How many people work here? About half.

January 22, 2010

I was recently asked what I thought the ideal length was for an article on the web. It reminded me of a quip a previous boss would routinely trot out when giving prospective clients the red carpet treatment around our offices. To the question “How many people do you have working for you?” he would casually respond: “Oh, about half of them.” The point of his joke, and one answer to the question, is that efficacy is not a simple numbers game; if an article is good enough it is long enough.

Of course, it is rarely as straightforward as that and a writer for the web needs should be conscious of the way people read online. According to MediaCo’s David Mill most readers ‘skim’ and ‘jump’ online articles, enter via different points in the text, don’t like deep scrolling and find reading on screen more difficult than reading print. The corporate writer needs to be aware of all these considerations and additionally weave a business narrative that draws in and engages with a reader who is “already 10 minutes late for my next appointment, so if you could kindly get on with it and tell me what your point is…” Well, you get the idea.
It is a truism that writing for the web and for print is different. Michael Kinsley, reflecting on the differences in The Atlantic, argues that one reason seekers of news are abandoning the printed word in favour of the internet is not the convenience of technology but is a consequence of style. Printed news is, he says, too long and is filled with unnecessary verbiage, opinion and scene setting that correspond with a series of outmoded conventions that are “traditional, even mandatory”. These conventions have implications for online writers (avoid them at all costs) and publishers who when they recycle long articles from print to the web may be improving their bottom line but are doing very little for user readability. And when web publishing begins to resemble a Ford production line – you can have any sort of news you want so long as it’s cut a paste job from our morning edition – readers can rightly feel short changed.

It is impossible to talk about writing for the web without also considering how technology is challenging and shaping readers’ expectations. (And than you to those Twitter-conditioned readers who would normally drift away after 140 characters but have generously stuck with me this far). The launch this year of next-generation mobile communication devices, including the new Google phone and Apple’s keenly-anticipated iTablet, could change the rules again for how we want to receive and view news.

Emily Bell, writing in the MediaGuardian, says the emergence of such technologies could move us so far away from the page-centric world we grew up reading and writing for that “it raises the question of how long it will be before even the concept of a website becomes old hat”. Writers will need to acknowledge and adapt to these innovations so they have the answer to the next big question, whatever it is.


Content is king, but will it always be free?

December 15, 2009

In case you have had your head turned in recent weeks by the denouement to X Factor, Rupert Murdoch’s news empire and Google are engaged in a media scrimmage over the future of online content, specifically, over Murdoch’s desire to turn a profit out of his journalism posted on the web. The media boss says he would like to put his news behind paywalls, but this strategy is being undermined by search engines that provide free access to news, including content from his paid for titles.

It is not an edifying spectacle; Robert Thomson the editor of the Wall Street Journal set the tone for the debate when he described companies that aggregate news without paying for it as “parasites or tech tapeworms in the intestines of the internet.” He has also accused aggregators of encouraging “promiscuity” by undermining readership loyalties. I had never considered myself the web equivalent of Tiger Woods stalking search engines for shapely headlines, but it is a thorny issue and one that divides opinion.

Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson, wrote recently about the benefits of the internet –looking up where the actor James Garner was born, ordering Sunday lunch and watching funny clips on YouTube (his list not mine) – but also acknowledged its dangers: “The fact is this, if something can be digitised, it can be stolen.”

And theft is the nub of Murdoch’s accusation. Other companies, he says, are piggybacking on his content to generate advertising revenues for themselves – income which by rights should swell the News Corp balance sheet.

Technology writer Ian Betteridge says that the traditional publishing model – creating words and pictures into branded products and charging people to see them, then gathering audiences together into coherent niches which advertisers can sell to – has been broken apart by the internet which atomizes audiences and breaks down brand loyalties.

“Why is he (Murdoch) circling like a shark around Google? Because he sees Google differently to (almost) everyone else,” says Ian. “He looks at Google’s search results and he sees content next to ads – and it’s (in part) his content. Content and ads are what publishers do, and that means that Google, to Murdoch, is a publisher. The veneer of being a technology company is just that – a veneer.”

“And if Google is a publisher that means it’s a competitor to News Corp.”

Google recently blinked first in the stand-off by announcing plans to restrict users to five searches per day on a paid site, any more and they will be required to subscribe to the site. It is unlikely that this move will be enough to satisfy Murdoch who is refusing to brook compromise and is apparently courting Microsoft to put his content exclusively on its search engine bing.

There is a great deal of speculation about where this debate is going and the likely endgame for Murdoch. Ian says: “In any media revolution, the first people who make money are the geeks. The second wave, the ones who make the ‘serious’ money, are the businessmen who understand how to turn the stuff that the geeks did for fun into big cash. We’re moving into that phase now.”

And as for Murdoch, well, you underestimate him at your own risk.

A strange and troubling article

October 22, 2009

The writer and broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy died this week aged 89. An indefatigable opponent of capital punishment and a tireless campaigner for justice, he is credited with helping to end the death penalty in Britain in 1965 and for supporting the creation of a body which would review miscarriages of justice. More than 40 years after Kennedy wrote a play about the wrongful hanging of Derek Bentley for the murder of a policeman committed by his accomplice Christopher Craig and his book 10 Rillington Place campaigned for a posthumous pardon for Timothy Evans hanged for the murder of his child, the Criminal Cases Review Commission was created to bring justice to those that have been wrongly convicted.

Reading obituaries of Kennedy, you get a powerful sense of a man who was driven by a passionate belief in justice for all and determined to challenge authorities in the pursuit of truth.

I cannot help comparing those ideals and belief system with those of so much modern journalism. Jan Moir writing in the Daily Mail has been roundly condemned following her article “A strange, lonely and troubling death . . .” about the death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately, both for the insensitive timing of the piece and its implied criticism of the singer’s lifestyle. Putting to one side the rights and wrongs of such an intrusion into private grief (our obsession with celebrity culture means that particular courtesy is now rarely if ever afforded), Moir will argue that it is a journalist’s right even duty to ask the difficult questions to establish the truth. She would be correct to do so. But where she got it so badly wrong this time was to apply innuendo and presumption to create her own version of the truth which she dressed with highly loaded and crude language (“once again, under the carapace of glittering, hedonistic celebrity, the ooze of a very different and more dangerous lifestyle has seeped out for all to see.”) It is the job of the journalist to establish truth not invent it.

I can’t help but wonder what Kennedy would have made of the Moir row.