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Key differences between print and digital journalism tasks

The Word Factory - Digital Journalism High School Journalism Conference 2016

I'll be speaking at the National High School Journalism Convention next month. One of the things I was asked about a lot at last year's event was how digital journalism differs from print. I'm sure there are tons of opinions on this. I'm basing my list on my own experience reporting for both channels.

The truth is, good writing is good writing, regardless of how it's delivered. Strong, credible sources also are required for both. When it comes right down to it, for me, the biggest differences between print and online journalism come down to what I call technical requirements, tactics that make digital content more discoverable, easier to consume on a variety of screens, and more useful for engaged readers.

8 things digital journalists do that print journalists don't have to

  1. Multiple Headlines.  We provide clients with two headlines: one that serves as the H1 header (the big title you see on an online article) and a shorter one that's optimized for mobile delivery. Many outlets ask us to submit up to three options for each and often use some of those as headers for social posts. Learn more about how to write headlines.
  2. Meta Data. Though our bigger clients have digital librarians who manage meta/title tag, meta descriptions and excerpts/slugs, we create this search-related "supplemental content" for our smaller clients. We either use key words and phrases they provide, or uncover a few as we're backgrounding. Read more on how to improve search engine discoverability.
  3. Formatting. Because online content is read on everything from giant TV-sized monitors to tiny watch-sized screens, formatting matters. Digital journalists strive to keep paragraphs concise and to add elements that encourage and support skimming and scanning, like subheads, bullet lists and images.
  4. Photos, Videos & Graphics. Many digital journalists also are responsible for suggesting or sourcing graphics from archives, video banks or stock photo inventories. Again, larger clients may have digital photo editors or designers who handle this, but even then, we provide guidance on the kind of image we think best supports the article. Get ideas for creating visual content.
  5. Key Words & Phrases. I'm not a fan of parking low-competition key words into any copy, particularly journalistic content, but if you're writing well about a topic, chances are good that you're using a lot of the key words people use to search for information on the subject anyway. Pay attention to the terms you use to background a story (as well as the autosuggestions that show up in the browser bar and related searches at the bottom of the results page. Jot them down and if they work for your text or your headlines, use them. Get more information on how to use key words and phrases.
  6. Related Content & Contextual Links. Connecting engaged readers to additional resources is a crucial function for digital journalists. This includes identifying related online content (including downloadables) within the client's ecosystem that's listed by title at the top or bottom of the article or inline, and creating contextual links within the text that takes readers to content that provides additional context or credibility. These are internal links to archived content, or external links to original sources such as academic studies or government data (we don't link to other media outlets unless they are "sister" titles).
  7. Length. Journalists reporting for any channel generally have assigned word counts for articles, but in print, those are based on the news hole, or space available. Online, the criteria is related to metrics we can track related to time on site, engagement, etc. The research changes regularly, so let's just say to be aware of the sweet spots for digital content readership and work within them. Right now, it seems the preferred lengths are under 400 and over 1600 words. If your articles fall in the gap, look for ways to serialize it into, say, two 250-word articles or combine two closely related shorter assignments into one larger one. Here's what you shouldn't do: Pad your writing to meet the word count. Readers will consume almost anything that's relevant and well-written. These word counts are guides only. Keep an eye on your metrics to figure out the length your readers like best. Get more tips for how to write concisely.
  8. Atomization. Just like digital journalists have more input on images that accompany their reporting, we're often expected to suggest ways of getting more coverage of a topic, or more use of information. Several of our clients ask us to provide suggestions when we file our articles. For instance, could we showcase some of the data from an article into an infographic, chart or other visual content? Is there an audio clip from the interview that could be integrated? Does the topic lend itself to a photo gallery/story or slide show? Learn more about atomizing content.

Even if your boss or client doesn't require you to do these things in your own assignments, start to develop the discipline anyway. Knowing how to do these things makes you a more valuable team member or contractor.

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