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Sunday, November 7, 2004

A colleague recently asked what assignments to give journalism students who want a quick introduction to "writing for the Web," so here's what my own class will be doing later this month.

In an introductory journalism course, I think a Web-writing discussion is a good way to point out similarities and differences in newspaper, broadcast and public relations writing -- whether online or off.

My students will discuss pros and cons of reading "print" news at newspaper websites, which they have been using more than the print editions. For a Web writing exercise, we'll write summaries, headlines and lists, comparing Jakob Nielsen's "usability" research at with the news writing styles in our textbook. (For examples, search his site for "inverted pyramid" or "promotional writing.")

More lecture notes

A lot of online news is "repurposed" newspaper writing, or original stories that follow old-fashioned "print journalism" ideas about inverted pyramids, tight writing and punchy headlines. Some sites emphasize their "up to the minute" aspect by writing in the present and present-perfect tense, like broadcast scripts, but others don't. Most recognize that strong headlines, informative summaries, scannable lists and broadcast-like "teases" can work online. For examples, see the home pages and section front pages of a few news organizations:
-- Notice the print-style stories, headlines and summaries at "broadcaster" sites:
Possible exercise: Tape a broadcast or find a news video clip online, then write a print-style story from the broadcast. Notice what gaps the TV station's Web editor would have to fill. (Check spelling of names, use more print-like attribution, time elements, add details...)

-- Web writing is not confined to news media sites; it includes writing summaries, news releases and lists of city services (or other PR topics) at

-- And it's writing the menus, lists, summaries, word balloons, slide shows, captions, video clips and scripts that go with "multimedia" presentations like those at (Topics there range from ALS to worms and sex)


Even the Web pages called "blogs" have varied writing styles, although both of the two major styles lean toward the first person and provide lots of external links:

-- Telegraphic personal comments on world affairs, technical topics or life in general, with links to evidence, news sites and other bloggers...

-- Longer personal essays that inspire dozens of people to join a dialogue in "comments" at the end of each original message.

-- Mixtures:
Here's more on blog writing (by me, for a blogging class; see other how-to links beneath the "Backgrounder" heading in the left margin of this page).

Hypertext & multimedia

The Web is about hypertext linkage, and news sites seem to make more use of background sources, discussions and other voices, although many save such features for special events. Rather than linking back to previous stories to inform readers, many seem to see their daily archives as a profit-center, charging twice the price of today's newspaper to pull up a single story from last year.

Meanwhile, faster connections allow Web writing to take advantage of multimedia and mobile technology, including use of cellphone cameras and podcasting audio weblogs, but so far I've seen more clustering of traditional linear stories and slide shows than really "writing to..." video and audio. The convergence watchers are on the case. For technical reasons, those issues are best left for another course.

-- Finally, a lot of writing for the Web (for better or for worse) is just building annotated lists of things. My examples are my own home page and various lists for reporters:
(Those examples, especially the last one, are also a warning that Web things may never get "finished." They also get old, have many expired links or dated descriptions -- and may remain useful anyway.)

11:23:51 AM    

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