8 tips for writing good web headlines

A very basic guide for people who write for the web and find themselves trying to build an audience.

ONE. Give people a reason to click

Why is your work worth anyone’s attention? That’s not a mean question: you must think it’s worth people’s time, otherwise why publish at all? So your headline has to explain in some way why they should click on you, why they should care about your thing ahead of the seventy billion other things people are trying to make them care about right now. If you can’t work out a value proposition and express it clearly in a headline, it might be worth editing your piece.

TWO. It has to work out of context

In print, you have lots of elements to work with that can tell a reader what something’s about – intros, pull quotes, images and head all work together. On the web, even if your site uses all those things as part of its design, your headline is going to appear in many places you can’t control, all on its own. Twitter, Facebook, Google and any number of other social sites are going to strip it from its context and force it to perform. If it doesn’t make sense when you look at it on its own, it won’t work as a web head.

THREE. It should probably mention what the piece is about

That might sound obvious, but it’s worth stating – it’s surprising how many fascinating pieces have incredibly obscure headlines. Anyone who finds you through search because they’re looking for the thing you’re talking about is almost certainly going to be lost if you don’t mention it in the headline.

FOUR. People like lists

That doesn’t mean you should write a list if your piece isn’t already a list. But if you’re writing a list and you don’t take the opportunity to use a number in the headline, you’re probably missing a trick.

FIVE. People like useful

This ought to be self-evident. Are you giving people instructions, a helpful way to do things, or information they might find useful? Then make sure your headline says so.

SIX. Don’t make promises you can’t keep

Make sure people know they can trust what they’re clicking on. Don’t pretend what you’ve written is better or more comprehensive or more emotional than it is. No one likes feeling foolish or disappointed, and people aren’t going to share things that create those feelings.

SEVEN. Keep it snappy

Too long, and it’s going to end up truncated in most of the places that count – Twitter has a character limit, Google has a display limit – and look ugly on your site on mobile, unless you’re specifically designing for it. You’re going to lose attention. Simple tends to be better; shorter tends to be better; if you can make it elegant, alliterative or amusing at the same time, that’s icing on the cake.

EIGHT. Work out what your audience responds to

This is the golden rule. It’s one reason why Upworthy is so good at the sharing game: Upworthy’s headlines are designed around two clauses, one with an emotional pull, because that’s what its core audience of mothers shares most. If you’re making things aimed at a certain audience and you know they respond to a certain type of sell, then you can cheerfully ignore the rest of this list, safe in the knowledge that your readers won’t care.

Powerful Voices: useful resources

On Friday I was part of Powerful Voices, an event that helped young people create and refine ideas that would use social media to help effect social change.

By the time I got involved the young people – some university students, some graduates – had already put together four very well-thought-out ideas, refined them and pitched them to a panel of experts. My role on Friday was as part of a round table discussion looking at the future of social media and the wider web, and the funding possibilities that could help keep their projects alive and see them have a real impact.

Everyone involved was hugely enthusiastic and brightly hopeful for the future. These were people for whom the idea of running a non-profit and getting elbows-deep in the business side of things seemed a natural step – people with brave ideas who want to use new media to change the world. Here’s what they came up with:

  • The pop-up library project imagines a future where library services are totally mobile and completely adaptable, bringing very specific services to very local communities.
  • Communiteering is aimed at giving people a simple way to volunteer as much or as little as they wish, and to receive recognition for their work – something to go on a CV.
  • Handshake is a service built on the idea of connecting small projects in need of expertise with experts who can provide it.
  • And the final project hopes to help out unemployed graduates by encouraging creative approaches to getting on the career ladder.

The discussion hit on three big areas where the world is changing – the digital divide, open data, and the rise of gaming. I’ll talk more about these in posts over the next few days, I hope – there’s a lot to be said. What I want to do here is provide a resource for some of the concepts I brought into the conversation. So here goes:


Driving innovation: pie in the sky

This post forms part of the third Carnival of Journalism – a monthly blog carnival focussing on, well, journalism. It’s my first time taking the plunge to properly join in.

This month, the focus is driving innovation, with detailed prompts looking at either the Knight News Challenge or the Reynolds Fellows programme – both fine endeavours aimed at encouraging journalism innovation. But while I was researching them, I fell to thinking what I might do if I had a vast pot of money and was asked to use it to drive innovation.

These are my pie-in-the-sky idealistic naive ideas. This is what I’d do, if I ruled the world.

Training. Fellowships are great at rewarding the very best and the very brightest – the people who’ve already proven themselves. But there are huge pools of talent further down the ladder, people who are hungry and excited and want chances and learning. I’d offer training opportunities, broker partnerships between educators and news organisations, and champion ongoing education in journalism. And of course it’d run courses, my imaginary magic organisation with infinite funds – it’d help fill in skills gaps for older workers and help hold the NCTJ to account when it came to teaching the skills needed in innovative newsrooms.

Partnerships. It’s easy to see where the links should be sometimes, but incredibly hard to make them happen. Individuals benefit from being round the same table with people from different industries and with different viewpoints, at all levels of business. I’d develop a sort of “skills swap” fellowship, encouraging organisations focussing on news, web development, technology, gaming, data and other relevant areas to essentially trade employees for a while, so that their guys learned new skills and their teams were exposed to new ideas. I’d aim for it to spark innovative ideas within larger organisations, and the swappers would have to create a Journalism Thing – in co-operation with each other and with their organisations – as part of their participation.

Intersections. Like every industry, journalism needs injections of ideas outside its existing sphere in order to avoid disappearing inside its own navel. There are dozens of areas with things to teach journalism, and journalism has a huge amount to teach – so one of my organisational remits would be to run events to bring those worlds together. Traditional conferences, hack days, foo camps; strategy events for managers and making-things days for practitioners. All aimed at sparking ideas, creating connections and, yes, driving innovation.

Startup loans. The Knight News Challenge is a brilliant way of getting people started – but they build a competition which necessarily means hundreds of fantastic ideas lose out. We need that, but I think the startup ecology also needs finance options when they hit hard times, or when they want to expand. And with a dramatic lack of lending going on right now, a startup loan fund aimed at journalism projects could help provide short- or even long-term finance to help build a successful innovation ecology.

Resources. Legal support and training. Business information. Links to the academic community, to the business community, to investors of various types; research fellowships, practical workshops, hotdesking office space, a “library” of tech kit (camcorders, laptops, software, hardware) for innovative projects to lease at a smaller incremental cost than buying it out. My magical organisation would be a nexus of conversation about and resources for innovation in journalism, and a big part of our remit would be to not only build those resources but also get them to where they’re needed.

So that’s me. What would you do?

Live tweeting tips

Between the Budget and the march I’ve been doing a fair bit of live tweeting over the last week or so. Here are the principles I follow when I’m doing this sort of live reporting, wbether it’s live on the ground at a breaking news event or curating in front of a screen in the office.

General tips

  • Pick a hashtag. Most big events organically end up with two or three hashtags at least – #march26, #26march, for instance. A few, like the Egypt protests, end up unified behind one (#jan25) with others appearing and disappearing from time to time (#tahrir). Official organisations, if they know what they’re doing, will tend to tell people in advance of an organised event what tag they’re using (HM Treasury used #budget11) but often large numbers of other tweeters will decide to use a different one (#budget2011). Pick yours and tell people which one it is – but don’t be afraid to change it as long as you tell people why.
  • Find sources. Work out who’s there, who’s reporting, who’s involved. If you can get non-Twitter contact details for some of them, so much the better – that way if they suddenly go dark you have another way to find out what’s happened, and you can get in touch directly for more detailed reports if you need them.
  • Know your sources. Finding eye-witnesses is relatively easy. Working out whose reports you can trust is much harder. Try and get some background on your go-to people, understand their perspective a little – sometimes this is as simple as reading a few pages back in their Twitter timeline, or checking their bio, or Googling them. Bear in mind, as you would with sources you’re interviewing, their likely biases and the slant they’re likely to put on information.
  • Use Twitter lists. Once I’ve IDed potential sources I use private lists to curate eye-witness reports. On the ground, there isn’t often time to update these as events progress, but having a go-to list of people whose words you trust and who are reporting live can be immensely useful in making sure you’re up to date. Back at the desk, curating eye-witness lists can ensure you’re among the first to be aware when a situation changes.
  • Use search wisely. If something big is breaking, you can usually pinpoint it quickly using http://search.twitter.com – and if you’re looking for particular pieces of information, or pictures, or opinions, you can use search operators to pinpoint further. For instance, “#march26 -RT” brings back tweets tagged #march26 that are not retweets. “#budget2011 ?” finds questions about the Budget (which you might be able to answer). “libya :(” finds negative sentiment tweets which mention Libya. You can also use near: and within: to get location-tagged tweets. Here’s a complete list of search operators.
  • Stay balanced. Think about your personal biases, whatever they are, and be aware of how they’re likely to affect your reporting. Read up on confirmation bias and think about whether you’d trust something or retweet it if it was saying the opposite of what it says. Think about your use of language and avoid over- or under-dramatising a situation.
  • Attribute. If you saw something yourself with your own eyes, tweet it as is. Everything else needs an attribution. Use new-style retweets for eye-witness information that you can verify or from sources you trust.
  • Verify. And if you can’t verify, clarify. Try not to get carried away with the moment. Remember that if something sounds too good to be true, or too bad, it often is. Beware of tweeting things that agree with the way you want the story to pan out. Be aware of your storyteller’s instinct that will bias you towards neat resolutions (like Mubarak’s resignation, which was pre-emptively reported at least twice). Find original sources, ask for confirmation and clarification, and if you accidentally tweet something untrue, correct yourself.

On the ground

  • Be openminded. Decide where you’re going and why. Think about the issues you want to report, and work out a plan to do that to the best of your ability. But go with an open mind, and be prepared to change your focus if events change.
  • Go well equipped. Spare batteries if you can get them. More pens than you know what to do with. Spare notebook. Spare spare notebook. Chargers, in case you can get to a plug socket. Comfortable shoes. Dress warmly but smartly. Enough food, and then some extra food. And bananas if you’re likely to be on your feet for any length of time (seriously, I learned this by fighting the undead for 8 hours at a time).
  • Have a plan for what happens if your connection goes down. I spent large parts of the march through Whitehall frantically texting my Twitter updates in via SMS, taking pics to stack up for later tweets, and talking to people with my notebook out.
  • Think detail. Think colour. Think little moments that only you saw, snippets of the larger whole. Don’t try to encompass everything; pick out what’s unusual in your field of view and frame it succinctly.
  • Take pictures. Geotagged images uploaded in real time are an easy way for someone to verify that you’re a reliable source. They don’t have to be beautiful, though it helps if you’ve a good eye for an image and you have the kit to take something striking. But iPhone images work just fine, as do most Android and Blackberry models. Look for moments, and capture them. And if that moment is “holy crap the cops are beating up kids”, remember that a picture, however grainy and hurried, is evidence that your words alone can’t provide.
  • Use audio if it’s appropriate. Audioboo, for instance, is a great tool for short snippets of speech with ambient noise. But its efficiency and use depends on how good your kit is (do you have a microphone?) and the ambient noise (believe me when I say that vuvuzelas under a bridge are not conducive to effective audio). And remember upload time, battery life, connection speed. Balance your resources.
  • Think about video. If it’s not your primary task to bring back raw footage, then bear in mind that 30-second snippets of video uploaded straight from the ground can tell fantastic stories – but that comes at a price. It’s likely, if you’re like me, that any decent kit you have is focused on keeping you connected and not on shooting gorgeous scenes, so work within the limitations of your kit. Balance whether the images you’re seeing are worth the trouble, the time and the battery life that video takes, and balance whether it’s worth trying to upload to YouTube or a similar site while you’re on scene. Remember that uploading takes time, too. And bear in mind that if all you have are talking heads, audio plus a picture might be better.
  • Take time out to catch up. You’ll be caught up in events a lot of the time, and that’s fine. But when you get chance, stop and check the hashtag. Stay aware of what’s happening elsewhere – both in terms of where you should be and what people will want to know.
  • Don’t forget the notebook. Tech breaks. Shorthand doesn’t. People who don’t want to be recorded will let you write things down. And a notebook is still a visual shorthand for print journalism, in some crowds – and being visible can be useful.
  • Remember you can’t cover everything. You’re part of the event, and you can only report your part of what’s going on. It’s OK to let go of the bigger picture while it’s happening – in fact, if you want to report well where you are, you have to do it. Yes, it’s hard.
  • Don’t be reckless. Don’t put yourself in needless danger, and don’t charge away from a big story to chase a sexy one unless it’s justified.

At the desk

  • Monitor. Even though you’ll probably only use one hashtag, remember the others. I use Hootsuite or Tweetdeck depending on my mood to set up a monitoring dashboard and keep an eye on incoming tweets, with columns for my mentions and as many other hashtags and searches as I can think of. I’ll also tend to use “-RT” to strip retweet noise out, but I’ll generally include a column specifically for RTs with links, so that I don’t miss big-news images or new sources in the excitement.
  • Aggregate and curate. Collect stuff together, pick the best bits, and re-broadcast them. Add value by providing a stream of the best information available. Think like an editor.
  • Use outside sources. If you’re not stuck in the moment, then you have access to sources who are outside the Twittersphere. That can mean TV news, other journalists’ reports, official organisations, and so on. In Norfolk I covered a breaking news story of a train/car crash in tandem with another reporter – I was at the desk while she went to the scene of the incident to chase quotes. That meant I had access to the emergency services press offices as information filtered out, and could keep the story up to date while she spoke to witnesses and got pictures. There are always people who have interesting things to add to the conversation who aren’t on Twitter.
  • Connect individuals. The folks you’re seeing in your timeline might need information. You might see them ask questions. If you can answer them, or point them in the direction of someone who can, then do so. Be helpful. Be useful.
  • Refute. Sometimes, people tweet bollocks, either because they have something to gain by doing so or because they believed a rumour. (Or, sometimes, for the lulz.) Don’t be tempted to believe something because it sounds like it ought to be true or because you want the story to work out a certain way. If you spot something you know to be wrong, correct it, and cc the person who made the original claim.
  • Keep it factual – at least, during the event. If people are using Twitter to share information, adding opinion into the mix can be confusing and add to the noise. If you’ve got a relevant piece of reporting, a pic or a video or a news item to share, share it, but don’t use (for instance) a hashtag sharing information about the protests in Yemen as a hook for your opinion piece about left-wing support for violent intervention in dictatorships.
  • Question everything. Ask questions on the hashtag about things that aren’t clear. Ask why things are happening. Ask questions of the information that’s streaming past you and of the individuals providing it. Don’t assume.

The NCE News Practice exam: resources

I discovered on Wednesday that I’ve passed my NCE exams – and did particularly well on the News Practice exam, winning the Ted Bottomley award. (I love the name. Love it. Probably too much.)

The examiner [pdf] was very, very nice about my paper, saying:

A textbook example of how to tackle the Newspaper Practice paper. A comprehensive law answer citing relevant cases and law, followed by practice answers that clearly demonstrate the candidate’s imagination and ability. It is clear from this paper that this candidate is already putting into practice the skills that the Newspaper Practice paper looks for. One of the highest Newspaper Practice scores in recent years. A very impressive performance.

I’ve been trying to find the paper I wrote so I could work out what on earth I did right, but so far haven’t managed to unearth it. I’m pretty sure I arrived home and thrust it as far out of sight as possible along with the other papers.

But from what I remember, a staggering amount of what I wrote for the second half of the paper was about the internet. Specific, useful, relevant ideas about how to use it to move stories on, to facilitate comments and let the community take control of the conversation. I talked about topic pages, context as an integral part of news reporting, data journalism in many forms, visualisations, mashups, maps, timelines, social media, FOIs, online reportage in all sorts of guises and the importance of the hyperlink.

Anyone revising for News Practice exams – my best advice is read the links, think about how you can apply the theory to the practical, and good luck. Oh, and know your McNae’s. Nothing can beat that.