Writing online: How to strike the right balance between engaging and clickbait

To keep up with the growing demand of a competitive digital media market, journalists are finding new ways to make their online writing more engaging. An experienced leader in online media engagement shared her most important lessons on writing successful online stories during the National Press Club Journalism Institute’s inaugural Writing Workshop in 2019. We’re revisiting that advice today.

“Typically when we write, we are writing on our computers. And so we think of what the story is going to look like on a desktop computer. But really … most readers … are going to see it on this tiny phone screen,” said Nisha Chittal, then Vox.com engagement editor, now managing editor. “Often, what they’re first going to see on their phone is not even any text of the story at all. … All you can really see is the headline, the deck, the byline, and the photo. So, you really have to make those things count.”

Think about your audience before you start writing

  • Identify who your audience is.
  • Determine what your audience needs to know about the story and why they should care.
  • Allow this to drive how you format and present the story. 
  • Structure your story in a digestible way. Attention spans online are short, so split your text up, use subheaders, embed multimedia content, and make it easy to read on a phone.
  • Do not grow attached to just one online platform. Platforms change, and their algorithms will affect your readership.

Maintain proper journalistic etiquette online

  • You should hyperlink to credit a source. You will not lose significant online traffic, and other news sites will do the same for you.
  • Be thorough and do not cut corners. Fact-check and ensure accurate reporting. Abandoning journalistic principles is never acceptable.
  • “People think that sometimes being the first or being really fast is the best thing online and is really important. I think it’s more important to be accurate than to be first. If you’re a little bit late, that’s OK,” Chittal said.
  • Mistakes spread more quickly online than in print. Accuracy is essential to preserving your own journalistic credibility.

Establish an engaging lede

  • Be concise and hook your readers with your lede. You only have around three seconds.
  • Try to maintain your voice/personality in your lede while making it clear what your story is about.
  • Avoid making your ledes too long online.

Strike the right balance in a headline

  • “Your headline is your best chance to convince someone to read your story,” Chittal said.
  • Use your headline to create a curiosity gap that teases the story’s information without giving it all away — not too vague, not too specific. “Headlines don’t need to summarize the whole story. They just need to make people curious enough to click,” Chittal said.
  • Tailor different headlines for different online platforms, like the homepage, article page, social media page, and search engine. You should not have the same headline for each.
  • Use keywords toward the beginning of your headline, and identify Google trends to make your content easier to find.
  • Write more headlines than you need, and try different headlines with different angles and styles. From there, you can collectively workshop with others to find the headlines that will make a viewer click on your article.

Missed the original program? Watch here:

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