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Reporters work to make experience better for online readers

Friday, November 13, 2009 | 1:40 p.m. CST

Dear Reader,

On Wednesday, reporter Tram Whitehurst wrote about a panel at Hickman High School that discussed the use of Tasers.

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The story had:

• Boldface words that highlighted key points;

• Short paragraphs;

• Labels for sections and short sections;

• Few transitions between sections or paragraphs;

• Bullets – lots of bullets.

The point: to help you scan a story you’d probably ignore otherwise.

Tram and several other Missourian reporters will be writing stories in this style for the next week. They’ll run on columbiamissourian.com; some might be published in the print edition as well.

The style is intended for episodic news: a council meeting, a sporting event, an accident or crime report. It’s not meant to replace the narrative style that works so well for a personality profile, for instance, or a complicated issue.

Here’s an example:

For an MU football game, I want a story that quickly tells me what happened, gives me a highlight or two and tells me what’s next.

I might also want a more narrative piece on something related to the game. (Robert Mays’ feature on Ralphie the buffalo at the Colorado game comes to mind.)

Why change?

The way we read online might not – and probably isn’t – the same as the way we read in print. We have less patience for wading through stories, especially when the stories aren’t that engaging in the first place.

The impetus for the particular style comes from an article last year on Slate.com. City editor Katherine Reed asked her student-journalists to read the piece and rewrite some stories as an exercise.

I liked the results, and asked some of the more advanced reporters to do it live.

The bane of newspaper stories isn’t in long explanatory or feature pieces. It isn’t in investigative work. It’s in the everyday – the “bread and butter” stories that could be half as long and twice as interesting.

That problem predates online reading.

Is this scanning style better? That remains to be seen.

Here’s another online subject:

The hostage situation that wasn’t drove the newspaper Web site that is to its knees.

On Tuesday, an errant report of a hostage situation led to a full-scale response by police at the Capitol. There were several updates throughout the morning and afternoon on columbiamissourian.com.

You may not have seen them, because the Web site was slow to respond. The non-technical reason: So many people were hitting the home page that the Missourian couldn’t handle the traffic.

The good news is that it could have been worse. News editor Jake Sherlock knew it would be a big story. So before the first report was published, he alerted the information technology folks.

Smart thinking. It would have been second nature for me to alert the pressroom on a big story, but not the “digital pressroom.”

 

Tom


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