This post is adapted from a talk given at WordCamp US 2016 in Philadelphia.
To say journalists have a bad reputation is an understatement. In a recent poll of least trusted professions in Canada, journalists had an 18% trust rating, ranking them somewhere between Financial advisors and lawyers.
So why would we take any advice from them, right? These are the people who gave us tips like “if it bleeds it leads”.
But guess what, marketers and bloggers could learn a lot from journalists. Why?
Well for one, bloggers have an even lower trust rating, at 6%, and telemarketers, rank at the bottom with a 4% rating.
And journalists, for better or worse, have been trying to attract readers since before the internet. Over centuries, they’ve learned a lot about conveying information to short attention spans and building trust.
They may not have always translated it that well to the digital age, but there are deeper lessons we can learn from them and apply to our work today.
I studied journalism for four years before deciding I didn’t want to work as a reporter. I didn’t like the hours and I thought it was too fast-paced. Now I’m a freelancer in the tech industry, and I work crazy hours, and things move really fast so… can someone tell me where I went wrong?
But let’s get to the core of the subject, or as journalists call it, the nut-graph.
I. Know Your Audience
The first tip I learned from journalism is to know your audience. Know who you’re writing for. The language on a reputable news site will be very different…
..from the vocabulary on a gossip blog.
Let’s take a look at these two headlines for example. I mean, I’m not saying one is better. I’d probably read both of these articles.
When speaking to your audience, the intention is important too. Are you trying to educate, or create desire? A white paper will sound different from a restaurant menu.
This is important for companies because your target customer, their cultural context, education, and median age will inform your brand’s tone of voice.
Your objective of communicating is only complete if the receiver perceives your message the way you intended. It can only help if you know who they are!
II. Don’t Bury the Lede
The lede is the first sentence or two of your article or text. In short-form writing, the lede should always contain the most important information. If you don’t hook your reader with a good headline and a strong first sentence, they’ll bounce right off your page.
If you bury the information you’re trying to convey in the second or third paragraph, you’re asking too much from your readers.
The concept of “below the fold” in web design has a similar lesson. Below the fold refers to elements of the web page you need to scroll down to see. That’s borrowed from Journalism and the news stories printed below the fold of the newspaper. Essentially, anything below the fold is less likely to be seen, read, and clicked on.
Research across the Chartbeat network shows that if you can hold a visitor’s attention for just 3 minutes they are twice as likely to return than if you only hold them for one minute.
In fact, 55% spent less than 15 seconds on a page.
Does that mean you should concentrate absolutely everything in that top 600 pixels of space?
No, just like you can’t say everything in a headline. But you’ll want that first impression to encourage readers to keep scrolling. You want to establish trust and communicate value, and you have to do it quickly.
“But what about mobile?” You might be thinking. “The fold appears differently across different devices!”
Yes. Here’s a tip, and it may sound familiar…
Know your audience. You can find out in Google Analytics what the top browsers and devices used to access your site are. Design for those first.
III. Observe the Style Guide
Establishing a style guide means creating a set of rules for your content, whether it’s in the grammar, the tone, or the layout. It could mean that every piece of content uses the oxford comma, or that photo captions will always be 10 pt Merriweather.
A style guide is valuable for several reasons. It shows consistency, it looks professional, it shows intention, and it can become a resource for onboarding new staff.
It can also help cement your brand’s tone of voice and general brand identity.
When you study journalism, you’re told to go buy the Associated Press style book or the Canadian Press style book, and that those books are to be your Bible…
until the next edition is released.
There’s a reason so many newsrooms and digital publications use WordPress. It’s the easiest CMS for managing multiple authors and contributors.
For example, if you decide all your H1s, H2s, and blockquotes are going to look a certain way, whoever is editing a post can simply use those styles and you’ll have a pretty consistent result across your pages.
IV. Ask a Copy Editor
The fourth tip I want to share is to get a second pair of eyes on your website content. Traditionally, after a journalist files a story, it’ll be read by the managing editor for the quality of the content. The copy editor will improve the grammar, trim the fat, and fact check and a line editor will read every single line, even photo credits, to spot typos before the paper goes to press.
You might not have a three-person team for every blog post or About page you publish, but the concept remains the same.
And it’s not just about typos, but about messaging, information architecture, UX. All the things we might miss when we’re too close to our work. Sometimes, we literally can’t take a step back from it and need someone else to play that role.
V. Regret the Error
Why take such pains to review your content? Because publishing inaccurate information, broken links, and typos is just plain embarrassing.
In old-school papers, the section dedicated to the erratum always ended with “We regret the error” — because we should!
Depending on the type of information, it could be more serious than that and have legal implications.
Mistakes happen, and thankfully there’s a little edit button to fix pretty much any gaffe. Except if someone takes a screenshot of it, and then you’d better start prepping for damage control.
We’ve all seen what can happen to someone who sends out one misguided Tweet! Even if they shut down their account, that will haunt them forever. I believe the new term for that is a digital tattoo. I’m going to share a personal example of a situation that could have been disastrous for me.
Who here knows what nomophobia is? It’s a hyperbolic word for people who can’t be without their phones, or who get anxious being unreachable.
Well, it seems my auto-correct doesn’t know what it means because when I tried using the term in my Twitter bio, it auto corrected it to homophobia. For two whole minutes, my Twitter bio read “Tech, fashion, and homophobia”, before I saw the mistake, died a little, and fixed it.
What if someone had taken a screenshot? That could have been really really bad. Really bad.
But, I don’t want to leave you with that, because you shouldn’t be afraid to publish. Instead go, write, create content, and publish!
But remember your friends in the newsroom trenches. Remember to write for your audience, to lead with the important information, to follow the style guide, to get a second pair of eyes on your work, and to check again before you publish — just for good measure.