Sweat the small stuff.
Too many writers follow all the guidelines about writing scannable and splitable online copy (i.e. proper nouns are bold; sentences are in short, subject-verb-object format; it’s in the active voice, etc.) and then they think that if they sleep on the story some shoemaker-turned-copy-pixie will come in the night and write magical hedlines and cutlines to add a sense of panache to it.
Sorry, that simply ain’t gonna happen in the real world. Maybe at the website of the Grimm Gazette, but not here, not now. So that means all of us, as writers and editors, have to take responsibility and write those heds and cutlines that add meaning to the story.
Rather than dive right into the big picture, let’s take this one step at a time.
Art elements should be a part of as many online stories as possible, but online journalists should think about what will work and not just use art for art’s sake. The challenge is to make sure the picture or graphic that ran in the paper or on the air also works for the online site.
When that isn’t the case, the online editor has to insist on visual elements that will work for the website. Whatever it is — whether a picture or a chart or a graphic piece — it should complement the story and add a visual meaning that can perhaps capture a mood or show an event in a clear and dynamic way.
Think of some images that have gained an iconic status and learn from them. A good example might be the picture of the firefighter carrying the body of 1-year-old Baylee Almon from the ruins of the federal building in Oklahoma City. That picture told a story about the heartbreak of the destruction that words alone could not. The marriage of text (whether story or cutline) and image was the heart and soul of the moment and defined the tragedy for parents — and others — everywhere.
Keeping that example in mind, what does the online editor need to do to add to the implicit drama and poignancy? Perhaps add a slideshow of other photos from the scene, with or without audio narration; add a map to show where the day care center was in the building and why it seemed to horribly suffer from the attack; or maybe even offer a chat room or message board so the audience can commiserate with one another. True, all those things can be done in a print product or on a newscast, but online such elements offer immediacy and interactivity in a 24/7 news hungry world.
Simply put, an online editor has to be choosy. To illustrate the point, let’s use a less gruesome example: Something inside us shudders when sources ask for a check-signing photo. But sometimes we don’t have an alternative. Yet rather than sighing and assigning a photog to shoot it anyway — then regretting it through lunch and dinner as we snap at friends and family — stop and think a moment. (Yes! Even on deadline.)
What does the check-signing picture, or one of a dignitary shoveling some dirt at a groundbreaking ceremony, represent?
What will the check be used for?
Who will use the building the big shot is happily risking calluses for?
Remember, readers don’t care about big shots or shovels. Readers care about people.Let’s say the check will be used to help expand a day care center. Then the online news editor should make sure the photog gets a shot of something like happy kids at play.
Are the big shots breaking ground for a new tech center? Then get a shot of people queuing up to use the computers, or a person using a computer next to a broken Dell or Mac. Either one could tell a story.
Or why not have a series of such shots and have either cutlines or audio from someone explaining the concept?
Remember, readers don’t care about big shots or shovels. Readers care about people. Banish boring shots.
OK, the pix have been picked. Now how about that cutline: What needs to be said? And how to say it? Online writing is a blend of print and broadcast styles, so remember the broadcast maxim: “See cow, don’t say cow.” Beyond that, maybe some of these ideas might help in writing cutlines:
- Think of it as an expanded hedline: What simple, concise word(s) would describe the pic?
- Now build the cutline by starting with the most powerful verb that comes to mind, but be prepared to edit it out if need be.
- Continue building by putting in some powerful nouns, preferably in front of the verb. Remember that English is a left-leaning language.
- Using those nouns and verbs, write the facts that tell what is special in the pic.
- Use active voice and a conversational tone. But if the cutline is long, edit it three times. Each time, cut out just one word. By the third time, the cutline might have to be recast and, therefore, might be stronger.
- Use the cutline to refer to the text. Don’t repeat info from the hed or lede.
- Identify key people. But don’t state the obvious or attribute emotions unless it is beyond doubt that is how the person in the pic feels. (“Joe, left, and Joe-Bob, right, share a laugh at the piano while singing the blues.”) An exception might be a file photo in which the event is more important than the people.
- Readers will probably read the cutline before looking at the story, so answer questions or set the stage for the story.
- Tell readers if the photo was shot with special effects (e.g. time lapse).
- Give everything one last look since people’s eyes will be drawn to the cutline, and they may read it in place of the story.
Online editors should make sure the graphic enhances, not reproduces verbatim, what is in the accompanying copy. The graphic should also:
- be easily understandable
- deliver a clear message
- be factual (An editor should edit internally and externally. For example, is all the information, especially names and numbers, the same in the story? If not, determine which is right, delete what is wrong, and then copy and paste to replace the wrong info.)
To add to that, all art elements should have a credit line, and graphics should have a source line.
Those of us in the online community view heds as explanatory links. Heds should tell readers what they will get for their click.
In other words, an overline or subhed or other deck element may help explain the story to print readers, but those tools don’t tell online readers what’s coming up and would have to be rewritten for an online news organization, especially if the hed serves as a link.
Since shovelware is everywhere, a robot scanner might pick up this overline: “Sweet 16,” but it could mean anything from the college basketball playoffs to a birthday party. In short, it doesn’t tell the scanners who give an online site a few minutes in the morning much of anything.
So an online editor might change it so it is straightforward and succinct.
Jenny Montgomery, local news editor for HoustonChronicle.com, said during a presentation at the March 2004 American Copy Editors Society national conference that online heds must:
- be specific enough to hook readers
- have key words that refer to past stories in the news that are on people’s minds during watercooler chat
- be written in a conversational tone
- be simple and straightforward
- give the pertinent information since online hedlines don’t typically follow newspaper design strategies such as drop heds
- find a blend of sensationalism and exaggeration
- use “magic” words that everyone is curious about (e.g., babies, spam, the Web, viruses, taxes, reality TV)
Admittedly, some of those apply across the board to print, but online folks also view heds as design elements, news elements, and as tools to link to other stories.
Joe Marren is an assistant professor in the communication department at Buffalo State College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.