Wednesday, August 09, 2006

What makes a good online journalism site?

[Keyword: , , ]. I'm about to meet the man behind a new investigative journalism website to talk about how I can offer assistance and advice - and it's prompted me to identify what exactly makes a good online journalism project. I've boiled it down to these five elements:
  • User involvement: in the age of citizen journalism and blogging there is no excuse to exclude your users from the conversation. At the very least you should allow users to post comments to stories - and equally importantly, respond to those comments and incorporate corrections in stories. Beyond comments, you can also offer forums where users can discuss and suggest stories or angles, or just form a community of opinion. And for a quick and simple user opinion, incorporate a regular poll.
    Then there's the invitation for users to contribute - whether that's pictures, video, audio clips or full articles. These don't have to be big news events they happen to have witnessed (although that's nice), but can be personal 'video diary' type experiences (where topical) or records of public events.
  • Update: Online is always accessible, searchable, and archivable. It is not tomorrow's fish and chip wrapper. Therefore articles should be updated when new information appears, or newer articles should link to older ones on the same subject, and vice versa.
  • Linking and transparency: An online article without links is ignoring one of the fundamental characteristics of the web, and presenting the user with a dead-end. If I read an article about breast cancer, there should be links at the end to more information, organisations, and help. If I read an article about a policy document, there should be a link at the end to that document. And the latest piece about the Middle East conflict should be giving me the opportunity to find out the background to the whole situation, through links. Equally important - but perhaps harder for journalists whose living is based on rewriting press releases - is linking to your sources. If you've used anything online, link to it. This transparency can only improve media literacy, and hopefully, pressure journalists to use a range of sources.
  • Get interactive: This is the biggest paradigm shift in news and the one that news organisations seem to struggle most with, but one of the advantages of online news is the way you can engage the user and explain complex concepts with multimedia. Not considering this is like TV news not considering images or radio not considering sound.
    At its most glamorous, this might involve a Flash interactive as done so well at The Guardian and BBC; but you might also consider quizzes (search for simple JavaScript or PHP templates), live chats with interviewees (invite users to post questions ahead of the interview if you don't have the technology for a live chat), or just a simple range of guides accessible by drop-down menu. The key thing here is giving your user control, and/or using the range of media available to provide depth.
  • Write for the web: brevity and scannability are the watchwords here. The BBC do this impeccably - one point per paragraph and a liberal use of subheadings - perhaps because of their broadcast background. Unintentionally, tabloids do this well too, simply because their simple style translates well. Broadsheet style works less well, especially as they tend to shovel their printed articles without any editing. But as people tend to scan-read online much more (because of the lower resolution), an increased use of subheadings can make the experience much easier for readers, while employing bullet lists where appropriate is always a winner. Splitting paragraphs to make it easier to read is not dumbing down.
Now, I'm sure I've missed something glaringly obvious here, as it seems there must be more than five items to this list, but perhaps it really is that simple. Answers on a comment please.

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