Without always saying so, Yahoo is concerned about the tendency of editors to transfer print standards to the Web. For example, newspaper journalists like to use italics to convey everything from emphasis to irony. But as the guide points out, those italics don’t show up in online RSS feeds or search-engine results, so the reader may get a completely different impression from what the author intended. Digital editors are advised to write and insert “alt text” when publishing photos; if some readers, constrained by anything from a slow Internet connection to a visual impairment, are unable to see the image, the text will still convey its content. And woe to the editor who thinks that fixing a mistake moments after it’s published means your readers will never see it. As the guide notes, errors show up instantly in RSS feeds and e-mails, and caching has a way of revealing all kinds of history we might want to forget or erase.
As befitting a book published by Yahoo, the guide emphasizes techniques to make content easily searchable, as a way to drive traffic and help ensure the success of your site. The reader is urged to “[s]eed your copy with keywords” that search engines can find quickly—and embed those keywords in headings and other display type that count the most. Link to other sites, and encourage those sites to link to yours. And if you have the choice between being clever and being search-engine friendly, opt for the latter.
Such advice may come as a shock to journalists trained to write and prize deftly written, pun-laden display copy. Back in 1993, The Wall Street Journal’s story about vegetarian dogs led with the wonderful headline, “Ruff, Ruff, Ruffage! Here, Rover, Have a Nice Bean Sprout.” Online, that might be reduced to the blander, more SEO-friendly, “Tips to Feed Your Dog a Vegan Diet.” (That said, “Headless Body in Topless Bar” would work as well on nypost.com today as it did in the New York Post in 1983.)
There are some problems with the guide, particularly in the section devoted to legal issues. U.S. media law, ranging from copyright to libel, is reduced to ten pages, the gist of which is: Don’t copy other people’s content without permission, and if anything else comes up, find a good lawyer.
And for journalists, other chapters will strike an odd chord. Yahoo intends this guide to be used by anyone writing for the Web, and much advice is geared more toward marketing than journalism. So, should reporters and editors be turned off by guidelines designed to get people to read your promotional e-mail, or tips on how to get your headlines picked up by search engines?
This is a question dogging newsrooms everywhere, particularly when reporters are judged by page-view metrics, when their jobs consist increasingly of ensuring their stories are touted on Twitter and Facebook, linked to by influential bloggers, and otherwise marketed beyond whatever traffic comes off the home page. And that, in fact, is what makes this guide so interesting. Yahoo, without apology or complaint, embraces the view that online writers and editors are responsible for building and curating their audiences. At the same time, it asserts the need for editorial standards that will “inspire trust in this new medium…. Elevating content creation to the level of craft benefits everyone on the Web.”
In an interview, Barr says it’s not so important that a site follow Yahoo’s guidelines, but that it follow some rules that are transparent and enforced. To this end, the book devotes an entire chapter to showing editors how to create a “word list”—basically, a mini style sheet—that staffers can follow, rigorously. “Our advice is to be consistent, to develop a ‘voice compass,’” says Barr. “We don’t care what you choose—as long as you choose one style and stick with it.”
It’s way too early to say whether the Yahoo guide will match the ubiquity of the AP stylebook. But journalists who care about where their industry is headed will want to own one, both for the concise advice it offers and for the underlying message it conveys.
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