Archives for posts with tag: headlines

This session was aimed at print editors who need to make a transition into online editing, but I thought I’d come away from it with some ideas for what we should be teaching. Some of the most interesting information I got was about search-engine-optimizing headlines.

Dan Gaines of LATimes.com, again, was one of the three panelists. LAT is part of Tribune Co., which employs one of the more prominent SEO experts working in journalism, Brent D. Payne. LAT customizes each Web story’s page title, which is the title that appears on the bar at the top of the browser window, and that title is different from the main headline appearing in the content area above the story. (For those of you who know HTML, we’re talking about the <title> tag and the <h1> tag.) LAT adds literal search-term keywords at the beginning of the title, in a way that they might not appear in the headline. An example Dan showed was this story live now:

  • Headline: U.S. warships launch airstrikes on Libya
  • Title: Libya attack: U.S. attacks targets in Libya – latimes.com

Tribune’s theory is that the title is much more important to Google than the headline — and that front-loading the keywords is advantageous. So assuming “Libya attack” is a good SEO keyword, that gets prepended to a workable headline for the story — and the site name is appended, which I presume happens automatically — and we’ve got super-optimized display type. I’d argue (and Dan did, too) that the title here is unnecessarily repetitive; it could have been something like “Libya attack: U.S. warships launch airstrikes.” But you see how it works. We can’t specify a separate title in the Missourian’s CMS, but it’s a feature we could easily implement.

Another bit of information that I found useful came from Doris Truong, who’s an editor at The Washington Post and a Mizzou alum. She reminded me about Google Trends, which is an easy way to see what keywords are important right now for searchers using Google. I usually recommend that our copy editors dip into our own Google Analytics account to see what keywords are important to the Missourian, but that information is only good for stories that have been in the news for several hours at least. Google Trends is telling us what is hot at this minute, and it can show you national trending as well as regional trending. It also allows you to compare different terms. A cool tool.

This item has been cross-posted at the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s blog.

Much has been said and written by editors about the need for headline writers to understand search-engine optimization. This is certainly important, although it is really just a different way of thinking about something that headline writers have always thought about: keywords. I’ve heard much less about another aspect of online headline writing that we talk about here at the Missourian. I’ll call it “reader-optimization.” First, though, an overview of what we’re teaching and doing.

All Missourian copy editors get access to our Google Analytics account, where they can see what terms our readers are searching for, both via major search engines and via our own site search. In class, we cover SEO for headline writing, particularly the importance of proper names in headlines. And we learn on the job. For example, early in the fall semester, we figured out that our stories about Missouri tailback and newsmaker Derrick Washington were much better off when we included his first name along with his last in headlines. Later, when an underage Columbia College student fell off the stairs at a downtown bar, we began using her name in headlines when it became clear it was a popular search term. We insist on including “Missouri” or “Columbia” in almost every headline where that’s appropriate, way more often than we’re naturally inclined to.

But writing headlines for the web can’t be just about SEO. About 45 percent of our readers at ColumbiaMissourian.com come from search engines. Another 35 percent are referrals, meaning they clicked a link to our content from another website, or from an e-mail or a tweet. The remaining 20 percent — a number we’d like to increase — type our address or click a personal bookmark. These are our regular readers. They probably live in Columbia or have some tie to it, and they probably came in the front door, the home page, to poke around for the news that interests them. These readers aren’t so different from the print readers who pick up the paper and start on Page 1A, looking for the headlines that pique their interest. It follows that the headlines we write for these home-page readers shouldn’t be so different than the ones we try to write for 1A. Intriguing. Terse. Story-selling.

It’s common sense, really, and I wondered how many other sites were “reader-optimizing” their home-page headlines. I assigned my copy editing students to each choose a newspaper, find a story printed on Page 1 recently, and compare that headline to the headline on the home page for that story and the headline on the story itself on the website. Their findings? Most newspapers write snappy headlines for their print front pages and prosaic, keyword-laden headlines — SEO headlines — for their websites. But most don’t bother to rewrite their headlines for the home page.

Granted, some online content management systems make this impossible. If that’s the case in your CMS, you should complain to its developers and request a feature that allows you to override the story headline on your home page, or make sure that feature is on your list when you go shopping for a new system. Our CMS at the Missourian — a internally developed system based on the Django Web framework — allows our editors to rewrite all the display type for the four stories that are featured on our home page. We’re not consistent about doing this, but it’s our goal. We want the headlines on our home page to speak to readers, not search engines.

(This is also posted on the Reynolds Journalism Institute blog)

The Missourian is wrapping up a semester-long experiment designed to improve the focus of our website production and change the definition of a newspaper copy editor.

The assessment: It works. The changes could be implemented in other newsrooms – but only if senior and assigning editors let go of the print control.

Like many newspapers, we’ve called ourselves “Web first” for a long time, but we knew we weren’t really when it came to editing. The Missourian’s production rolled along the factory assembling line from mid-afternoon to midnight. Meanwhile, the website came together sort of auto-magically, requiring minimal effort on the part of copy editors to select a fresh set of stories to highlight on the home page periodically.

We decided we needed a radical change.

In August, we segregated all print production processes from the day-to-day operations of the newsroom.

Most of our copy editors, most of the time, would have no involvement with the print product.

Instead, they’d become “interactive copy editors.” They would focus on getting stories to our website quickly and accurately, on finding ways to increase reader engagement with our work online, and on making sure the website is always putting its best possible foot forward. The work of a copy editor would be just beginning when an article published.

A small team of editors and designers, working separately, would manage all the details of the print edition, from story selection to final proofing, piggybacking as much as possible on the work of the interactive copy desk. They – not the managing editor, metro editor or senior news editor – would effectively “own” the print edition.

It has gone surprisingly well. We succeeded in resetting the rhythm of the whole newsroom.

We’re no longer focused on the paper tomorrow — the print team worries about that for all of us.

Instead we’re occupying news editors and copy editors with the work of producing the website 18 hours a day every weekday.

We actually made the mistake of continuing to staff the desk lightly on Friday afternoons and not at all on Friday evenings — as we have since the Missourian ended its Saturday print edition — but soon realized that Fridays had become just like any other weekday — busier than most, actually. We had to adjust.

Interactive copy editors are in charge of our social networks. They regularly use Twitter and Facebook. But we can be more creative and proactive in soliciting reader input for potential stories, rather than just the ones we’ve already posted.

Interactive copy editors also monitor the comment boards at the end of every article. They take down comments that violate our policies, and they jump in when the conversation demands a Missourian response. We think copy editors could do more in mediating conflicts among commenters and soliciting comments on stories that ought to be sparking them but aren’t.

We need to be better, too, at figuring out how to create energy and engagement on the website when the news by itself just isn’t doing it. All these are on our list for tackling in earnest in the spring.

The biggest drawback to the experiment has been the print experience of headline writing for our student copy editors. While they still do an evening print shift every three or four weeks, it’s not enough experience, especially when it comes to headline writing. Writing headlines for print — in a space strictly prescribed — is a skill that only comes with intense practice. It makes them better at writing headlines for the website. We’ll retool for spring to rotate more copy editors into print shifts and, on those shifts, to increase their focus on perfecting their headlines.

However, the benefits of our experiment, which we dubbed The Transition, have far outweighed the drawbacks.

Our website has improved tremendously and, with our interactively focused copy desk, we see room for much more. Meanwhile, our designated print team has done a great job maintaining the print edition. Their exclusive focus on print has even improved the product in some ways. (See print editor Jake Sherlock’s separate report on that aspect of The Transition.) We’ll try to perfect the experiment in the spring. Watch our Transition blog (transition.columbiamissourian.com) for regular updates about what we’re doing on the interactive copy desk and in other aspects of the Missourian newsroom.

Now that the first-week dust has settled, I think we’ve been able to better notice aspects of the transition that are working and areas that could be improved. Laura, I definitely agree promoting the big picture is an area where we’re succeeding. I think most everyone in the newsroom is aware of what we’re doing with the website and print, and I’ve only heard excitement about it.

As far as I know, no reporters have been grumbling that their byline might not make it to print, which was something I was worried might happen. Instead, they’re motivated to get their stories to the website as quickly as possible (which will hopefully happen even more quickly once the reporters become experienced).

This week, I zeroed in on improvements that could be made at the print desk. We’ve hit the ground running with our designers, making deadline each night no matter how content is flowing in. We have a talented bunch, and I’m really excited to see us become more adventurous in our designs.

We did have an inaccurate headline written on the print desk this week. I don’t want to call anyone out for that, but I think we all need to realize even though everyone on the desk is working hard on their individual tasks, it never hurts to get more eyes on a page and dispatch it to the copy editor and TAs. I know the first week I became so wrapped up in doing everything for my pages that I barely used the copy editor and TAs, and I almost ran out of time because of that. This week, I used the copy editor and TAs for some headlines and edits.

We just need to be aware there’s only one copy editor, so we need to dispatch items at a reasonable rate. And if we’re still uncertain about something, we need to remember we can venture out into the rest of the newsroom and find an editor or reporter to answer our question.

Something else that could be helpful for the print desk giving the ICD access to the print budget. I realize articles that are going into print won’t always take priority in Rim, but as I watched the queues for stories that were going on my pages, I noticed a few times the ICEs were choosing to read unimportant wire briefs before my stories, meaning I had to wait longer to get a jump on my design. Maybe I’m just being selfish for wanting my stories to come in faster, but I think it’s something to consider.

This coming week, designers will be working on making use of display type and info boxes to really illustrate stories. I’d love to hear any of your suggestions for print, as we continue to branch out with our designs and content.