Late on Friday afternoon (February 5, 2010) I had an interesting discussion with a member of senior management about the difference between web news and the newspapers.
It’s no secret that Johnston Press is changing its operating systems, and part of that includes a redesigned website. The Grantham Journal already has its beta site up for feedback.
Tomorrow I am going to Grantham to see how it all works, hence the discussion with the senior manager. I explained I particularly wanted to know how the web edits and headlines are separated from print, as the system is integrated.
This was something he couldn’t get his head around. Why the difference? Writers, and sub editors in particulars are aware of the need for expressive, concise and witty headlines necessary for print.
However, those of us working with news websites are well aware of the need to simplify headlines for search engine optimisation (SEO).
When I was handed the newspaper websites I knew nothing of SEO, but as a web user of 12 years standing at that point, I had an instinctive understanding of how the headlines and stories needed to be written.
It seems obvious to me that journalists need to put themselves in the position of someone searching for a particular news story.
On Friday I had uploaded a video of fans queuing to see Peter Andre at the Holmbush Centre Tesco in Shoreham-by-sea.
My chosen headline was Peter Andre thrills fans at Holmbush Centre signing and the picture caption included the words Tesco, and Shoreham.
The Shoreham Herald version of the story topped Google on Friday afternoon, and the story was the most popular on the three websites it appeared on. My work was done.
However, the senior member of management couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t use that headline in the print edition. It’s not dreadful, but it’s hardly the sort of pithy eye-catching stuff you might expect.
I suggested the print headline “Fans scream for six-pack star”, and pointed out it wouldn’t work on the web, but had an element of fun for the paper.
Unfortunately the senior manager couldn’t understand why it would work in the paper and not on the web, and vice versa.
When I checked the web analytics I found “Peter Andre” was the top search term and high in the rankings were the phrases “Peter Andre at Holmbush”, “Peter Andre in Shoreham” and “Peter Andre signing at Tesco”.
It may not seem like rocket science but I have tried to explain this to a number of reporters who still don’t get it, and use print style headlines instead.
An example I use during the online journalism workshops I host at Brighton City College, is The Sun’s Gotcha headline.
I’ve read variations on the Gotcha isn’t good for the web theme, but the best is Shane Richmond’s post for British Journalism Review.
The “Gotcha” headline on a Sun front-page splash about the sinking of the General Belgrano is one of the most famous, or infamous depending on your taste, in the history of British journalism.
Yet no web producer with any experience would consider a headline like that today. The reason is search engine optimisation (SEO).
SEO has been around almost as long as search engines themselves, but journalists were quite late to cotton on. It didn’t really reach newsrooms until a couple of years ago.
The concept is simple. It’s about ensuring that your content is found by the millions of people every day who use search engines as their first filter for news and those who don’t search at all but trust an automated aggregator, such as Google News, to filter stories for them.
These people are essentially asking a computer to tell them the news.
If you want your story to be read, you’d better make sure the computer knows what you’re writing about.
It’s logical and simple, it’s strange how some people just can’t get it.