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What’s the difference between print and online journalism?

Friday 10 October 2008, by Jim Pollard

Online journalism is different from print journalism. Quite how different, nobody has really worked out yet. It’s evolving all the time. I hastily cobbled together my thoughts ahead of the first Online Journalism training course.

It’s harder to write for the Mirror than the Times. It’s harder still to write for the web. Here’s why.

People read 30% more slowly off the computer screen than off paper. And they read less carefully – scanning. You need to convince readers you’re good – and do it quick - to get them to stick.

Rapid updating onlineThis call for shorter sentences. Shorter words.

Unlike a paper, the web can add infinite pages so editorially you don’t have to stick to the point. You can provide extra context, metaphorical side bars and pulled boxes galore to expand a story in response to developments or reader interest. This is great but it means every individual story needs to be very tightly written to fit its slot in the package.

You need to know how search engines work. Writers often have to cram their search engine friendly words in right at the top of the piece.

You need to know how your CMS system works. It will pull in different numbers of word and characters to different parts of the site.

You need to stand on your own. You don’t get read because you’re part of a mag or paper the reader has bought for someone or something else. The reader has to want to read you. On the other hand, your copy is as easy to get at as that of the biggest name on the block. Nobody can hide for long behind status, the media organisation or even the sub (since often you won’t be subbed).

Six myths about online journalism

- Word counts don’t count online

Yes they do – you need to drag readers in to get them to scroll. How much of your story will they actually see at first in the average window size?

- Nothing lasts online

Yes it does. My Observer articles from eight years ago are still there. The print copies which were lining the cat litter the day after publication have now long rotted away.

- Any old rubbish can be published on the web

True. But it can be taken down pretty quick too. You can’t get away with flaky copy just because the page needs to be filled fast for press. It doesn’t.

- There’s no need to check any facts online

On the contrary, links show your sources while search engines mean readers will soon find you out if you’re wrong or plagiarising.

- The internet will kill off investigative journalism

Some say media economics have already done that and certainly the need for speed online reduces still further the liklihood of mainstream news providers investigating anything. But online you don’t have to rely on the mainstream news providers. Although the mainstream media didn’t cover the economic crisis until the banks started collapsing, small NGO sites, bloggers and others have been reporting the underlying problems and concerns for some time.

- Sites are so desperate to break a story, they write anything and it leads to mistakes.

That does happen but readers don’t then tend to go back to those sources. Publication is instant which means you really can break news and then edit later but you’ll want to take a deep breath –you can change it but you don’t want to wait until someone has spotted the libel.

Anyway, whether publication is online, in print or via semaphore, the NUJ Code of Conduct doesn’t change.

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3 Forum messages

  • Actually to "scan" a text means to read it very closely—I believe you meant to say "skimming".

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  • Possibly but language is about communication. It’s not a branch of mathematics. True, the process of scanning is a very detailed look. But the the purpose of a scan is usually to look for something particular. Think of any medical scan for example. It’s in this way that people tend to read webpages - they look for something specific, often a word or piece of info. Skimming to me suggests physically flicking through pages or reading something to get a general overview of what it’s saying - neither of which was quite what I was implying. Perhaps I should have given it more thought or expanded the idea to make it clear. But speed and brevity are part of all journalism and doubly so online. Apologies if my meaning wasn’t clear to you.

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  • In modern society, news media have become the chief purveyor of information and opinion about public affairs; but the role and status of journalism, along with other forms of mass media, are undergoing changes resulting from the Internet. Thanks a lot.
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