Thursday, March 31, 2011

Quick example: original sources, personalization

This is just a quick post to link to a real life example of things that I talked about earlier. This news story, published at Yahoo! News, reflects the use of original sources and using a personal perspective on a broader story. This article is about the weather, but I wrote it in first person using myself as an individual who is concerned about contaminated precipation being reported in my area, linking that to an upcoming storm, and then investigating those concerns to provide answers not only to myself but to the reader, as well. It also reflects my personality in what I think is my "authentic voice" for those of you who are writing for the various Yahoo! sites that list that as a desired component of featured articles.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Keywords and titles revisited

I've discussed my thoughts on keyword density and the importance of a news article's title, but I haven't discussed the two together, so here goes. I don't use any particular goal for keyword density, but if I am writing about a popular topic, I do pay attention to what the popular keywords being used by readers to find information about that topic are.

If I were writing about Donald Trump taking two tries to produce his actual birth certifcate, I'd look on Google and see that "Donald Trump birth certificate" is a popular choice for people searching for this topic. based on that, and because it is precisely related to the content I'm writing, I'd make sure that Donald Trump and Birth Certificate were in my title. At Yahoo!, Yahoo! Contributor Network, Examiner and many other sites, the first part of your title ends up in your article's URL which can help with search engine placement as well.

I would also make sure that the first paragraph of my article clearly tells the reader what the article is about, and I'd include those words early in the paragraph. There would likely be words in between "Donald Trump" and "Birth Certificate" because that's not a natural phrasing.

The first sentence might be something like "Real estate mogul, reality TV star and presidential candidate Donald Trump was able to produce an official birth certificate a day after mistakenly attempting to pass off a hospital issued document to reporters at a press event."

Thereafter, however, I would tend not to use the full name Donald Trump. Instead, I'd use Trump as in "Trump displayed the erroneous document while proclaiming the ease with which anyone can get their official birth certificate." I'd also use descriptors such as "The flamboyant Atlantic City casino owner has publicly considered presidential runs in previous election cycles as well."

Under the old keyword density paradigm, a writer might use Trump's full name every time they referred to him throughout the article. That would have an unnatural sound and seem awkward to readers. Furthermore, the term "birth certificate" would be used for every reference to the document. This repetition would detract from the writer's credibility.

When I read an article like that, even ones that I wrote, it sounds as though the writer's primary goal is search engine ranking and that conveying information is, at best, a secondary consideration. It certainly doesn't induce me to subscribe to that author's writings or to share the article with others.

With the tremendous influence of social media these days, by over-using keywords, you may be missing out the potential for your article to go viral and giving up more page views than you gain with top search engine placement. Don't ignore keywords and search engine placement, but don't let them ruin the reader's experience.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Title as a Promise to the Reader

Whether in fiction or non-fiction, the title is a promise
to the reader that must be compelling enough to make the
reader choose your book off the shelf or click your article
from a search engine results page.
Photo by Brad Sylvester.
Titles of web news articles serve many purposes. They help increase search engine rankings, entice potential readers to click on them, and a host of other functions. At it's most fundamental level, however, a title is a promise, it is a personal commitment from the author to the reader (and to search engine algorithms) about the content of the full article.

As with any time that one person makes a promise to another, the author's reputation depends on whether or not that promise is kept. At a higher level, the website's reputation or rank with search engines also depends on whether that promise is kept.

Let me explain. Let's use a fictional title: "Killer Hiding Out at Bronx Zoo." That's an eye-catching title that might cause someone who sees the title to click on it to read more. Why will they want to read more or to ask another way, what has the author promised them with that title?

By clicking on the title and reading the full article, the reader expects to learn who or what the killer is, why the killer is at the Bronx Zoo, whether the killer is still there, if there is any ongoing danger, and the reader expects to be entertained by it all.

Entertained? Really? Yes. If the author were promising only straight information without entertainment, the title would be less... let's say, mysterious and playful. It might read "Deadly Egyptian Cobra Missing from Bronx Zoo." By using the word killer, which normally implies a person in this context, the author is saying "let's have some fun."

The facts can be delivered very quickly and succinctly, almost police blotter style and that's exactly what CNN has done with the above-lined title. In about 100 words they have delivered the facts, exactly as promised in their title. They tell you where the cobra is, how deadly it is, whether the public is at risk, and what steps are being taken by zoo staff to locate the snake. Furthermore, the CNN report even explains why it's called an Egyptian Cobra as the inclusion of that information might be inferred by a typical reader from their title. The CNN article delivers on the promise of the title and upon CNN's reputation.

With our title "Killer Hiding at Bronx Zoo," we've made a different promise which includes entertainment on top of the facts. Our title reads more like a murder mystery, and so should our article. "Officials on Sunday released a statement advising the public that a dangerous prisoner has escaped and is still at large. The escapee remains highly dangerous despite the fact that it is unarmed, and indeed, unlegged as well."

To keep our particular promise, we'll deliver all the facts, but describe the situation in the terminology and style of a crime drama. We might ask members of the public to report any sightings to the Bronx Zoo, giving out real contact information. We'll use original sources like statements from the Bronx Zoo, but we'll also use other sources that help us differentiate ourselves from the traditional news outlets. We might use the social media pages of the Bronx Zoo for updates and public comments so we can include original content like "While some Bronx Zoo Facebook fans like Nikola Marijana Bankovic expressed fear and vowed "We'll be staying away from the zoo until the snake is located,' others viewed the situation more humorously, 'Cobras eat rats,' noted New York resident Julie Charles, 'maybe it's headed to 85 Wall [Street].'" We might include a pencil drawing of the cobra mimicking the work of a police department's forensic sketch artist, or a wanted poster. [Note: check the TOS of the specific social media site to see if using other people's statements is allowed. A really good case could be made posts made to the fan pages of public entities (like the Bronx Zoo) have no expectation of privacy and are de facto public statements, but I'm not a lawyer so check into what's allowed for yourself. Ask the help desk of the particular social media site if you have a question and save the response.]
We are not going to outcompete traditional outlets like CNN or Reuters with simple restatements of facts, and that's not what Yahoo! News wants us to do. They have access to wire services and their own in-house news crews for that. Instead, they are looking for Y!CN writers to offer unique viewpoints, deeper background information, and original presentations on popular news topics.
That's not to say that we should always take a humorous approach. Serious topics demand a serious tone, but whatever promise we make with our title, it should be different than the promises made by every other news service. By making and keeping promise with every single piece of content we write, we'll not only build our own reputation with readers while developing our own style and voice, but we'll also be preserving our search engine rankings and news feeds.

Monday, March 28, 2011

News Titles: Capitalization

When we went to school we learned to capitalize the first word, last word and every important word in a title. Important words were any noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, or adverb. Words not capitalize din a title unless they were the first or last word of the title were prepositions, articles, conjunctions, and the word "to" (as in "Man Tries to Bite Dog").

That applied whether it was the title of a paper we were writing, the title of a book to which we were referring, or the title of a newspaper article. Somewhere between then and now, the rules have changed.

Both, Yahoo! News, and several other online news publishers prefer titles to be capitalized as if they were an ordinary sentence. They say it is easier and quicker to read. A title which, under the old scheme, would have read "Man Bites 52 Dogs, Kobayashi Wins Oscar Mayer Contest" would now read "Man bites 52 dogs, Kobayashi wins Oscar Mayer contest" for either or Yahoo! News. For news articles intended for publication directly on the Yahoo! Contributor Network (Y!CN), however, the first version (all important words) would apply.

In the example above proper nouns, of course, still get capitalized. Oscar Mayer is the name of a company, and Kobayashi is the name of a famous hot dog eating champion, so they both get capitalized. The sentence style capitalization rules make the headline or title easier to read.

To complicate matters even more, the publishing tool on the Y!CN platform automatically converts titles to standard capitalization even if the article is for Yahoo! News. The Examiner publishing tool gives you free rein (or free reign, if you prefer - I don't) to capitalize the title however you wish, right or wrong.

The same capitalization rules apply to stand-alone sub-headings within a news article on these platforms. That is to say that if the above article included a subsection detailing eating contest opponents who have been defeated by Kobayashi, there might be a subheading called: "Eating Champion's Previous Victims" for the Yahoo! Contributor Network or "Eating champion's previous victims" for Examiner or Yahoo! News.

Friday, March 25, 2011

What keyword density should I use?

Originally Associated Content told us to use 2-5% keyword density (or even 3-6% at one point). There was even a general town hall conducted with that advice. They suggested using bolded subheadings to get more keyword reiterations in without making the article sound awkward. That worked, and I did it for a while, but it often made the article difficult to read.

Using synonyms and words that are highly related to the topic works pretty well, too, and doesn't lead to the same sort of awkward constructions. Personally, I don't measure keyword density at all anymore, and I don't target keyword density as a goal at all. I focus on writing something that I would want to read. To me, that means that there is real content in the article, and it doesn't make my head hurt to read it.

Nothing ticks me off more than clicking an article titled something like "Obama Birth Certificate Update" and finding an article that says little more than:
"The Obama birth certificate is in the news again.
One of the top ten Google trends this morning was the Obama birth certificate as controversy continues to swirl around this topic. When first elected, many Obama opponents mounted a public information campaign to try to convince people that Obama was not eligible to be president because he could not produce the long form of the Obama Birth Certificate..."
and so on, with absolutely no new information.

As a reader, I expect (or at least hope) to learn something new every time I read a news article. If I can't find something to give the reader in exchange for clicking my clever article title, then I don't write it. Even when I was chasing keywords, I tried to provide some useful content. This example of one of my early AC News articles (when I was using keyword density measures as requested by the AC news department) is still drawing good page views every month after more than two years: It is noticeably keyword heavy, but is still readable.

It scored well on Google search results when first published, but with all the keyword spam competition for the term since then it is nowhere near the top at present. So how are people still finding it? I can find incoming links from a number of quality medical information sites referencing my article. It is not drawing page views because of the keyword density, but because it provides solid, authoritatively sourced information.

In my opinion, the latter strategy will be more effective for news writers in driving both short and long term page views under the new model.

Writing a very high quality, short, targeted piece for the Yahoo! Contributor Network (Y!CN) is much more likely to get picked up by Yahoo! News. That is where we can score really big page views. I have seen a few articles there pick up about 300,000 page views in just a couple days, and many more articles that hit 75,000 to 100,000 or more from a number of Y!CN writers.

My most popular Yahoo! News article to date was not on Google Trends at all when I wrote it, although its main topic did appeared there later. (I'll discuss the sources I use for breaking news story ideas in another post on another day.) It was also linked and tweeted by The Drudge Report and a number of other popular sites, and given a featured position by Yahoo! News. It had more than 2900 Facebook shares, and hundreds of Tweets. That will likely NEVER happen with something like the Obama birth certificate article I described above.

I think the paradigm for attracting eyeballs to AC News (and now Y!CN) articles has shifted, and, in my opinion shifted for the better, with the popularity of social media platforms like Facebook, with the Yahoo! acquisition of Associated Content (AC), and again with Google's latest algorithm change. Consistent creation of really useful material (from a reader's viewpoint) results in more opportunities, especially under the Yahoo! regime. With the old keyword dense articles, I averaged something like 2500-3000/ article over my entire library when I was writing several such news articles each day. I made the top 100 writers for AC for the year 2008 with just six months of membership and a library of about 190 articles in total.

Having stopped chasing keywords and Google Trends and starting to concentrate on delivering consistently higher quality, I now have an assignment desk so full of recurring article requests for publication at Yahoo! News that each come with guaranteed upfront payments in excess of my average per article earnings for the old keyword heavy news articles. That's without a single page view, and without the various miscellaneous one-off requests that come through. For me, the math is pretty clear. In short, Yahoo! and Y!CN want higher quality news content with a much lesser (if any) focus on keyword density and, most importantly, they are willing to pay for it.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

What does localization mean?

Some web news publishers, like and some assignments at the Yahoo! Contributor Network ask news writers to contribute localized news stories. If news happens in your home town, that's easy, but if you happen to live in a little backwater town where the biggest news is that the only gas station in town ran out of premium gasoline for three hours on Thursday, then it can be a challenge for those unfamiliar with other ways to localize news content.

Localization simply means to make the story particularly meaningful to readers in your community. Depending upon the assignment or Examiner title you have, that may be your city, county, state or even multi-state region. There are a myriad of ways to accomplish this task for almost any major national or international news story.

A simple way to add a local angle to a national news story is to ask yourself a series of questions:

Could it happen here? Why or why not?

How does it affect my community? This one is terribly broad - thinking just about the tsunami in Japan, it could include such topics as: Will any radiation reach us here? Is imported Japanese food safe to eat? Has business at a local Japanese restaurant dropped? Will it take longer to get the new iPad (due to lack of Japanese made semiconductors)? Will the local Nissan dealer/factory face supply issues?

Are any individuals in my community particularly affected? People with family in the affected area, exchange students from the area, local volunteers going to help, someone just returned a day before the event and avoided near disaster, someone who had been planning a future visit

Is there a local expert who can help my readers understand the issue? Professors at a local college with particular expertise about the event or local rescue workers/firemen/ police/ doctors talking about the nature of rescue efforts in the affected area, for example

Have local officials made any statements about the event? Are we prepared? Does this affect the future of nuclear power in our state? Are steps being taken to address potential safety issues? Did the local congressman express condolences?

Do I have any relevant personal experience related to this event? Has anything from your past given you special insight into the event? For example, "Running a small family farm in Biloxi, Miss., we have experienced any number of weather-related or other events that have hurt my yield, but the thought of our spinach, cows, or the very ground itself being contaminated with radiation from a nuclear plant dozens of miles away..."

Even localized sstories about national or global news events require good research on the original event. You should include early on in the article all the relevant facts about the event (from properly cited original sources as I mentioned yesterday) since this is the foundation upon which you'll build the local part of the story. In addition, you'll likely have research at the local level, finding and interviewing someone, local news broadcasts, or newspapers. Even off-line sources need to be cited.

The plus side of writing localized content is that it is much more likely to be a unique take on an event about which many, many articles have already been written. The down side is that it may not appeal to an audience as broad as a national news item without localization. This is not always the case, however. Sometimes, particularly compelling local stories can find a national audience.

In any case, always pay attention to the guidelines, ground rules, and other guidance provided by the publisher for whom the work is intended with regard to localization.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

What is news anyway?

Having spent many years in corporate America, I cringe every time I hear someone start a speech with "I looked up (insert word here) in the Webster Dictionary/ on Wikipedia/ in the Encyclopedia Britannica and it gives the definition as..." So please forgive me.

For most of us the first thing that comes to mind when we think of news is current events, and Wikipedia pretty much agrees with that definition. Current events are news, but there are other things that fall into the broader category of news as well. From a web publisher's perspective, at least, news also include general background information that can be linked from current events stories.

This might be, for example, something like a historic timeline of a location, an event, a certain technology, or anything else for which historic milestones can be listed. Without listing all the various types of background information that might apply, any information that provides a richer perspective on a newsworthy topic is generally considered news as well.

Additionally, news may include ongoing situations that you bring to light. For example, I wrote this piece about the effects of eco-tourism on the Galapagos Islands. Nothing in particular had happened to make that an especially newsworthy topic, but I was offered an upfront payment for the article by Associated Content's news department (and later won a $500 Content of the Year Award).

This brings up back to Wikipedia definitions. "Journalism," says Wikipedia, "is the practice of investigation and reporting of events, issues, and trends to a broad audience. Although there is much variation within journalism, the ideal is to inform the citizenry." Investigation is the part I'm trying to stress. As a journalist or news writer, you can uncover an issue and bring it to people's attention without it having appeared in the news or in the Google Trends lists. In other words, you can make something news.

Let's be completely honest, though, in most cases, (with some broad exceptions that I'll discuss at another time) a detailed investigative journalism piece takes many hours (or days) of effort and will not be cost-effective for a freelance online news writer.

For the most part we may be writing about some news event that is already unfolding. Someone else broke the story, or it is a widely noticed event reported upon by all the major news services. What most reputable web publishers do NOT want is for you to rewrite someone else's news report, or write an article that looks like you did, even if you properly attribute the original author(s) with a link back to the original sources.

When you write about something that is already being covered, you want to bring something new to the reader. Whenever possible use original sources rather than someone else's news report. For example, when reporting about an earthquake, don't say "The earthquake occurred of the coast of Japan and was a magnitude 8.9 according to a report by CBS News." Instead go to the US Geological Survey website and use their figures as your direct source. "The US Geological Survey reports that an earthquake of magnitude 8.9 occurred at 9:17 pm local time, 10.6 miles off the coast of Fukunato, Japan." This allows you access to the original data, eliminating the possibility that you repeat an error made by CBS, and giving you the option of using data that is different or more precise than that reported by any particular news agency. In the case of the earthquake or an event for which you have direct access to original sources, you can report the event itself. "The earthquake happened, here are the details."

In other cases, particularly with quotes made by newsmakers to reporters, you may have no choice but to cite another news source, if the quote is an important part of your angle. However, in these cases, you have to go beyond repeating what CBS or some other reporter said and add something new. For example, "In a Sixty Minutes interview last night, Newt Gingrich told Morely Safer that he is considering a run for President in 2012." The rest of your article should not be simply providing the details of the interview as you did with the earthquake. Instead, having listened to or read about the interview, ask yourself, what else did you want to know or what thoguhts occurred to you as you heard this news. Is Newt the first GOP candidate of ths election season to form an exploratory committee? Who else has made an announcement? Who else might make an announcement? Does Gingrich's history make him unelectable? Is he too liberal for Tea Party support based on his previous statements? What has he been doing since he left office? How do the statements he made in the Sixty Minutes interview differ from statements he's made previously over the years? What does your town's GOP Mayor think of a Gingrich run in 2012? You can make a timeline of major events of Gingrich's political career. The list of potential angles goes on and on. In short though, the Sixty Minutes quote referenced from CBS is your jumping off point, not the main point of your article.

In either case, you want to use several sources each offering unique information that is important to the original point you are making. Every source used should be fully cited (citation format will be a topic for another day). Every fact in your article should have a source. You can't say "Newt Gingrich has previosuly admitted cheating on his own wife even as he trumpeted the importance of family values during while seeking the impeachment of Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinski affair," without listing your source for that information. It will be clear to readers that you looked it up somewhere, so disclose that fact. Do NOT use Wikipedia as a news source. Instead find some other source like a report from ABC News
. If you are drawing upon your personal recollections, then say so. "I remember how surprised I was when, years later, I heard that Newt Gingrich admitted that he was having an affair while deeply involved in promoting his party as the defender of family values in the wake of the Clinton-Lewinsky incident."

Sometimes, the news report is the story. After the Glenn Beck rally in Washington, for example, it seemed as though every news outlet had a different view on the level of attendance. In that case, my angle on the story was reporting on the widely disparate estimates by other news services.

News publishers want original reporting, but many have fulltime reporters who go out into the field and report major events. Others pull in reports from agencies like Reuters, the Associated Press, or a host of others. They want us to provide auxiliary material that enriches those reports or unique perspectives that isn't being reported elsewhere. That doesn't mean that you need to visit Japan to report on the earthquake. It does mean that you need to figure out what would be interesting to readers that hasn't already been widely reported.

The above is applicable to what I call straight news reporting. Commentary falls into a different category and I'll address that at a later date.


A couple of friends suggested that I compile some of the advice I give freely about writing news for the web at a single, searchable location. I decided to try a blog dedicated to the subject. I will post regularly, every day or nearly so. Each post will contain specific, actionable advice on writing quality news articles for the web.

I believe, and my own experience shows me, that well-written, original news content can find both wide readership and a paying market on the web. I don't pretend to be the world's greatest news writer, but I am someone who gets paid what I consider a fair return for my efforts in that endeavor. Like anything, writing effectively for the web is a constant learning experience. I hope that you enjoy what you read here and that it helps you in achieving your goals, whatever they may be.