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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What journalists need to know about search engine optimisation

This is a useful read for any journalist coming to terms with writing for the web and why that means understanding keywords and search engine optimisation.

It was written by Shane Richmond, Communities Editor for, for the British Journalism Review.

I've pulled a few key chunks out of it but the whole thing is well worth reading.

The “Gotcha” headline on a Sun front-page splash about the sinking of the General Belgrano is one of the most famous, or infamous depending on your taste, in the history of British journalism. Yet no web producer with any experience would consider a headline like that today. The reason is search engine optimisation (SEO). SEO has been around almost as long as search engines themselves, but journalists were quite late to cotton on. It didn’t really reach newsrooms until a couple of years ago.

The concept is simple. It’s about ensuring that your content is found by the millions of people every day who use search engines as their first filter for news and those who don’t search at all but trust an automated aggregator, such as Google News, to filter stories for them. These people are essentially asking a computer to tell them the news. If you want your story to be read, you’d better make sure the computer knows what you’re writing about.

To do that you need to ensure your article contains certain keywords. That means not only the words that someone types into a search engine but also the keywords that the search engine knows are commonly associated with the search term. So if someone types “credit crunch” into a search engine, the computer knows that an article about the credit crunch often contains other words, such as financial crisis, bail out or bailout, banks, recession and so on.


Let’s go back to May 4, 1982 and that “Gotcha” headline. The sub-head read: “Our lads sink gunboat and hole cruiser.” Below that, the story began: “The Navy had the Argies on their knees last night after a devastating double punch.” Alongside was a graphic showing a British soldier and the words “Battle for the Islands”. All of this works perfectly for its audience and its medium, but it wouldn’t be likely to figure highly in search results. Imagine for a moment that the Falklands conflict was happening today.What would you type into a search engine to find the latest news about it? Well, “Falklands” certainly, or perhaps “Falkland Islands”. You wouldn’t search for “the Islands”, which is used in the Sun copy. You’d be more likely to search for “Argentina” than “Argies” and “British Navy” or “Royal Navy” would get more relevant results than“The Navy”.


Just as clever headlines, delayed drops and other journalistic tricks evolved to suit the medium, so we will learn new ways to take advantage of the opportunities SEO provides to reach a vast audience. Hopefully it should be clear by now that there’s nothing to debate when it comes to SEO. If you want your story to be found, you have to adopt these techniques. There’s no room for argument. But the debate frequently mutates into something else and unleashes a host of other concerns.

Once we know what people are searching for should we write stories to meet that demand? Will search engines end up dictating our news agenda as well as the way we format our stories? If we write stories simply to chase traffic, where do we find the resources to write the specialist stories, the ones that are important to our core readers but not massively popular?

All those concerns are legitimate, but they are not questions about SEO and shouldn’t be interpreted as such. They are editorial questions. If an editor wants to devote resources to writing stories based on topics people are searching for, they now have the data that will permit them to do so. Giving readers what they want is a sensible strategy, even though the overall mix of stories within a publication has to be balanced. Different editors will make different choices, but they are editorial choices, not SEO choices.

Common Craft on its success and business models

ReadWriteWeb have done a nice end-of-year profile on Common Craft, the clever folk behind those RSS in Plain English and other videos which explain social media and web stuff.

It's a nice read and the part about why Common Craft deciced to move away from its custom video service into its current licencing business model is interesting:

  1. Custom videos do not scale. We would have to hire people to grow the company and we don't want to hire. We are a two person company.

  2. Custom videos are usually promotional. We are more comfortable with education than promotion. Another realization is that promotion is fad-driven and education isn't as much. We see a longer lifespan for our videos in education.

  3. Our goal is independence - we want to work for our own goals on our own schedule and maintain a lifestyle that supports us."

What is Common Craft going to do instead of making themselves available for hire making custom videos? Lee says that for the past year they've been getting requests three or four times a week for permission to re-use their Plain English videos. The solution they decided on was licensing them for corporate and eductional use.

Common Craft now sells licenses for high-quality, downloadable versions of their explanatory videos. All of their time working is now spent building out the library. Videos are licensed for under $20 for individual use and $350 for site-wide use, like on a company intranet. Commercial licensing, for use on public commercial websites, is the next option the company will be offering.

Of course the video content is available free to anyone online, but Common Craft says that many companies feel far more comfortable paying for official permission to use high quality, unbranded versions. There's certainly no DRM involved.

"People want to do the right thing if they know the rules," Lee LeFever says. "Our challenge is to educate people about how we expect our videos to be used. We're lucky to have fans that feel good about supporting us with their purchases. Given limited resources, we would rather spend time educating people on the right thing to do than trying to make the wrong things impossible."

Monday, December 22, 2008

JEANZ, penguins and keeping it simple

The prize for most enjoyable PowerPoint at the recent JEANZ (journalism educators of NZ) conference has to go to Susan Boyd-Bell, who demonstrated the value of keeping it simple and letting a few well-chosen quotes tell a story.

The quotes come from students Susan interviewed as part of her research into the value of experiential learning, specifically on AUT's terrific student newspaper project Te Waha Nui. The paper, incidentally, won a couple of Ossie awards recently including 'Best regular student publication 2008'. I had the pleasure of working with this year's award-winning team (there have been others over the years) and it's lovely to see them walk away with a prize. Well done!

Here's what some students had to say about the experience:

This was my first JEANZ conference and I enjoyed it. There's nothing quite like having a couple of days to talk shop non-stop. Not to mention a cosy dinner with penguins at the Antarctic Centre (a few blurry pictures from my phone here).

The conference agenda was fairly broad and I don't intend to summarise the whole event here. But one point I will make is that it's good to see journalism schools countrywide teaching digital media, multimedia, web 2.0 tools for journalists etc in some form or another.

In a very rough nutshell:

Massey University runs a convergence course for its graduate diploma students giving them an introduction to talking to camera, working with audio, editing packages and writing for the web; Aoraki is offering multiplatform courses at its Christchurch campus.

Jim Tucker at Whitireia has a website his diploma students write for and create images, video and slide shows for; and AUT has a digital media paper which is largely taught online and includes an exploration of online journalism and building a simple website.

Wintec is teaching its pre-journalism students how to use web2.0 tools such as social bookmarking, RSS, blogs and simple audio and video editing software to enhance their study, research and ultimately their journalism.

More about that course in another post.We've learned a lot from its maiden run - including that gen x and gen y very often aren't 'digital natives'.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

First step in bringing change: find the believers

Erik Ulken has posted a must-read top 10 list of lessons learned while setting up the data desk in the LA Times newsroom.

The data desk's job is to take detailed information that's dreary to read in text or table form and make it useful by presenting it in compelling and interactive formats. A well-known example is the LA Time's Homicide Map which allows readers to filter through a database of crime statistics and see them represented visually in graphics and on a map.

The 10 lessons Erik posted are all good so I'm pasting them all in here but it's still worth checking out his post to see what else he has to say.

Erik's list echoes some of the things learned at the Telegraph when it was reinvigorating its website and beginning to integrate its web and print operations. I think these lessons would apply in all sorts of development and change management scenarios.

  1. Find the believers: You'll likely discover enthusiasts and experts in places you didn't expect. In our case, teaming up with the Times' computer-assisted reporting staff, led by Doug Smith, was a no-brainer. Doug was publishing data to the web before the website had anybody devoted to interactive projects. But besides Doug's group, we found eager partners on the paper's graphics staff, where, for example, GIS expert Tom Lauder had already been playing with Flash and web-based mapping tools for a while. A number of reporters were collecting data for their stories and wondering what else could be done with it. We also found people on the tech side with a good news sense who intuitively understood what we were trying to do.
  2. Get buy-in from above: For small projects, you might be able to collaborate informally with your fellow believers, but for big initiatives, you need the commitment of top editors who control the newsroom departments whose resources you'll draw on. At the Times, a series of meetings among senior editors to chart a strategic vision for the paper gave us an opportunity to float the data desk idea. This led to plans to devote some reporting resources to gathering data and to move members of the data team into a shared space near the editorial library (see #8).
  3. Set some priorities: Your group may come from a variety of departments, but if their priorities are in alignment, disparate reporting structures might not be such a big issue. We engaged in "priority alignment" by inviting stakeholders from all the relevant departments (and their bosses) to a series of meetings with the goal of drafting a data strategy memo and setting some project priorities. (We arrived at these projects democratically by taping a big list on the wall and letting people vote by checkmark; ideas with the most checks made the cut.) Priorities will change, of course, but having some concrete goals to guide you will help.
  4. Go off the reservation: No matter how good your IT department is, their priorities are unlikely to be in sync with yours. They're thinking big-picture product roadmaps with lots of moving pieces. Good luck fitting your database of dog names (oh yes, we did one of those) into their pipeline. Early on, database producer Ben Welsh set up a Django box at, where many of the Times' interactive projects live. There are other great solutions besides Django, including Ruby on Rails (the framework that powers the Times' articles and topics pages and many of the great data projects produced by The New York Times) and PHP (an inline scripting language so simple even I managed to learn it). Some people (including the L.A. Times, occasionally) are using Caspio to create and host data apps, sans programming. I am not a fan, for reasons Derek Willis sums up much better than I could, but if you have no other options, it's better than sitting on your hands.
  5. Templatize: Don't build it unless you can reuse it. The goal of all this is to be able to roll out projects rapidly (see #6), so you need templates, code snippets, Flash components, widgets, etc., that you can get at, customize and turn around quickly. Interactive graphics producer Sean Connelley was able to use the same county-level California map umpteen times as the basis for various election visualizations in Flash.
  6. Do breaking news: Your priority list may be full of long-term projects like school profiles and test scores, but often it's the quick-turnaround stuff that has the biggest immediate effect. This is where a close relationship with your newsgathering staff is crucial. At the Times, assistant metro editor Megan Garvey has been overseeing the metro staff's contributions to data projects for a few months now. When a Metrolink commuter train collided with a freight train on Sept. 12, Megan began mobilizing reporters to collect key information on the victims while Ben adapted an earlier Django project (templatizing in action!) to create a database of fatalities, complete with reader comments. Metro staffers updated the database via Django's easy-to-use admin interface. (We've also used Google Spreadsheets for drama-free collaborative data entry.) ... Update 11/29/2008: I was remiss in not pointing out Ben's earlier post on this topic.
  7. Develop new skills: Disclaimer: I know neither Django nor Flash, so I'm kind of a hypocrite here. I'm a lucky hypocrite, though, because I got to work with guys who dream in ActionScript and Python. If you don't have access to a Sean or a Ben — and I realize few newsrooms have the budget to hire tech gurus right now — then train and nurture your enthusiasts. IRE runs occasional Django boot camps, and there are a number of good online tutorials, including Jeff Croft's explanation of Django for non-programmers. Here's a nice primer on data visualization with Flash.
  8. Cohabitate (but marriage is optional): This may be less of an issue in smaller newsrooms, but in large organizations, collaboration can suffer when teams are split among several floors (or cities). The constituent parts of the Times' Data Desk — print and web graphics, the computer-assisted reporting team and the interactive projects team — have only been in the same place for a couple months, but the benefits to innovation and efficiency are already clear. For one thing, being in brainstorming distance of all the people you might want to bounce ideas off of is ideal, especially in breaking news situations. Also, once we had everybody in the same place, our onetime goal of unifying the reporting structure became less important. The interactive folks still report to managing editor Daniel Gaines, and the computer-assisted reporting people continue to report to metro editor David Lauter. The graphics folks still report to their respective bosses. Yes, there are the occasional communication breakdowns and mixed messages. But there is broad agreement on the major priorities and regular conversation on needs and goals.
  9. Integrate: Don't let your projects dangle out there with a big ugly search box as their only point of entry. Weave them into the fabric of your site. We were inspired by the efforts of a number of newspapers — in particular the Indianapolis Star and its Gannett siblings — to make data projects a central goal of their newsgathering operations. But we wanted to do more than publish data for data's sake. We wanted it to have context and depth, and we didn't want to relegate data projects to a "Data Central"-type page, something Matt Waite (of Politifact fame) memorably dubbed the "data ghetto." (I would link to Waite's thoughtful post, but his site unfortunately reports that it "took a dirt nap recently.") I should note that the Times recently did fashion a data projects index of its own, but only as a secondary way in. The most important routes into data projects are still through related Times content and search engines.
  10. Give back: Understand that database and visualization projects demand substantial resources at a time when they're in very short supply. Not everyone in your newsroom will see the benefit. Make clear the value your work brings to the organization by looking for ways to pipe the best parts (interesting slices of data, say, or novel visualizations) into your print or broadcast product. For example, some of the election visualizations the data team produced were adapted for print use, and another was used on the air by a partner TV station.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A quick way to see what people are linking to on Twitter

One of the most useful aspects of Twitter for me is following the links people post to their blogs and things they've been reading/watching. There's always good stuff in there.

But Twitter's like a 24-hour water cooler - people drift in for a while then move on and you never know who's going to be there when you show up nor what you've missed in the meantime.

You can look at someone's Twitter timeline and see everything they've been doing in the past few hours or days, but that can take a while.

Enter Twitturly, which lets you see what people have been linking to. It searches a Twitter user's timeline and pulls out posts containing links, filtering out the rest.

Go to and type in someone's Twitter username or type into your browser address bar.

Say you want to see what New York venture capitalist Fred Wilson's been linking to. Go to and you'll see a page like this:

Type in and you'll see what I've been linking to.


NY Times winds down its file saving service

Recognising the dominance of, Furl, Digg and other social bookmarking services, is winding down its own file-saving service. Makes sense.

This from the email to users:

Dear Times File user,

Thank you for being a loyal user of and Times
File, the tool that allows you to save articles from and other Web sites. (On, Times File
is the "Save" option that appears on the top right area of
most of our article pages.)

We wanted to inform you that, as of Dec. 22, 2008, we are
removing the ability to save articles to Times File from pages, and on Jan. 21, 2009, we are removing
Times File from the site entirely. Social-bookmarking sites
like Delicious and Digg, which can be accessed through our
Share tools, have proliferated since the creation of Times
File. This changing Web landscape has resulted in the
decision to divert resources from Times File to other areas

We realize that our removing Times File may be an
inconvenience, so we have worked out an option to keep your
saved pages.

Times File is powered by LookSmart technology. If you'd like
to keep the pages you have already saved using Times File,
we've created a process allowing you to easily transfer all
of your saved pages to LookSmart's online-bookmarking tool,
Furl. This way, the pages you've saved will still be
available through your new Furl account.

We value you as a loyal user of and hope that you
enjoy our many other current and upcoming features. If you
have questions or concerns about the removal of Times File,
please contact our Customer Service team at
or visit our Times File FAQ at

Thank you,

The New York Times

Friday, December 19, 2008

How to find 550+ news services on Twitter

For a truly comprehensive list of news services publishing on Twitter:

1. check out WikiNews
2. click on 'following'
3. scroll through the 550+ news services
4. click 'follow' on any you want to see every day in your Twitter inbox
5. monitor your Twitter box and 'unfollow' any that drive you mad with too-frequent updates

There's everything in there - AP, Washington Post, The Independent, The Guardian, The Age, Time, the Economist, NZ Herald, Wired, Gawker, Drudge Report, New Yorker, New York Post, Sacramento Bee, Modesto Bee... and roughly 535 more.

Saturday, December 13, 2008 is my new favourite image searching tool

My colleague Stephen Harlow put me onto on Tuesday last week and I was so taken with it I immediately included it in presentations I did on Thursday and Friday.

 makes light work of searching Flickr for images. Type in a keyword or two, hit enter and you get a full page of images to look at - small enough to see lots on one page but not so small as to be hard to see. If you see one you like, click on it and it takes you through to the image page on Flickr. Genius.

A particularly useful feature for me is that you can easily restrict your search to images with Creative Commons licences - which are more likely to be available for use in presentations, blogs and the classroom. You can already do this in Flickr using the Advanced Search function, but makes it much easier.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Tribune files for bankruptcy protection


The Tribune Company, the newspaper and television chain that publishes The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune, filed for bankruptcy protection on Monday.

The move came less than a year after Samuel Zell, a Chicago real estate tycoon, took control of the Tribune chain and took on most of the $13 billion debt burden that now threatens to cripple it in the face of a sinking economy and a collapse in advertising.

Mr. Zell said the company had enough cash to continue operating its 12 newspapers, 23 television stations, national cable channel and assorted other media holdings, and the company insisted that the filing would have no effect on employees’ payroll and benefits, or on the vast majority of their retirement accounts.

The recession and the shift of advertising to the Internet have hit newspapers with the sharpest drop in advertising revenue since the Depression — Tribune’s papers were down 19 percent in the third quarter — and some major newspapers have defaulted on debt or been put up for sale, with no takers. But Tribune’s problems were made significantly worse by the unusual $8.2 billion deal put together last year by Mr. Zell, which took the company private and nearly tripled its debt load, driving the company deeper into debt than any other major newspaper publisher.

The company has cut its staff and products, deeply and repeatedly, in an attempt to stay ahead of debt payments. In May, it also sold one of its most profitable newspapers, Newsday, to Cablevision for $650 million.

Tribune faces more than $900 million in interest payments over the next year, and a $512 million principal payment due in June.

Tribune filed under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code, which allows it to continue operating while negotiating with lenders to try and reduce its interest payments and possibly its debt.

But in light of its shrinking cash flow, Tribune decided to file for bankruptcy in a Delaware court, with the urging of some of its major creditors who met with Tribune representatives over the previous three days.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Two ways to keep track of comments

A couple of observations on two comment apps that I'm finding useful.

1. I sometimes bounce around commenting on various sites then forget who or where they are, which means I can't check back later to find out how the conversation's progressing.

Some blog sites have an option to receive an email whenever a new comment is added to the thread, but most don't.

Enter Backtype, which showed up in a Google alert a couple of weeks ago and looks promising. Backtype aggregates comments and lets you find yours either by searching against your username or whatever blog/website you include in comment registration forms.

If I type in my username I get a list of all the comments I've made where I've included Evolving Newsroom in the registration form.
Alternatively I can point my browser to to see the same list. Replace the part with another blog url and you should see their list.

It's a nice way to keep track of your own conversations and those on blogs of interest. Also good for getting a sense of where someone else is at (maybe someone trying to pitch you a story) - if you have a username you can see what someone's been saying, where and how often.

You can follow other users - the usual crowd are there, Jeff Jarvis, Fred Wilson, Michael Arrington, Robert Scoble, Tim O'Reilly, Guy Kawasaki, Seth Godin and ReadWriteWeb's Richard MacManus - and there's a public timeline of comments that you can browse.

You can also set up alerts similar to Google alerts. Type in the words you want Backtype to watch and it will send you an email as often as you specify listing comments that feature those words - useful for reputation management or keeping track of a news round.

2. Adding Disqus to my blog has been a big help. Disqus adds a simple comment form (like those you see on Wordpress blogs) at the bottom of each blog post.

You get to choose what the form looks like, whether it includes avatars, enable or disable trackbacks and Seesmic video replies etc. And you can add a Recent Comments widget to a side bar. I found it much easier to manage all this with Disqus than with the Blogger system.

When a comment is made Disqus emails you with the comment and the option to reply to it by return email - which means you don't have to visit the site to hit the publish button.

Over to you whether you want to moderate comments before they're published or after, but Disqus has a nice little moderation app that lets you read just your comments or all comments on your blog, and mark any as spam, delete or jump to see them on the page.

The built-in spam filter seems to work pretty well - anything Disqus regards as spam is put on hold and an email sent so you can decide whether to delete it or publish it. I've had one spam comment slip through but the rest have been caught.

All in all, I like it.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

News companies could do more to lead the conversation

I can't remember where I picked up this link to Seth Godin's post on how the New York Times could do better, but it's a goody. A couple of points from it:

1. Use their influence and brand to enable users to spread their content:
Why, precisely, aren't the Zagats guides a NY Times product? Or Yelp? That's a quarter of a billion dollars worth of value that the paper with the most influential restaurant reviews page didn't create. Why didn't they build Wikipedia? Or a platform to influence the way politicians govern?
Couldn't agree more. Surely news companies can make more of their brands by making their websites the places to go for all kinds of useful information and connections, rather than just the kind of information that's been defined as news for the past 50 years.

4. Keep score:
The New York Times bestseller list used to matter a great deal. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy, because bookstores discounted and promoted the bestsellers, which helped them sell more.

We still want to know what the bestsellers are, but the Times works hard not to tell us. There are literally a thousand categories of media that people want to know about (top blogs, top DVDs, etc.) and the Times abdicated their ability to keep score, to be the trusted referee and to drive the short head in almost every form of culture.

Consider this for a moment: Oprah is able to sell ten times as many copies of a book than the New York Times can. The Times abdicated their role as the leader of the conversation about books.

Again, I agree. The door's wide open for news organisations to lead conversation about everything from books to politics to what's on at the movies in localsville. That door won't stay open for ever - someone smaller and nimbler will nip in and take the lead.

To the 'top blogs, top DVDs' list of things people want to know about I might add 'top 3 blogging platforms, reference sites, bookmarking, task management and wiki sites' etc. There's nothing stopping me spending two weeks browsing comparison sites but I'd much rather someone I trusted gave me a useful steer so I could find what I need and get on with my life.

Much more in Seth's post that's worth a ponder.