When I look up a word on Merriam-Webster OnLine, I’m usually in a hurry. But I’ve stumbled across something that could get me to stick around longer.
A few months ago, I noticed a video player labeled “Ask the Editor” in the top right corner of the site. It seemed interesting, but not enough to slow me down, until I noticed one day that the video was entitled “Slang.” I’m always interested in slang — who isn’t? — so I watched it.
The video is what you’d expect: An editor explains why the dictionary includes slang. Interesting enough, if you’re into words.
But in the process, the editor explains how the people at Merriam-Webster approach their work. She describes how she horrified someone by saying that she was in the process of defining the word “props” — gasp! She goes on to say that the dictionary should reflect how language is used and offers examples of common words that once were lexicographical stepchildren.
That video changed a transactional visit into an exploratory one. At first, I was like the person who comes to a news site through Google, spending just seconds on a page as I looked for a piece of information. When I clicked on the video, I became the person who thinks, “This looks interesting. Let’s see what it is.” (I also became captive to a 15-second pre-roll ad.)
My curiosity now piqued, I found all the Merriam-Webster videos (there are just a few) and watched one about Michael Jackson. In that one, an editor describes how you could track news of the superstar’s death by the words people searched for on the site. When the news first broke, the most popular words were “stricken” and “resuscitate”; later, it was “emaciated.”
News organizations have tried in various ways to educate people about how they do their work. Top editors write columns providing the back story about major news. Ombudsmen inquire on behalf of readers and write their own columns. Sometimes, editorials explain coverage decisions. Sometimes reporters use audio or video to explain how they reported a particular story.
What drew me to Merriam-Webster’s videos was the placement — near content that I sought out — and the format — quick, one-to-one, instructional and informal. There are plenty of instructional videos out there, but I wouldn’t expect to see them on an online dictionary. Or a news site.
I could see how a news org could use such videos to address people directly and informally and pull back the curtain on its journalism. Editors and reporters could describe general tactics (why some stories are covered and others aren’t) and explain key terms in the news (preferably, a term in the story on that page). Or they could tell people what their search terms say about what they’re most interested in. (News sites already can capture such information.)
Such videos would fit with other trends in media literacy and explanatory journalism. YouTube features how-to videos in its Reporters’ Center. Many have praised the creative, straightforward way that the radio program “This American Life” broke down the financial crisis in “The Giant Pool of Money.” Jay Rosen has been promoting a new way of looking at explanatory journalism with a site called ExplainThis.org, which would enlist journalists to answer questions about the news. And let’s not forget Slate’s Explainer column.
All sites, news and otherwise, are on a quest to get visitors who arrive via search to see something they find interesting and stick around. Maybe we should speak directly to them.