style that suits you and effectively communicates the story.

Regardless of style, our writing should be punchy AND literate — a rare hybrid of print and broadcast approaches. Write to suit the topic, keeping the story as long or as short as needs be to give it meaning. That means proper attribution (Did some living being actually say the words, or is it from a press release?); a thumbnail description of any business mentioned (What does it do? Where is it based?); and, if appropriate, a comment from those involved. (If no one can be reached, say so.)

 

Suggestion 3: "You got a lot of ’splaining to do, Lucy!"

Readers want to know not only who, what, when and where, but also why. What does the story mean to them and their businesses? Why is it important? Tell them. If necessary, use links to help explain.

This means don’t bury the lede and don’t pile on when updating.

Summarize the essential element and tell why it is important in the lede. Then amplify it in the rest of the story in an inverted pyramid format. Or think of it as a series of blocks piled on top of one another that a reader has to unpack to get to the bottom.

But be careful, too. Those same blocks can get in the way of a breaking story. With each update, be sure the story is complete. Go back over what was previously written and cut out the superfluous or old items.

Deep thinkers in journalism, from Poynter Institute scholars to independent and academic researchers, say that readers do not scroll through stories. So get to the news immediately. Roy Peter Clark at the Poynter Institute says any story can be told in 800 words or less. To learn how, go to www.poynter.org/offthenews/021302_goodandshort.htm.

 

Suggestion 4: Banish the boring!

So that means dull and short stories written in an inverted pyramid style should be de rigueur, right? Hardly. Go back to www.cyberjournalist.net and click on the award-winning examples. Those stories are alive because the writers and Web people thought "outside the template." Remember, it’s writing that matters.

For some good examples of newspaper stories adapted for the Web, check out these Pulitzer Prize winners:

 

Suggestion 5: "Breaking up is hard to do!"

Long gray or black blocks of type are deadly. There should be MEGLO (my eyes glaze over) warning lights at such grafs. So think: Can the copy be better presented in a graph, chart, or table? Can the sentences and grafs be shorter? Punchier? Hey, get my point? Would bullets work? How about subheds? Pulled quotes? Break up that long gray vertical line of text!

Engineer Jakob Nielsen says his research shows people read slower when reading text off computer screens than from newspapers. And there is also an impatience factor. Readers want their info NOW. So Web writing should also be scannable and splitable.

 

Suggestion 6: Link, link, link!

Use your news judgment to make sure you link to credible sources that can adequately provide any background or other needed information.

Also, since the hedline will likely be the first line of a link for others, make sure it is straightforward and succinct. Meaningful heds and subheds will tell a reader exactly what the topic is about and help in the decision to invest the time to go there. Help your readers by letting them know what they’re getting for their click.

Don’t be afraid to link deep within a site instead of just to its top page. No reader wants to go to the top page and then search. Also make sure to check and see if a site is still up; don’t trust someone’s word that it is.

The Web is link heaven. Don’t think in a linear fashion (a la newspaper writing). Think links. The resulting interlinked package suits the inverted pyramid style

And put this down in the "maybe someday" list. If you link to a specific geographic location, hyperlink to a map to show readers where it is.

 

Suggestion 7: Speed kills (sometimes)!

Don’t let the competition dictate what you will write. Be accurate rather than first. Readers will trust the accurate account; they don’t always care who got it first. It’s best to be accurate and first, but being right is better.

I attended a workshop at the Poynter Institute led by Andrea Panciera, editor of www.projo.com, in which we came up with a series of accuracy and fairness tips. The first two:

The other tips can be accessed at www.cyberjournalist.net/panciera.htm

Sometimes companies like to release news late in the afternoon after the markets are closed. Rather than blindly putting up their news release, we have to make the calls to verify information and put it in context. If we can’t get hold of a source, and if it’s crucial to get a comment or clarify a point, that might mean waiting until the morning to file the story.

 

Suggestion 8: Go to the Web!

For more tips and guidelines, check out these Web sites:

 

Checked pants & striped shirts

That’s right, I mean style. Follow guidelines from the AP Stylebook and the Business First & Buffalo Law Journal Stylebook. Just be consistent in a story.

Here are some other random and loosely alphabetized thoughts:

Acquisitions

The word "buy" is usually better. Also, a company press release might call an acquisition a merger. But do some checking: Was it a merger or was the company bought or taken over. If so, don’t call it a merger.

Bankruptcies

Make sure to give chapter and perspective: What did the company make/lose and what are its liabilities/assets? Were there warning signs? What were they?

Delisting

Why is the company being delisted? What was it last traded at?

Earnings

Put everything in perspective. A story should tell readers what a company’s total revenue, total net profit, and earnings per share (diluted) are. Do independent analysts or company officials say if it met, missed or exceeded expectations? (A forecast is sometimes toward the end of a press release on earnings.) What does Wall Street say? (A consensus estimate might be available by typing in the company’s stock symbol on Yahoo. Compare that to actual results.) Also be aware that sometimes a company will change a forecast near the end of an earnings season. If so, make sure to report it and include year-to-date results to give readers a clearer idea of a company’s health.

Quarterly earnings season reports are usually out in January for the fourth quarter, April for the first, July for the second and October for the third. But if a company uses a fiscal calendar then it has another set of release dates, so say what type of calendar a company uses. (Also be aware that many companies usually release such reports in late afternoon after the stock market closes for the day.)

Industry jargon

Write for a general readership that may not understand techie terms or the lingua franca of your beat.

Initial public offering

Use IPO on subsequent references. Look on the SEC Web site and write how many shares are planned, what’s the price, who’s the underwriter and when is the planned launch. On the day of the launch write the price the stock opened at, what it closed at and what was the high during the day.

Layoffs (n), laid off (v)

Stories should include not only raw numbers of workers, but also the percentage of the company’s total work force, what types of positions (blue and white collar?), when the cuts are coming and when they will end, and what types of severance packages offered.

Losses (see profits)

Don’t write that a company’s losses are rising or falling. Write that losses narrow or widen. For example, if a company press release says it had a $10 million loss instead of a projected $20 million loss, then the company narrowed its losses. If it had a $20 million loss instead of an anticipated $10 million loss, it widened its losses.

Marketese

Delete any glib PR claim that can’t be independently verified. Whenever I read something is "the most comprehensive," I have to stifle an urge to yell "Oh yeah, then prove it!"

Money

It matters. Use figures and the word cents in all cases. Use figures and a dollar sign in all cases (5 cents, 6 cents, 10 cents, $1).

Percent

Use numbers when writing about changes. Writing that Web reading is up 10 percent is meaningless unless there is some numerical context.

Profits (see losses)

If a company reports it had a profit compared to previous losses, then write that it "swung" to a profit. It did not post an increase in earnings since it didn’t have any previous earnings.

To and from

"Web readership rose to 10 million from 5 million."

Today, tomorrow, yesterday

Banish them from copy. Remember it’s the WORLD Wide Web. People anywhere could be reading our stuff. So use the day of the week.