Say Goodbye To Ye Olde Editorial Process

    October 23, 2007
    WebProNews Staff

There may always be a place for paper. This isn’t about that – the likelihood that print is on the verge of extinction – but rather how a new generation of editors and writers present the news in a digital world. The new format for news – there must always be a standard eventually – is evolving, as dinosaurs wheeze and choke.

Say Goodbye To Ye Olde Editorial Process
Say Goodbye To Ye Olde Editorial Process

What’s Formatting?

In print journalism, things are done a certain way, have been for decades. Editors and writers haggle over what’s important, choose an order and a placement for the stories. The Associated Press publishes a book’s worth of guidelines, dictating everything frm abbreviations to punctuation to how numbers are to be presented.

Never begin a sentence with a numeral, spell it out; spell out numbers less than 10.

The structure of an article is also crucial, born from the logistics of wire services and the method by which people read the newspaper.

The most important information goes first; details are filled in later.

This is called the inverted news pyramid. It works on paper because people tend to skim the headlines and the leads (ledes). The rules of writing for print are so numerous that no self-respecting editor, unless he’s memorized the whole of the tradition, is caught without a copy of the AP Stylebook on his desk.

I have a copy – in storage. I work on the Internet, where the rules are changing, and they’re changing because the needs and habits of the audience are changing.

Nobody Ever Asks About The Language — Stephen King

Some rules will be the same, though usability expert Jakob Nielsen acknowledges what all writers have to learn: passive voice sucks. It’s too slow and confusing. Writers should use active voice as often as possible so the reader can run through without tripping.

Following in the crotchety footsteps of William Strunk, Nielsen says:

[I]t’s usually better to write a positive statement ("do X") than a negative statement ("avoid Y"), and it’s almost always horrible to use double negatives ("avoid not doing X").

Nielsen also says beginning a sentence with a numeral is not only acceptable, but preferable to online readers scanning the page. But then he refers to something much more interesting: the information scent.

Information scent refers to the extent to which users can predict what they will find if they pursue a certain path through a website.

The scent is caught within the first 2 to 3 words (the first two to three words), as readers scan information in an F-shaped pattern. It is because of the information scent that Nielsen reverses himself:

Active voice is best for most Web content, but using passive voice can let you front-load important keywords in headings, blurbs, and lead sentences. This enhances scannability and thus SEO effectiveness.

Traditional editors reading this may ask, "For what kind of effectiveness?" This may be a matter judgment, though, and not necessarily a hard and fast rule, but passive voice can help readers find the information scent in the search results, where titles and blurbs or ledes appear.

It depends on the situation, of course. Maybe your initial headline reads "Reindeer mauls Santa Claus," but if you want the information scent to begin with Santa – if optimizing for "Santa" in the SERPs – you might want to rearrange to "Santa Claus mauled by reindeer."

The most important words – "Santa," "Claus," and "mauled" come to the foreground.        

Move Over Editors, The Readers Want Your Jobs

It’s not only the language that’s changing, but also the editorial process. Dave Winer, the one who brought us RSS and, arguably, blogging, has been tinkering with the New York Times RSS feed to develop what he calls the New York Times "river."

Winer hasn’t settled yet on the best way to deliver, either by keyword, outline, or chronology, but what he’s developing is definitely a way around the traditional editor’s choice of what’s important. The "river" displays article headlines and blurbs from the Times in text only, organized by the reader’s preference.

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg notes how Winer’s river takes the editorial process and ordering right out of the equation:

The reader who looks at Times River and says “this is how I want my news” is a reader who is saying to the Times editors, “Don’t waste all that time figuring out what to tell me you think is important.”

As Winer put it, “They [editors] have a very powerful internal gravity driven by a philosophy that their job is to arrange our thinking.”

At the University of Kentucky’s College of Communications and Information Studies, we often said, "The media doesn’t tell you what to think, just what to think about." This seems to be what Winer is bent on fixing.

There’s a lot more to this, but this is a Web article and most stopped reading 500 words ago. Too bad for them. They’ll miss a link to my Essentials of Font Philosophy article, a bit of a dirge for the serif fonts. (Hint: Only use sans-serif online; it reads faster.)