Since the first newspapers began running through the first printing presses, how news was written was guided (and limited) by the printing technology itself. Over time, even as technology progressed, many of those guidelines and expectations became standardized with online content.
Now, as print newspapers are in decline and online news and blogging are taking over, content creators must scrutinize and question the efficacy of sticking to these journalistic traditions with their online writing.
The inverted pyramid
Some of the limitations of newspaper writing quite obviously don’t hold with online content. Articles need not be written to fit a certain measure of column inches. For longer articles, “Continued on Page 6” has been replaced by a “Next Page” link if the story is split up at all.
More interesting, though, is how information is traditionally organized in a news story. You might have heard of the “inverted pyramid” style of journalistic writing: pile the most important details at the beginning of the story, followed by information of decreasing interest or import as the story goes along.
In the beginning, this style was a concession to printers. If a news story started to go long and the printer knew he was going to run out of space, he would shorten the story by cutting from the end — in which case he would be cutting the least important information in the article. With the inverted pyramid, a printer should theoretically be able to continue cutting until only the first paragraph is left and the story would still make sense and contain the most important information. That’s one reason why journalism students are taught to put the five Ws — who, what, when, where, and why — as early as possible in a news article.
The online sphere
Does it make sense to continue writing in this style for online news? There are good arguments for both sides.
- It’s good for SEO. There’s quite a bit of evidence showing that search engine algorithms place higher importance on the text at the top of a page than on text at the bottom. Whether this is motivated by Google programmers’ expectations of journalistic-style writing online or by some other consideration is unknown, at least to me. Regardless, making sure information about what a web page is all about shows up near the top can improve search rankings.
- It’s good for quick consumers. Some people want just the facts. Having the most important information at the top of an article satiates the quick consumer’s desires and gets them moving along.
- It limits voice and style. Lead a reader to an important piece of information? Not likely. Start with an anecdote? Nuh-uh. Build suspense? Fuhgeddaboudit. Not only the inverted pyramid but traditional journalistic style, in general, is very limiting. It’s designed that way. The ideal journalist states uninterpreted facts in an unbiased way. That doesn’t leave much room for style or personal character to show through.
- It won’t encourage people to stay. The thing about quick consumers is that they come to a site, get the little niblet of information they need, and then leave. Generally, businesses want to attract people to their websites and keep them there. If everything a person wants is in the first paragraph or two, why read the whole thing?
Also worth considering are the psychological aspects of writing structure. Have consumers (especially those who grew up reading newspapers) come to expect traditional newspaper style to such a degree that they’re turned off by other types of presentation? Are people dubious of a more creative and nuanced presentation of information?
Squaring away your content
Theoretical and philosophical debates are fun, sure, but, eventually, you’ll need to do something. The truth is that people on the Internet are so diverse that there’s room enough for everybody — from the headline hopper to the long-form lover. If you want to get the most out of your online content, your audience’s preferences are more important than your own.
So how do you know what your customers want?
It’s probably in your website analytics already; take a look. High page views but low time-on-site or an overall high bounce rate both can indicate quick consumers — people are finding what they need on your site and then leaving. The longer time spent on a page means people are reading the articles to the end. People who consume the entire post are also more likely to leave comments — they’ve already invested their time, so why not make the most of it? — so a healthy pattern of comments is indicative of consumers who read entire articles.
If your site visitor count isn’t what you want it to be, you might want to take a more focused look at your writing style and run some tests. Try a week of writing in a traditional news style followed by a week of more creative nonfiction. Watch the numbers for those two weeks and see which one gives you the outcome you prefer.
What about you? When you write content bound for the Web, do you think more like a reporter — an unbiased presenter of facts — or as a creative writer — thinking in terms of telling stories that hold a reader’s interest to the end?