December 18, 2002

AS NEWSPAPERS SURGE ONTO the Internet (more than 3,600 by late 1999), print journalists have also learned to make use of tools long familiar to their broadcast counterparts: tape recorders, video cameras, editing equipment for sound and video, and mastered the knowledge of how to transmit such material over the Internet.

The need to know about some of these tools will obviously be greater if you work for an online news organization. But it’s also important for every journalist entering the 21st century to have some understanding of these tools. These are exciting times for reporters in every area of the media. It’s a new world out there and it’s changing every day. The journalists who will survive and succeed are those who are flexible and open to such change.

Storytelling and News in the Electronic Age

Leading journalism educators and futurists forecast a time when techno-savvy reporters will use “mobile journalist terminals” and omnidirectional cameras to regularly conduct electronic interviews. Reporters, they say, will become multimedia presentation teams. Someday. Perhaps.

But journalists need to bring a little skepticism to new media, as they would to any issue. There’s no doubt that newsroom technology has changed dramatically, but at what cost? Sure, it sounds great that a reporter can interview sources by video conferencing without leaving the newsroom. But too many stories today are written by the telephone and, as a result, they lack the texture, completeness, and accuracy that only person-to-person reporting can bring. Young reporters often find face-to-face contacts awkward and uncomfortable, but they are the lifeblood of good journalism. While new technologies bring important advances, I’d be concerned if reporters used them as excuses to avoid the messy and sometimes difficult aspects of real life.

Technology’s impact on storytelling has always been profound since the days when reporters kept their stories short to save on telegraph charges. In much the same way, today’s electronic technology — live, satellite transmitted television — is changing the way that reporters at America’s newspapers tell stories. Electronic texts have already supplanted printed ones in our daily life, and will continue to do so, presenting writers and their audiences with new ways to write and read. This new kind of text has special relevance to journalists who continue to struggle to create forms that demand to be read.

We are living in the “late age of print,” as new media scholar Jay David Bolter describes it, a time when words printed on paper are being replaced by words flashed on computer screens. In this early stage of new media, we are still in the process of discovering the shape journalism will take in a new age.

In this new world, the inverted pyramid is here to stay. The inverted pyramid is the story form of choice for most of the news on the Internet, which is a breaking news medium. In that way it follows the form of the first telegraph news transmissions — bulletins followed by constantly updated dispatches. The inverted pyramid can help the beginner — no matter the platform choice — to figure out the importance of facts available. Then, the writer chooses the other form they might use.

“On the web, the inverted pyramid becomes even more important since we know from several studies that users don’t scroll, so they will very frequently be left to read only the top part of an article,” argues Jakob Nielsen, a Sun Microsystems engineer who specializes in Internet desktop design.

“Very interested readers will scroll, and these few motivated souls will reach the foundation of the pyramid and get the full story in all its gory detail,” he says. “Web writers split their writing into smaller, coherent pieces to avoid long scrolling pages. Each page would be structured as an inverted pyramid, but the entire work would seem more like a set of pyramids floating in cyberspace than as a traditional ‘article.’ ”

Imagine that. Pyramids floating in cyberspace.

Hypertext and the Future of Writing

The biggest change in writing certainly for print journalists, will be adjusting to a new approach to the concept of text.

The electronic age we live in has redefined the very concept of what makes a story. Text used to mean one thing: words on a page. More specifically, text meant “the main body of matter in a manuscript, book, newspaper,” or “black on white.” With computers, that has changed to “green on black” (the colors of the early monochrome monitors).

There’s another term that has changed: document. When reporters and editors see the word, they may think of court papers and other public records that support elements of their stories. They need to consider documents in a different way.

“A document can be any body of information. A newspaper article is a document, but the broadest definition also includes a television show, a song, or an interactive video game. Because all information can be stored in digital form, documents will be easy to find, store, and send on the highway…Future digitally stored documents will include pictures, audio, programming instructions for interactivity, and animation, or a combination of these and other elements,” wrote Microsoft founder Bill Gates in his book, The Road Ahead.

HTML, the abbreviation for “HyperText Markup Language,” is the code that creates the text and graphic layouts known as web pages. HTML was developed by Tim Berners-Lee in the early 1990s.

Its contemporary roots go back to right after World War II. In a landmark article in Atlantic Monthly titled “As We May Think,” Vannevar Bush, who was one of President Roosevelt’s top science advisers, proposed a system to deal with the deluge of information available (they were drowning in data even then!).

Twenty years later, in 1965, a visionary named Ted Nelson gave the name hypertext to Bush’s concept (“hyper” is a Greek word meaning “beyond”). Hypertext is the feature that made the World Wide Web possible by allowing users to move from place to place to place, whether it’s inside the text itself or to another site on the Internet.

Hypertext is the heart of online news.

But don’t be misled or dazzled by the technology. Knowing HTML may get you a job coding pages for an online news site, but it won’t make you a reporter. The people who run online sites are clear about this: They want journalists, not just coders.

Writing for the Web: Style Issues

“Writing on the web has to be even shorter, snappier, and more conversational,” says a former writer for who covers technology for Cox Newspapers. “People aren’t looking for a block of text; they want to know what’s going on. And they want to know it quickly. A news story might have to be condensed into three sentences…and people are on the lookout for the link, which is usually tied to the noun of the sentence.”

Web publishing will compel newspaper reporters to adopt a broadcast style. In broadcast, you write to video and still images, and to sound. You accompany, enhance, and amplify what the viewer sees and hears from the screen. Words in broadcast complete the puzzle in the reader’s mind. The writer for print, by contrast, must use language to create in the reader’s mind what the television screen provides.

The broadcast writer writes for the screen; the print writer tries to create a screen in the reader’s mind that the memory and imagination can fill. Like the broadcast writer, the writer for the web has additional electronic texts to work with (“e-texts” include video and still images, animation, sound, as well as words). But just like the print writer, the web writer must use language that is specific, vivid, and accurate.

The challenge for the web writer is to use words to provide multiple perspectives—not to repeat information, but to add new layers that deepen the understanding and impact of the story. But technology also poses one of the great dangers of reporting/writing for the new media, online news pioneer Bill Mitchell believes.

“Because of the additional tools at the reporter’s disposal, there are at least a couple of dangers: (1) failure to focus hard enough at the reporting stage to get the details that might — or might not — be conveyed by the streaming video or audio accompanying the story; and (2) an imprecision and incompleteness in the writing, based on the assumption that these other tools will deliver those parts of the story left out of the narrative.

“It’s a two-fold problem: at its simplest level, it’s hard to do more than one thing at once and do them well,” he adds. “But there’s also the subconscious feeling that those other tools will convey those parts of the story. In both cases, the story suffers as a result. This will be a challenge for the journalist of the future, who will be expected to work simultaneously in several media. Not impossible and not necessarily detrimental to the story, but clearly an undertaking that will require extraordinary focus as well as skill.”

Old forms will continue to influence the new ones. Landscape monitors are favored over portrait displays, according to Kent State University’s Information Design Laboratory. People prefer by a wide margin to read something that looks more horizontal than vertical.

The front pages of The Wall Street Journal are used as a model in the online world. Online practitioners design storyboards for their pages, just like film, television, and advertising writers. In the online world, storyboards sketch content, graphics, and hyperlinks, combining content with navigation. The first page may be an anecdote, something to hook the reader. The next page provides context. Subsequent pages link to content or segments that support or challenge the story’s thesis.

My Poynter Institute colleague Mario Garcia, who has redesigned hundreds of newspapers and has now begun redesigning their websites, believes the new medium will enable the reader to choose among the “quick read, the substantial read, and the encyclopedic read,” something that print media have found difficult to accomplish.

While writers worry whether there will be a place for them in the new media, I am heartened by the support that writers get from Garcia, a visual artist, and other observers. “It is in writing that I see the greatest possibilities for creativity, for pioneers to leave the legacy that historians will talk about,” Garcia writes in Redesigning Print for the Web.

Most importantly, the web writer must inspire the user to scroll for further text, or to click for additional information, just like writers in newspapers and magazines constantly try to make sure readers go beyond a jump to an inside page. The challenge, to hold on to readers, is identical, even if the medium is different.

Chip’s favorite resources for online news writers
Eastgate Systems publishes hypertext fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Its site offers a hypertext bibliography that covers the past, present, and future of this interactive medium. 95/29/ index4a.html
Read about “The Birth of Way New Journalism” at Wired online.
See what “ambient storytelling” at the New Media Program at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism is all about.
Learn the basics of HTML online from the Barebones Guide.
Keep up with the current state of online news by reading Steve Outing’s column, “Stop the Presses.”
“New Media Timeline.” A hypertext history of new media, from their beginning in the late 1960s to the newest features of the 1990s. Compiled by David Shedden, researcher at The Poynter Institute. 9606.html
Inverted Pyramids in Cyberspace. Jakob Nielsen is an influential Internet desktop designer for Sun Microsystems. He argues for the adoption of the inverted pyramid by web writers.
Jakob Nielsen and John Morkes discuss “Writing for the Web,” a research project about how users read on the Web and how authors should write their Web pages. Includes case studies and Web writing guideline
“The Vision of an Accomplished Webmaster: An Interview With The New York Times’ New Content Development Editor Elizabeth Osder” by Chris Lapham in CMC Magazine, Dec. 1, 1995.
Amy Gahran created Contentious as “the web-zine for writers, editors, and others who create content for online media.”
Steve Outing and Amy Gahram teamed to produce “a digital marketplace for online content creators and publishers.
Internet historians trace today’s World Wide Web to a 1945 article in The Atlantic Monthly by Vannevar Bush. “As We May Think.” 97.09bush/97.09bush_master.html
“Remembering the Memex.” Get a sampling of contemporary takes on the Memex, the plan Vannevar Bush had for info overload, in this roundtable featuring Esther Dyson, Michael Joyce, and other new media thinkers.
Read more about the manipulation of images in an online essay in Media Studies Journal by journalism history Mitchell Stephens, “Expanding the Language of Photographs.”
Dan Froomkin’s Home Page. Froomkin is editor of the Metro section and has taught online journalism. His site is rich with ideas and inspiration.

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Christopher “Chip” Scanlan (@chipscanlan) is a writer and writing coach who formerly directed the writing programs and the National Writer’s Workshops at Poynter where he…
Chip Scanlan

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