editor on the verge

Online musings from the newsroom and beyond . . . by Yoni Greenbaum

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Same old content doesn’t cut it for online readers

March 3rd, 2008 · 6 Comments

Honestly, I don’t understand newspapers who present their stories online as if they were publishing them on a printed page. It’s not just that lack of subheads in a 37-inch long story that frustrates me; it’s the complete ignorance of any web tools that could enhance story presentation and increase the amount of time readers spend on the site.

Sadly, far too many newspapers continue to treat their websites as simply the online version of their printed papers. I thought that it was widely understood at this point that you will never grow your online audience if all your do is reprint only what is in your daily newspaper.

Take this story from The Journal News (Yonkers, NY) about the increasing frequency with which local police are arresting mothers who are driving while intoxicated.

“There has been an increase in the number of mothers arrested for driving while intoxicated with children in the car, said Bob Watson, supervising probation officer for Westchester County’s DWI enforcement unit. He said that more mothers than fathers are on probation for the offense.”

I would say that this is an important story that deserves attention. So lets look at how it was presented.

To begin with, the article comes in at 1,164 words or 31.45-inches (using the 37-words-per-column-inch equation). While that is not a huge story (a front-page New York Times story on presidential campaign fundraising comes in 600 words longer), it is not a quick read.

My immediate thought is that the story does needs subheads. During my initial read, I counted four places where subheads could have been used to help the reader navigate the story and to emphasize key points.

In addition to those two points, the story lacks any outbound links. I counted nearly a dozen instances where links to external sites could have enhanced the story including:

Perhaps even more important then outbound links, the story has no internal links. Given that the reporter cited about 10 recent cases, I would believe that the newspaper has written about more then just a few of them. And actually a look through their (paid) archives saw at least 20 links to just one of those cases.

And finally, along the same line, additional photos from previous stories.

I would argue that these suggestions only scratch the surface. An argument could have also been made, for example, for a video or audio-only interview(s) or even the inclusion of a poll.

Lohud is not alone, visit newspaper websites across the country, and you’ll find many similar examples of sites failing to engage readers. It’s a problem, I would offer, that has an easy fix. This is the type of issue that needs to be consciously built into the workflow, one possibility is to even make it the responsibility of one or a few people.

Don’t think that you can make all of the changes to add all the components I’ve suggested? Well, start by picking just one, perhaps previous stories and once you’ve got that a regular part of the process, add another.

No matter what you decide, don’t just offer the same old; that’s a mistake you might find you won’t be able to make for much longer.

Tags: Audience Development · Best Practices · Design · Editor on the verge · Editor on the Verge · Industry · Online · Tools · Traffic

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mindy McAdams // Mar 3, 2008 at 9:24 am

    You know the answer to this, Yoni — “We publish x stories every day, our staff has been cut to the bone, we don’t have time to ‘dress up’ the stories …”

    What’s key to your analysis is that SOME stories have legs, and because of that — because this drunk mothers driving story is not a one-day wonder — it would be well worth it to “dress up” the online story and then — another novel idea — PROMOTE it for more than just one day.

    The change in mind-set that needs to happen is one that encourages the journalist to stop thinking of every story as a one-off, a thing with only 24 hours of life.

  • 2 Marc Matteo // Mar 3, 2008 at 12:04 pm

    I agree 100% that newspapers often (always?) fail to what I call “webify” stories on the web, that is to add things like links, maps, photos, microformats and/or whatever else you can think of to make the story work in the online medium.

    And I agree 100% that they need to.

    But… who’s gonna do it? It’s a lot of work to do that kind of thing and while some of it can be automated a lot of it cannot. Computers don’t read.

    I want to see my paper do this kind of stuff but in this brave new world, niceties like “links” fall pretty early on in the triage that is our workday.

  • 3 Meghan Murphy // Mar 3, 2008 at 6:07 pm

    I agree with all of you. Not enough staff and not enough creative thinking about the web. I started off my career as a “predator” for Britannica.com – it was my job to plug in all those links and think of creative ways to display stories and to make their usefulness go beyond 24 hours.

    The other issue worth thinking about is how the web affects print content. I feel that our editors look at our website hits and say “The public wants crime briefs and weather and Orange County Chopper stories.” But who is that public? And do they really represent what our print readers want?

  • 4 JohnofScribbleSheet // Mar 4, 2008 at 3:15 pm

    As always, an interesting read. But what Mindy says is true, with cutbacks, how do papers move forward. Is it simply a question of more work on less pay?

  • 5 Michael Green // Mar 31, 2008 at 7:51 pm

    There’s a slight disconnect in your logic here: You want us to place outbound links in a story in an effort to keep readers on our site. That’s not a great payday for the time and effort it takes for print journalists to hyperlink their copy. In fact, there’s no payday at all, just a variation on the theme that print journalists just don’t get it.

    And you know what? We don’t get it, at least not yet, nor do we necessarily see the need to do so. All the tools that Web folks think are indispensable to creating a dynamic presence online are just that: tools. And the toolbox is getting so cluttered these days many journalists are suffering from overload. Should I brush up on my HTML? Go Digg-ing for Delicious links? Liveblog? Podcast? Database? The Webophiles’ stock answer: All of the above, even though most working journalists have limited understanding of what those tools are, much less how to use them. That’s not the most helpful approach I’ve seen advocated.

  • 6 My 2008 post: Google doesn’t fear outbound links; neither should you « The Buttry Diary // Feb 27, 2012 at 9:38 am

    [...] “editor on the verge” blog addresses links in at least two posts, “Same old content doesn’t cut it for online readers” and “Don’t let your lack of time hurt your readers” (this one addresses [...]

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