As newspapers make the transition from print to online, they need to understand the importance of adjusting their editorial style to fit the new medium.
I should quote Marshall McLuhan, but years ago I worked with tech writer and information architect Freda Salatino, who used to say (in her Long Island accent), “When you create an online help system from a user guide, don’t just schlep the book online.” Like McLuhan, her point was that online is used differently from print, and that certainly holds true for news as well.
The easiest and most important lesson is in how you use images. Print papers don’t put a photo with ever story. With online stories, photos should be the rule, not the exception. Online is now a multimedia experience. This is in part why forward-thinking news executives like John Paton issued Flip video cameras to all his journalists, and why every reporter in the DNAinfo newsroom carries a camera. With smartphones now boasting high-resolution cameras and high-def video, there is no longer an excuse for a journalist not carrying a camera in his or her pocket.
Why can’t you ignore putting photos on the bulk of your stories? Here are a few good reasons:
- Every story is your home page—your front page. Unless you are a hugely trusted brand, up to 90% of your online traffic is coming from search engines. (Don’t believe it? See my previous post about what you can learn from site analytics and go check for yourself.) Even if you are a trusted brand, meaning that you have a huge number of repeat visitors to your home page, it still means that perhaps 50% of your traffic is coming from a search engine. This means that your readers are first seeing your site from the perspective of a story page. Would you ever have a front page with no photos? I don’t think so.
- There are also significant search engine optimization (SEO) benefits in putting images on every story. Search engines like Google give higher ranking to web pages with photos, as long as the photos are properly tagged with metadata (the title and alt tags should contain relevant descriptive text, rich in keywords—see my post about how to SEO for news). So if you want your story to be discovered by readers, put in photos.
- Yes, journalists write for humans, not search engines. But online journalists also know that humans are image-hungry. It’s in our nature. This is a lesson learned over a decade ago by Silicon Valley startups. Whether you post an item to sell on eBay, or list your professional profile on LinkedIn, or search for a mate on Match.com, a photo will always garner you far more interest—more clicks. (I can’t even begin to describe the importance of images on social media sites like Facebook!)
- There is also another driver that we should not ignore: revenue. More clicks (more pageviews in the parlance of banner advertising and Google Analytics) almost always means more revenue, because the more pages viewed the higher your return on advertising (note that the Audit Bureau of Circulations, or ABC, is now ranking online circulation). Slideshows are one of the most effective journalistic weapons in driving revenue: a slideshow not only mesmerizes readers, it causes increased numbers of clicks to be recorded. Properly coded, even a self-running slideshow, and even one that displays within a web page, can log a “pageview” for each image rendered.
This is why digital media geniuses, like the folks at Huffington Post, rely so much on images. (HuffPo knows how to grow a user base, use SEO, leverage digital media.) Even when there is no image, they generally use a thumbnail image of the blogger or columnist.
Look at The New York Times; they now use a significant number of thumbnail images on their home page. Look especially at the bottom half of the page below the fold, where thumbnails next to their “lesser headlines” serve to draw in the reader.
In successful digital news outlets, like The Washington Post, you have to look hard to find stories without images. Sure imageless stories will always exist; not every story is appropriate for photo-imagery. And I’m not saying you should stop writing important stories just because you can’t match a photo to them. What I am saying is simply to use as many photos as appropriate for online media—if you want your stories to be seen.