What journalists do – the narrowing of the eyes

What exactly is it that journalists do?

The list in your mind probably includes doing interviews, going to political rallies, taking photographs, drinking too much, holding a microphone in front of the president, doing research, drinking too much, bravely investigating the doings of the corrupt, harassing celebrities, reading scientific papers and writing articles. Did I mention the drinking?

And yes, journalists do all of those things – though not all of them drink too much.

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House style… just a waste of time?

This post was originally written in 2013 and has been updated.

In America, they are called copy editors. In South Africa, in a journalism context, they are called sub-editors (or subs). They form a vanishingly small percentage of the world population, and yet they are somewhat powerful.

That’s because much of the text disseminated by the world’s media passes before their eyes and gets fixed, or changed, or mutilated, or left alone. They correct grammar and spelling, they rewrite clumsy phrases, they cut copy to fit an allocated space and in most publications they write headlines. So far, so familiar – most people who read newspapers or news websites or magazines are aware that such people exist and have a vague idea of what they do.
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Simple HTML for content creators

No one becomes a journalist or a writer because they are interesting in coding.*

And yet, here we all are producing content for websites – which means that the text we produce will inevitably be underpinned by code.

For all the everyday things that we do to text for the web, the underlying language is something called HTML (or hypertext mark-up language).
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Facts, opinions and the Jacques Pauw affair

In 2018, I wrote an impassioned article about “the Sunday Times issue”, which took a long look at how trust is earned and maintained in journalism.

That article looked at the traditional ways in which accuracy is maintained in the journalism production process, and supported the call for an inquiry into how a major South African newspaper got things spectacularly wrong.

That inquiry is now finished, and the South African National Editors’ Forum has issued the report.

This week, I had intended to look at what that report said about journalism in South Africa. But something else has happened: the Jacques Pauw affair.

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If there is only one thing a journalist does, it should be this…

Note: This post was written in April 2018. It has been slightly updated.

When I was growing up, there were clear divisions in the world. In apartheid South Africa there was the big divide between black and white. On the white side of that line, though, there was another division – between English-speakers and Afrikaans-speakers. And one of the consequences of that division was inevitable, at least on my side of the fence: school children hated learning the “other” language. Afrikaans lessons were dreaded and derided, exams and tests were got through as best we could.

And then came Mrs Visser, the high school teacher who made Afrikaans cool. She was thin, edgy and glamorously dressed (and given to smoking in the corridor whenever she could). She was passionate about Afrikaans and an inspired teacher. Suddenly I was reading stormy Afrikaans romances, and ploughing my way through Raka (an epic poem by NP Van Wyk Louw), newly in love with a beautiful language.

And that reading paid off – I managed an A in Afrikaans in my matric exams.

I often think of Mrs Visser when I am training young journalists. She understood one of the fundamental building blocks of learning another language: that you have to read as much as you can in that language. That, of course, goes hand in hand with hearing that language and immersing yourself in the spoken word.
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Simple SEO for journalists

Search engine optimisation (SEO) is not part of a journalist’s traditional skill set.

In fact, there are probably some journalists who don’t know what it is. And those that do know what it is probably think it has to do with the dark arts of marketing.

They would be right – there’s a lot of marketing thinking in SEO. But there are also good reasons for journalists to establish a nodding acquaintance with some basic SEO techniques. Stories written by journalists (or bloggers, or marketers) live online, and you want people to be able to find them – if only for reasons of ego.

But the Internet is a very, very big place – and there’s no guarantee that a reader will find your article about (say) a protest outside a local high school instead of someone else’s.

The good news is that there are some really simple things you can do to increase the chances that your article will rise to the top of the Google pond.

Here’s your guide on how to do that:

BACKGROUND

First, it helps to understand the various ways in which a reader might find your story online. Here’s a breakdown of what are loosely called “traffic sources” (traffic is the total number of “clicks” on your website or article):

Referral: Traffic that occurs when a user finds you through a site other than a major search engine (for example, when someone links to your story about the protest from their own blog article).

Social: Traffic from a social network, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or Instagram.

Organic: Traffic from search engine results that is not paid for (a reader searches in Google on “high school protest” and they find your article).

Paid search: Traffic from search engine results that is the result of paid advertising via Google AdWords or another paid search platform (your publication pays Google to boost articles on the website)

Email: Traffic from email marketing (for example a newsletter).

Direct: Any traffic where the referrer or source is unknown.

(Source: The Difference Between Direct and Organic Website Traffic Sources)

SEO STEP ONE: KEYWORDS

In this article we are talking about organic traffic: ways in which a search term typed into a search engine will produce a set of results.

Now, there are whole companies of people who devote their lives to trying to discern the methods by which search engines decide which articles to display – how Google will rank one story about a high school protest as more worthy of display than another.

This is a highly complex field, but one of the major factors in understanding rankings is the all-important concept of the keyword. To put this in its most basic form: if a reader types “high school protest” into Google, the mysterious algorithms inside the search engine will scan the internet, looking for content that has that exact phrase. If the phrase is buried at the bottom of 1000 words, Google will in all probability not “see” that story. Therefore, place the keyword phrase high school protest in the headline or in the first one or two paragraphs.

From a hard news journalism point of view, this is something that will happen naturally: if you are writing about a high school protest, those words will inevitably be at the top of the story (unless you are a really bad writer!).

From the point of view of headline writers, however, a paradigm shift is needed. The time-honoured tradition of the “clever” headline is not very helpful. Complex puns and erudite references mean very little to Google, sadly. To give another example, if you are publishing a set of five ice cream recipes, a print headline like “Five ways to chill this summer” is not going to tell Google to show your article to the reader who searched for ice cream recipes (though it does work on a print page where a reader can see immediately that they are looking at recipes). A much better headline for SEO purposed would be: Five ice cream recipes to keep you cool this summer. (And would of course make sense for the person who is only seeing the headline in a set of search results).

SEO STEP TWO: PICTURES

It’s important to remember that search engines are not very good at understanding images. The picture accompanying a story is a mystery to Google (artificial intelligence means this is an evolving field, but it’s best to assume the machine is not very bright). But a search engine can “read” the file name of the picture, the words in the caption and the “alt text”. Let’s break that down:

  1. If this is something under your control (ie not done by another department), always change the file name of the picture to language. So rather than a file name like WhatsApp Image 2020-10-29 at 4.49.02 PM.jpg, change the file name to Police at high school protest. jpg.
  2. The caption for the picture should contain the keyword, if possible. Rather than: Police surround the school in Joan Bloggs street, say Police surround the high school in Joan Bloggs street, in anticipation of a protest by XXX political party.
  3. Alt text is “the written copy that appears in place of an image on a webpage if the image fails to load on a user’s screen. This text helps screen-reading tools describe images to visually impaired readers”. If the content management system you use allows it, always write something meaningful in the alt text field. In the first place, you are helping visually impaired readers (who will hear the alt text). In the second place, your alt text gives you one more opportunity to tell search engines what your story is about. So rather than leaving the alt text blank, or typing “police at protest”, use your alt text to say: Police erect barricades at high school protest.

(Definition of alt text above from this really good article: Image Alt Text: What It Is, How to Write It, and Why It Matters to SEO

SEO STEP THREE: LINKS

Another highly complex SEO field – but to break it down to its basics, search engines use links to understand how articles connect to each other. Sensible linking tells search engines that a particular piece of content is worth looking at, because it forms part of a matrix of meaning. And both internal and external links are important. In any given story, it’s a good idea to link to your own related content (do a link to the previous story about the high school protest) and to outside content – do a link to the website of the political party which is organising the protest.

Again, these are good practices anyway: doing links to relevant related content is helpful to readers, and then the SEO follows naturally.

And that really is the big takeaway here: the steps outlined above are important because they are helpful to people. And because they are useful to human beings, it follows that they are helpful to a search engine. There are no dark marketing arts here: there are simply quick ways to make your content accessible to the people who matter the most: your readers.

Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your organisational or communication needs (coaching, editing, writing, social media). And you can subscribe to my newsletter here.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash