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:


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)


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).


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


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

Journalism skills – what you need to learn (and keep learning) to succeed

In the old days, just four or five months ago, if I met new people (remember that? going out and meeting people?), if I was asked what I did, I would say: “I am a journalist.”

Truth be told, that doesn’t really cover what I do at all. In the lengthy process of re-evaluating my business this year, doing an online business questionnaire revealed that what I actually do is help busy people get things done. I take the skills I have acquired and put them to use doing whatever needs doing: writing, editing, proofreading, sub-editing, online journalism, social media, being a shoulder to cry on, making a plan when things have gone wrong, providing gentle observations about what I see, helping untie management knots, cutting through to the heart of a problem, keeping track of projects… you get the picture.

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From truth to ego: Effective journalism in the digital age

I was recently asked to be a presenter at a workshop offered by Safrea (the freelancer’s organisation in South Africa) – and given the topic: Effective Journalism in the Digital Age.

When I sat down to prepare for the workshop (which mutated in the end into a webinar), I realised that I needed to define what effective journalism means. The term was thought-provoking – probably because journalists themselves don’t often think about what they do in terms of its effectiveness.

Markers of effectiveness

The list I came up with ended up having two dimensions: effectiveness for the intended audience, and effectiveness for the journalist him, her or theirself.

In no particular order, my sense (based on experience and my own observations on this side of the fence) of what readers want is this:

  • Ease of access and readability – readers don’t want to have to work for their information
  • Fairness and accuracy – readers want to know they are getting the more-or-less unvarnished truth (but they will also want it to fit in with their pre-existing biases)
  • Education – people want to learn things (but not be lectured)
  • Entertainment – people want to have fun
  • A story – we are, as Terry Pratchett said, the storytelling chimpanzee, the Pan Narrans. Human beings simply cannot resist stories
  • Useful information (this includes a wide spectrum: from what is happening with the local train service to what is happening to my country, and from a timely recipe to how to get the baby to go to sleep).

Journalists want to:

  • Find things out, satisfy curiosity (see below about gossip)
  • Allied with that, they love a crusade, the opportunity to uncover a wrong or tell the truth (as long as it fits in with their pre-existing biases). They may even believe they can change the world for the better
  • Have their egos boosted
  • Have fun and be part of a tribe (journos are often misfits of various kinds, so hanging together is a good thing. Plus… they love to gossip)
  • Make some money – they want what they do to be fairly compensated (so journalism needs to get itself a decent business model).

How does that work in the digital age?

To satisfy readers (and therefore be effective) journalists need to:

Maintain all the old basic skills and values: Accuracy, fairness, balance, clear language, telling truth to power, public interest, accountability. Oh and the long hours and bad habits…. (see above about the tribe).

Tell stories (just in many different ways): Journalists need to master some or all the different platforms on which stories are now told, from video to Instagram stories.

Keep learning: Journalists need to keep up with trends and tricks, and keep upgrading their skills. This tweet shows how different things are from the days of the picture illustrating this article!

Keep an eye on the money: In the past: “Magazines and newspapers sold subscriptions to readers, and sold eyeballs to advertisers… we controlled a valuable pipeline to reader eyeballs, a pipeline advertisers wanted to fill with information about their products. Then the Internet came along, and suddenly, we didn’t own the only pipeline any more.” (Adapted from an article by Megan McArdle, Washington Post).

Now: To make journalism effective in the digital age, all journalists (from the most elevated editors to the lowliest of interns) need to spend every waking hour working on this problem. They need to research business models, write about them, and understand how analytics and metrics and trends work.

Keep the ego happy: All journalists are to greater or lesser extent attention seekers. It used to be the byline that kept us going, and now it’s social media. Pick a platform and start talking!

Above all remember the reader (viewer/listener/audience): The reader is king, queen, prince and princess. In the digital age, there are no captive audiences and no one is willing to read anything just because a journalist thinks it is important. Understand readers. Don’t make them work too hard, think about where they are: on their phones and tablets.

From text to gif, work on making journalism accessible!

Some of the topics in this post will be covered in more detail over the coming month – stay tuned! Follow me on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.

Main picture: CBC journalists in Montreal in 1944. Picture: Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (public domain)


Press freedom is all very well, but where’s the business model?

Advert for my coaching businessIt’s World Press Freedom Day and Twitter (aka the place where journalists talk to each other, while fondly believing they are talking to Their Readers) is busting at the seams with opinion pieces and calls to action.

I had no intention of adding my voice to the fray, but a piece by Glenda Daniels, Associate Professor in Media Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, collided in my brain with a thread I admired on Twitter recently, and demanded some opining of my own.

Professor Daniels notes how hard it is to discern the real news from the “fake”, and says that one of the threats to the public’s trust in the media is the decimation of senior staff in newsrooms. She mourns in particular cuts in the ranks of sub-editors, who she says play a key role in fact-checking. She talks about the creation of sub hubs: centralised sub-editing services, where “one sub-editor will end up contracted to two or three or even more titles”. She writes:

“Many of the sub-editors in these set-ups are not particularly senior, lacking the institutional memory that would allow them to detect factual errors. And those who do remain have no particular loyalty to one title, so feel less pressure to thoroughly, rigorously check facts – a process that takes enormous time, especially when you are editing scores of stories each day. What should replace those full-time, dedicated sub-editors? I believe that fact-checkers could be employed instead.”

There is nothing to disagree with here. I support the importance of fact-checking and its role in keeping the trust of readers alive, but I think there’s a deeper issue that needs unpacking too. Continue reading