Tuesday, October 21, 2008

In praise of newspapers

I worked on newspapers for nearly two decades before seeing the potential of the internet and becoming one of the first full-time on-line journalists.

It's ironic that in Britain the BBC should have become the main on-line news player. We can't pretend they are not - they dominate. For it is newspaper values, not broadcasting values that dominate web-publishing.

Consider what newspapers did:

They offered readers an instant selection of news, a kind of visual menu. It's not just the cramming of stories onto pages, it is the use of headlines. Over decades sub-editors perfected the art of writing short, snappy, intriguing headlines that caught the reader's eye and led them to that particular article. The art of the sub was refined by the constraints of the page. The sub was only allowed so many letters per headline - and often not many.

Newswriting was the same. The first sentence, the intro, has to sum up the whole story. It also has to be snappy and interesting. In a tabloid, it's more snappy, in a broadsheet it contains more detail. But the reader has to be able to take it in at a glance.

The same techniques are applied to the whole story.

Then the newspaper as a whole and each page is laid out with the same intent. The main headline, the big one in large print, is designed to be spotted by the casual browser passing by a newsagent or a newstand.

It's just the same as the web. Your readers are passing by. You have to catch their attention with a headline, with an intro. You have a fraction of a second to do so. The headline must be different and interesting. The first few words of the story must tell them it's interesting.

These are techniques and crafts that were built up over a century. If you worked on newspapers they were hammered into you.

That's why we prize newspaper experience at Englemed. We like good writing and good headlines. I always believed that newspapers, not the TV or radio, provided the template for the web. I was never sure they would adapt well - and the jury is still out on that. Many are struggling. Yet while the BBC, backed by licence fee cash, may dominate, it's had to learn newspaper ways and probably recruit newspaper journalists.

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