Schadenfreude Is Cheap: Don’t Worry About the Journalists of the Future

MUD day 3:

I recently joined the LinkedIn for Journalists group, which turns out to be more useful and interesting than I had expected. A post from a couple of weeks ago pointed to an entry in Roger Ebert’s Journal headlined “Help! Our journalists of the future.” The entry consisted almost entirely of extracts from bad student writing, provided by a friend who teaches a university journalism course. The following extract is typical:

One thing is for sure were in for quite a ride and an impeccable race that’s for sure.

I do my share of bagging on journalists, but students are too easy a target. Having taught college English for several years, I know that in every batch of papers, you can find both brilliant and abysmal bits of writing. I also know that, as one of Ebert’s commenters pointed out, “some of the problems are the result of the rush to get the assignment done overnight—or, even more likely, in the moments before class started.”

What Ebert’s column really reflects, other than an easy way to write a blog post, is what every elder generation feels: that their young are a disappointment, not up to the great things they did. There is even a kind of schadenfreude, or covert joy in their shortcomings.

Bad, even sub-literate writing, has always been with us, and always will be. But of those students Ebert quotes, the few who really care, who are passionate about their craft, will overcome their weaknesses and become good, perhaps even great, journalists.

The Fix-It Alert: Eight Keys to Better Online News Writing

Howard Rauch

Any Internet search for advice on “writing for the Web” will produce thousands of advisories.  All of them are useful, but to judge from my recently concluded study of 50 B2B Web sites, their advice is widely ignored by e-news writers and editors

How does the news writing on your B2B site measure up? Using a simple “fix-it alert” scoring system can help you answer that question.

For the study, I analyzed 446 articles on the basis of eight factors I’ve found to be essential to effective e-news writing:

  1. Impact. How important is the subject of the article to target readers? Is it of urgent interest, or is it just filler?
  2. Enterprise. How much digging does the story represent? Is the article just a warmed-over press release, or did the writer seek out fresh information?
  3. Direct quotes. Does the article include original, direct quotes from key news sources?
  4. Fast-paced lead. How many words does it take to get to the key point of the story? Better leads get there in fewer words.
  5. Readability. To assess this factor, I recommend the Fog Index. A Fog Index grade level is derived via a calculation involving average sentence length and words of three or more syllables. To ensure readability, the Fog Index grade level should not exceed 12.
  6. Average sentence length. Although average sentence length is a component of the Fog Index, I’ve isolated it here because so many e-news writers thrive on endless sentences.
  7. Article word count. In general, successful e-news stories are short, though the ideal length will vary from one Web site to another. My study is based on a preferred maximum length of 750 words.
  8. Embedded links. Hyperlinks are what the Internet is all about. If your writer doesn’t work at least one link into the text of the story, it’s not a true e-news article.

These factors are fairly obvious and should not be subject to argument.  But for some reason, these editorial basics—particularly readability and average sentence length—seem to be a foreign language for the low-scoring sites I reviewed.

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