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Day 1 – News websites – the basics

Here are some things to keep in mind from the very beginning:

A news website is not your newspaper on the computer screen.

A news website is not a blog.

News websites emphasize and demand the heart of journalism — information.

Speed is one of the great strengths of a website.

 

A news website is not your newspaper on the computer screen.

  • The web can contain your newspaper – almost every aspect of it. But if that’s what you use it for, and that’s the way you think of it, you are losing much of its power. And you are making it relatively uninteresting for the reader.
  • Shovelware – the pejorative term for putting newspaper content onto a website without changing it.
  • Links and linking – one of the things that gives power to the web.
  • Start thinking about your website first and your newspaper (if you have one) after that.

The web has characteristics that make it a unique and powerful news medium.

Capacity. A newspaper reporter might be confined to writing 500 or 600 words for a story. A photographer might spend all day covering an event and expect to have only one picture in print. A graphics journalist might get a one- or two-column space. At a broadcast station, a reporter would have only 40 seconds to tell a story, and a five-minute statement from a news source would have to be reduced to a seven-second sound bite. All of these journalists experience the two great frustrations of professional journalism – the lack of time and space.

The web greatly mitigates, if not eliminates entirely, these limitations. A reporter can take as many words or as much time as is necessary to tell the story. A photographer can post 10 pictures of an event, not just one. A graphics journalist might be limited by screen width (around 10 inches or so), but even this limitation represents a vast expansion of the space he or she is normally allotted.

With the web news reporters can include with their reports the full text of speeches they cover; biographical information on their sources; maps, charts and pictures that help expand the reader’s understanding of the subject. They can include audio of the sources and video of the scenes where the story took place.

Flexibility. The web can handle a wide variety of forms for the information it presents – words, pictures, audio, video, and graphics. In this regard, it is far more flexible than print or broadcast.

Those who enter the field of web journalism are joining a profession where traditional walls are being eliminated. The journalist who says, “I am a word person” or “I am a photographer” or “I am a graphic artist” runs the risk of severely limiting his or her capacity to take advantage of the many forms the web offers. No doubt, there will be specialists – people whose main job is to write or to shoot video or research and produce charts and graphs. But entry level web journalists will be asked to do it all, and veterans will be required to think about their information and decide how it can best be presented to viewers.

Immediacy. The web can deliver information immediately, often as events are unfolding. Broadcasting, particularly television, can do the same thing and with great impact, as many of us experienced on September 11, 2001. But the web’s qualities offer an immediacy that broadcasting cannot match in four important ways.

  • Variety
  • Expansion
  • Depth
  • Context

Permanence. The web is the most permanent of media in the sense that it does not deteriorate. Nothing need be lost. Properly archived and maintained, data on the web – because of its electronic form — can exist far beyond any tangible medium we now have. This permanence is an often overlooked quality of the web, but it is one that gives the medium great power. Paper deteriorates, and videotape and audiotape degrades. Information on the web, however, stays put unless someone makes it go away.

It has taken us some time to recognize the permanency of the web and to put that permanency to good use. Web sites have been abandoned, addresses have changed and data have been over-written without being properly saved. Much that has been created during the first decade of the web has been lost, but those losses are not due to a failure of the medium. Rather, they are failures of the operators.

This permanency leads to two other qualities about the web that render it so powerful: duplication and retrievability. Because the web is such an open medium and because the technology that creates a web site is shared, any part of a web site (or the whole web site itself) can be duplicated and stored in a different location from where it originated.

Interactivity. All of the qualities of the web listed above (capacity, immediacy, flexibility and permanence) have the potential of changing journalism as it is practiced on the web, but those qualities pale against the potential the web has for interactivity. This quality portends a new relationship between journalist and reader/viewer/consumer, and that new relationship could mean a new form of journalism.

All news media are interactive to some extent, of course. Television viewers and radio listeners must turn their sets on and select channels. Remote controls allow users to switch between channels at will. Beyond that, however, these media offer no opportunities to interact. They provide no choices and no feedback loops while programs are being broadcast.

Newspapers and magazines are more interactive in the sense that readers can choose what parts to read and what to ignore. Headlines, refers (text that directs readers to another part of the paper), layouts and sectioning help readers make these choices. But print media offer no channel through which readers can respond to what they are seeing and to interact with the journalists who have produced the publication – except in an entirely separate medium and context (such as mail or the telephone).

Web journalism offers the same choices that print media offer, only more of them. Whereas the choices in newspapers are pages and headlines, the choices on the web can be built into the articles and web pages themselves with hyperlinks. These allow readers to veer off within a story to information that is most interesting or relevant to them. An array of choices gives readers more control over what they see and read, and it heightens the non-linearity of the web itself.

Where the web is really different, however, is the immediate feedback channel that it offers to users and journalists alike. News web sites have only begun to explore the techniques for channeling this feedback, using techniques such as instant polls, email, forums, bulletin boards, discussion groups, and online chats with reporters, editors and sources themselves. These channels can be immediate and active, and as web journalism develops, they will become an increasingly important part of the journalist’s milieu.

This new relationship will have profound effects on the way journalists gather information and make decisions. Readers are likely to become sources of information and lead journalists to new inquiries and stories. They could provide valuable perspective to journalists who are new to a story or not part of the community they cover (two of the major criticism of journalists today), offering points of view that journalists would not normally hear in talking with “official” sources about their stories (see chapter 4). The public journalism movement (often called civic journalism), which seeks to involve the community in journalistic decision-making, could be taken to a new levels with the web.

The other side of interactivity is that while the audience can reach toward the news organization, the news organization can find out more about the audience. An organization may ask or require that users register to see its site. (The New York Times does this and gains valuable data on who is looking at its site.) But the technology of the web allows those who run web sites to be less intrusive in finding out information about their visitors. Data can be gathered on where hits are coming from – both from individual computers and the URLs immediately before the hit. The web site can also track a user’s progress through the site even to the point of seeing how long the user spends looking at a particular page. Developing email lists, bulletin boards and forums is yet another way of gathering information about users.

You should be learning what those characteristics are — and teaching them to your students.

Your website should reflect the fact that you understand the web.

 

A news website is not a blog.

News websites are for real news — things that have happened recently or are going to happen.

The Interscholastic Online News Network (ISONN) uses WordPress as the basic content management system for its network (JeffersonNet). WordPress began as blogging software but has since been developed into an excellent tool for multi-user sites, which is what your website it.

News websites emphasize and demand the heart of journalism — information.

One of the great things about the age of journalism in which we are entering is that it will be one where reporting, information, news and writing will take precedence over design. The structure of the web is that content management systems make — or pre-determine — many of the design decisions that print journalists once had to make on a daily or hourly basis.

With the web, however, the journalist has to think more about the information than how it looks. A new term, information architecture, is emerging in journalism, and its importance cannot be overemphasized. We must pay more attention to how visitors use our sites, what they see when they land on a site and how we can get information to them quickly, efficiently, and completely.

 

Speed is one of the great strengths of a website.

The web is immediate.

The immediacy characteristic (described above) is one that you should take advantage of so that it becomes a vital part of the life of your school. Strive to post information about yesterday’s events and today’s and tomorrow’s happenings. If something occurs at your school that people are talking about, try to get something on the website about it, quickly.

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