In the first part of a five-part series, I explore how and why a talent for brevity is one of the basic skills an online journalist needs – whether writing an article or employing multimedia. This will form part of a forthcoming book on online journalism – comments very much invited.
It shouldn’t have to be said that the web is different, but I’ll say it anyway: the web is different. It is not print, it is not television, it is not radio.
So why write content for the web in the same way that you might write for a newspaper or a news broadcast?
Organisations used to do this, and some still do. It was called ‘shovelware’, a process by which content created for another medium (generally print) was ‘shovelled’ onto the web with nary a care for whether that was appropriate or not.
It was not.
People read websites very differently to how they read newspapers, watch television or listen to radio. For a start, they read 25% slower than they do with print – this is because computer screens have a much lower resolution than print: 72 dots in every square inch compared to around 150-300 in newspapers and magazines (this may change, but usage patterns are likely to stay the same for some time yet).
As a result, you need to communicate your story in less time than you would in print. You need to develop brevity.
Forms of brevity
Brevity comes on a number of different levels. At the most obvious level, shorter articles tend to work better online because most people struggle to read long documents on screen, or find scrolling too much hassle if they’re looking for something specific or succinct.
This doesn’t mean you should write a 500-word snippet rather than the grand 3,000 word opus you were planning – but it does mean you should consider splitting that opus into smaller chunks (chunking): six 500 word sections, for example, each with a particular focus. You can always provide a link to a printable version of all the parts together.
That said, don’t split arbitrarily, or for the sake of it: every webpage is a potential entry point, and users need to be able to instantly orientate themselves.
More important than the length of the article overall, within the article itself, paragraphs should be succinct. Stick to one concept per paragraph. Once you’ve made your point, move on to the next par.
This may seem simplistic writing at first, but you soon become used to it. It’s how BBC reports are written online – see how effective it is.
Brevity in video and audio
Brevity is equally important when producing multimedia material. For the medium that brought us YouTube, anything over three minutes is too long.
One simple technical reason is bandwidth – even now that the majority of users are on broadband, a significant proportion remain on dial-up, including overseas users.
Even those on broadband will not want to wait for video or audio to download, or their connection to slow down while they do.
As Andy Dickinson explains it, this is a non-linear approach. Because unlike with TV or radio your user can enter the story at any point they choose: this might be the interview with the witness – or it might be, more specifically, the chunk where they describe what they saw. It might be raw footage of the aftermath. It might be the contextual information.
In short, you are released from the pressure of condensing everything to a three minute package (although you can do that as well), and instead provide readers with a range of paths to pursue.
Brevity works particularly well online because it allows for more effective distribution: others can link to the specific element they are commenting on, or even embed it on their site.
What’s more, it provides the raw material for further journalism: a user might decide to re-edit the material to provide a different narrative; or mash it up with maps or databases; or they might incorporate it into further investigation into a particular issue – all of which further distributes your good name, and provides further material for you to build on.