The past two weeks’ readings taught me how the Internet is transforming the way we deliver news. Writing for the web is far different from writing for print, as is editing for the web. Although I found the “Writing for the web” blog post by Jim Stovall helpful, I think he puts too many limits and rules on web writing. He says we should limit stories on the web to 200 words unless there is a “compelling reason.” He also says paragraphs should be a maximum of two sentences and 50 words and that writers should only use one direct quotation per story. I don’t think we can apply these rules to every story on the web; it’s just not practical. Every story is different. Some require more sources, more explanation, and certainly more than one direct quote. Although I agree that web stories should be concise, sometimes we should take advantage of the unlimited amount of space to go into more depth that we wouldn’t have room for in print.
Besides the basic structure of stories, I also learned that the kind of writing on the web is entirely different from print. The writer of “Journalism’s Many Crises” put it this way: “Very few online sites practice the unearthing of facts. For the most part, they opinionate - which is a useful but parasitic activity.” In the days before the Internet, newspapers were often the first sources for breaking news, and the stories on the front of the morning paper were never old news. Nowadays, news spreads like wildfire. Blogs and other non-traditional media sites are often the first to report breaking news, so traditional newspapers must have something new to contribute to the story. News stories are becoming more and more opinion-based. This could change the face of news writing forever.
The reading on The New York Times’s “look up” feature reminded me of the lessons I learned working at The Times. Going from the copy desk of The Alligator to the national and foreign copy desk of The Times was a huge adjustment. Although most stories were very straightforward and clear, there were many instances when I ran across words that I had to look up, words that would never have appeared in The Alligator. Our first week, during our training, we had an hour-long workshop about Times style. The message, put shortly, was that The Times does not talk down to readers, whom they consider a very intelligent, well-informed group. They expect their readers to be familiar with intelligent vocabulary, and they also expect them to already know background knowledge about current events. In my time at The Alligator, I would always try to use simpler, shorter words. I was always taught to write like you are writing to the least intelligent of readers. But at The Times, they considered that mindset offensive to their audience. There were many instances where I had to look up a word in the dictionary, but the other editors wouldn’t even think twice about letting it in the paper. I also had to abandon my habit of inserting additional information about stories because The Times assumes that their readers have been keeping up with world news. It took me a good month or so to learn that you can’t always write for a 5-year-old.
Doug Fisher sums this thinking up well in his blog post on social media and journalism. Fisher writes, “Part of the challenge is how to effectively acknowledge and use the audience to broaden and deepen our journalism while understanding that the institution does not give us license to think we are delivering tablets from the mountain.” Newspapers need to stop writing like their readers are dumb. Many readers are just as knowledgeable, if not more knowledgeable, about news than writers and editors. Collaboration of news organizations with their readers is the key to journalism’s survival