This document is a supplement to
Editing for Clear Communication
Copyright 1996-1999,
Thom Lieb

No portion may be reused without the author's permission.

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Further Reading:
J.D. Lasica, "Net Gain," American Journalism Review, November 1996, pages 20-33.

To learn more about this college editing textbook or to order an educational review copy, please visit McGraw Hill.

Editing for the Web

Audience and Mission:
More Important Than Ever

Good writing is in large part good planning. That truth also applies to good Web publishing.

In an effort to stake out territory on the Web — and to keep rivals from sucking up potential online advertising revenue — some existing publications have instructed their Web teams to merely put the print publication on line. Putting up everything that's in a printed edition (known as producing "shovelware") misses the point and potential of publishing on the Web. There's already way too much information available on the Web; what's needed is more information with a clear sense of audience and focus.

Before any existing or startup publication begins a Web edition, the publisher and staff should answer these questions:

Who is our audience?
Many online publishers have not answered this question — the fundamental one. Instead, they're publishing just because they can. More than one editor has told me that she was ordered to "Put the paper online." In a time when printed versions of newspapers are losing readers left and right, what sense does it make to offer the same thing in a harder-to-get package? Instead, newspaper publishers and other would-be Web publishers need to define a particular audience they want to reach, then design the site to reach that audience. While many newspapers say a key goal of their online editions is to reach young people who don't read printed newspapers, they fail to offer that audience much different online. HotWired media critic Jon Katz notes in American Journalism Review:

"Most newspaper Web sites are ugly, clunky, present unoriginal, outdated information and reflect corporate traditions that emphasize tepid opinion, stuffy writing and middle-of-the-road banality. That's not what people go online for. Young people, especially, like strong point of view, attitude, graphics, in-depth pop culture coverage — all the things that newspapers won't do."

What can we do online that we can't do on paper?
When Publisher Jake Oliver began thinking about the online edition of the Afro-American newspapers, he had more than a hundred years of coverage of the black community at his disposal. So one of his first decisions was to create an online Black History Museum. The section offers features on the first black combat pilots in America; Jackie Robinson, the first black baseball player in the major leagues; black advertising from the 1920s and 1930s; reports from Afro correspondents following black troops during World War II; and others that continue to draw lots of visitors to the site.

What can we do differently than the bazillion other online sites?
I remember telling a friend that there were hundreds of newspapers on the Web, and she responded, "Why?" With easy access now to the CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press and other key sources, why would a reader try to find information about major news stories anywhere else? Bill Skeet, chief designer at the Knight-Ridder New Media Center, addressed this issue in a posting to the Online News discussion group:

"But what of smaller newspapers? ... If you strip away the wire content or syndicated material ... or anything not indigenous to their brand, what do you have left?
I'd say you have a product that is particularly at risk on the web because on the web there are competitors or at least alternative sources for most of these types of information."

What do we have the resources to produce and keep current?
When a Web staff of five was put together at the Rochester, N.Y., Democrat and Chronicle, they knew they couldn't do everything. Exploiting one of the editors' experience in sports, the team decided to concentrate primarily in that area. Because the newspaper in nearby Buffalo — home of the Bills football team — did not have a Web site, the D&C team decided to set up a site for Bills fans. The Bills pages drew more than 200,000 visitors per week — half the total for the entire D&C site.

What services can we provide to readers?
Information is everywhere on the Web. Do a search on the most specialized topic and chances are that you'll get hundreds or even thousands of hits. What Web users want is specialized information — and service. For instance, Arizona Central offers visitors a searchable directory of more than 250 golf courses in the state; a guide to dining in the Phoenix area; customizable television listings; ALT.,a place for teens and young adults; and much more.

Anyone can create a Web site. But only by taking the time to think about these questions can you be sure that you'll create one that people will actually want to visit.

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