Headline writing for online audiences (and search engines)

Somehow I missed this excellent post about SEO for online headlines, by Patrick Beeson, online for two weeks already! Read it and learn how to write headlines that will bring a bigger audience to your stories.

Lucky for me, one of my forward-thinking colleagues here at the university asked if I knew any good resources about search engine optimization that he could use in his lecture on headline writing. I knew I had seen some in the past, so I went into Google to see if I could find them again. Up jumped Patrick’s post. It’s suitable for reading in any journalism class — and any newsroom, for that matter.

One resource Patrick did not link to in his post is a New York Times article from last year, which claims that search engines are eroding the fine art of headline writing:

Some news sites offer two headlines. One headline, often on the first Web page, is clever, meant to attract human readers. Then, one click to a second Web page, a more quotidian, factual headline appears with the article itself. The popular BBC News Web site does this routinely on longer articles.

Nic Newman, head of product development and technology at BBC News Interactive, pointed to a few examples from last Wednesday. The first headline a human reader sees: “Unsafe sex: Has Jacob Zuma’s rape trial hit South Africa’s war on AIDS?” One click down: “Zuma testimony sparks HIV fear.” Another headline meant to lure the human reader: “Tulsa star: The life and career of much-loved 1960’s singer.” One click down: “Obituary: Gene Pitney.”

I think this is not true anymore — a quick look at the BBC News front today shows that the headline on the story is exactly the same as the link you clicked on the referring page. BBC headlines must be between 31 and 33 characters, including spaces, to accommodate all platforms — including videotex and mobile phones. Even with that strict limit, the BBC writes some of the best online heds in the world — the right keywords are there, and you can see at a glance what the story is about.

This not only gives the BBC great “Google juice”; it also helps you, the reader, make that split-second decision: Do I want to click on that?

Managing all the stuff contributed by the public

In a widespread breaking-news situation such as the recent fires in California, a lot of news organizations would like the public to send in photos, video and reports from the ground. A post at the Veeker blog describes how the Veeker platform made it easy for KNSD-TV (NBC San Diego) to manage 1,704 viewer-contributed pictures and videos (as of midday Oct. 24):

  • 1,324 (78% of the total) were e-mailed pictures
  • 363 (21% of the total) were pictures sent directly from mobile phones
  • 11 (less than 1 percent) were video sent from phones
  • 6 (less than 1 percent) were videos via e-mail

What’s more interesting is an analysis of six factors that made it all possible. Two of these are essentially “Veeker is great,” but I found it an interesting read nevertheless. And remember, we’re talking about a TV news Web site here!

KNSD has put 37 of the photos into a slideshow. Each one includes the photographer’s name (upper right corner). The captions leave a lot to be desired, and they’re not geo-tagged.

I sort of prefer a search-generated Flickr slideshow, myself. I find it irresistible to search Flickr for every large-scale breaking news event.

(Link via Read/Write Web.)

Breaking news graphics: A comparison of fire maps

Xaquin Gonzalez Veira compared online news organizations’ maps of the California fires last week. Gonzalez, the assistant art director at Newsweek who is responsible for the magazine’s online interactive graphics, writes his blog in Spanish, so I have taken the liberty of translating and paraphrasing his post: California en llamas (California in flames).

Gonzalez had experience with massive fires like these from last year, when he was still at El Mundo, the Spanish newspaper known as one of the great powerhouses of news graphics. “Almost a million people evacuated and about 1,000 square kilometers burned,” he wrote, with a link to Galicia en llamas from elmundo.es.

On Monday [Oct. 22], all the online mapping tools relative to the fires were either down or functioning horribly badly. I waited to download some data at night …

With the 2006 Galicia graphic in mind, Gonzalez knew the sources to go to and had a clear idea, more or less from the beginning, of how to structure the graphic.

Newsweek map of October 2007 fires

The resulting online graphic uses satellite photos, population density, photos of the fires on the ground, and an interactive calculator to show the distance from one fire to another, or the distance from Los Angeles (this is very cool — look for it in the upper right corner of the map).

Indeed, unprecedented for a weekly — Newsweek, we posted it a few hours before the NYT: those who truly appreciate the work of Steve Duenes’s team know that feeling.

Gonzalez praised The New York Times’s fire graphic — “as always, excellent” — which shows the extent of the fires and their evolution over seven days, with the ability to zoom in on individual fires.

As I found out at the ONA conference in Toronto, I am not the only one who says, “I hate them,” when they publish some jewel.

MSNBC.com used a map from Microsoft Virtual Earth. Rollover boxes provide a lot of detail about each fire, some with photos.

The Los Angeles Times used Google Maps for one of its many maps (some are static; others use the slideshow template).

USA Today points to the USDA Forest Service map, Gonazalez wrote — I liked their own map very much, and I think it might be the most complete coverage of the story, if not the most detailed (perhaps).

Ay! The APIs: “However good and bad, they still had to be done,” or, “How easy it is to use Google Maps …”

I appreciate Gonzalez lifting the curtain and giving us a glimpse inside his world.

There is no shelf. (There is no Page One.)

Think about it.

I love this video.

5 things to tell the students

How much time did you spend online yesterday and today? (Pause.) Compare that with how much time you spent reading a newspaper or a magazine.

Last night I spoke to about 40 journalism students at a meeting of the student chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. My mission: To alert them to the role of online in their future career. (Your answer to the two questions might differ from theirs, but it was obvious from their facial expressions that the question makes sense to them.)

Why would you think you will have a career writing — only writing — for a newspaper, when you know what the habits of your peers are?

I’m not saying you won’t work for a newspaper, but the current students are telling us that they hear this at the campus journalism job fairs: What are your online skills? What is your URL? Where are your links?

The magazine people are in the same boat — the students just don’t realize it yet!

So here’s what I told them:

  1. You don’t have to be a programmer. But you need to have more than one skill. Another way to say that is, You need to have more than only print skills.
  2. If you have not taken any online skills courses at all, and spring is your final semester, and the intro online course conflicts with one of your required courses that you waited until now to take — sign up for the online course, and delay your graduation. Do you want to graduate? Or do you want a job?
  3. You can go home tonight and learn to make a Web page. For heaven’s sake, there are only 10 tags to learn. Learn HTML and CSS here. Free.
  4. You should not even be thinking about Flash if you never made a Soundslides. Download Soundslides here. Free demo version. See what kind of story you can tell.
  5. Every journalist can learn to gather and edit audio for online. Start here. You probably already have a digital recorder. Buy an external microphone. Download Audacity. Get busy.

This collection of tools, tutorials and tips will also come in handy: Journalists’ Toolkit.

Look at great online journalism work — here and here. Look often. Recognize the growing importance of video (like this one) in the newspaper newsrooms. Do you know how to shoot video? Do you know how to edit video? Realize that one person does NOT need to possess EVERY skill — look at the credits (top right) on this package from the Palm Beach (Fla.) Post.

Update (11:25 p.m.): See what a bunch of newspaper editors say about journalism jobs and what new hires need to know.

Video on the cheap

I’ve seen a couple of references recently to the Flip video camera ($119 – $149) from Pure Digital. Mark Hamilton (Notes from a Teacher) has written a couple of posts about this — he owns a Flip camera: (1) Point-and-shoot video: A review; (2) A Little Flip.

Flip video camera, $119

But if you see good-sounding video (Burma rally, for example) on his site — that was not shot with the Flip. Mark now has a Canon HV20, and in response to an e-mail from me, he e-mailed me this about the Burma rally video:

I used the external mic on the HV20 and did a bit of audio boosting on a couple of the clips. I always cover myself at events by keeping my digital voice recorder (Zoom H4) running as a back-up, but I’m fairly impressed by the built-in mic on the HV20.

Mark sent this example (video shot by his students) as a demonstration of Flip video quality. Or lack thereof.

More about the fires …

at Clicked — a blog from MSNBC.com that’s about breaking news online.

Clicked offers a wide-ranging look at who is covering the fires, and how they’re doing it.

Update (10:32 a.m.): USA Today has two very cool fire features online — a continually updated fire map, and an explanatory graphic that shows how that map is evolving over time. The latter is great instructional material for multimedia journalists.

The embedding of the “Wildfire Primer” (button at top, far right) is very nice. USA Today understands that it’s lousy UI to make package elements fly out into new windows. Hooray!