Journalism and SEO

A recent piece I wrote for Journalism.co.uk drew quite some reaction not to mention about 200 emails which came through HelpMySEO on the subject which indicates perhaps that somewhere a raw nerve was touched. Now, I have written on the ability of writers and authors to affect SEO gains here before so the issue when it comes to journalism and SEO has less to do with ability and more to do with ideology and politics.

 
Let’s examine the facts in the cold light of logic. Right now journalism is divided into two camps those who are working for a news organization where their role, technological advances in text production and reporting notwithstanding, has hardly changed the last 150 years and those who are off the reservation and as freelancers use every means at their disposal to increase their share of a professional market pie which seems to be getting smaller.
 
 
From where I stand both camps stand to gain from a studied understanding of search engine optimization. As journalists, we owe it to ourselves, to make our writing as applicable and widely read as possible and this means thinking not just as journalists breaking a story or reporting some facts but also as news consumers looking for the same story or facts we work so hard to break in the first place.
 
The web, for journalism, did not really lead to a paradigm shift. Traditionally the means we have used to get the news and stories we write to those who publish them have always been at the forefront of their day, from carrier pigeons in the first World War to email today. This has left the status quo largely intact. The two camps unaltered and, for those working inside the reservation, has brought the additional benefits which come from a more widely accessible platform for next to no effort.
 
The web, however, does not work like that. Everything that is connected with it has to do with change, paradigm shifts and new ways of doing ‘old things’. In that format it has brought about the rise of citizen journalism, hyper-realistic models of reporting which utilize a wide variety of existing online sources to synthesize a story, user-generated content where sometimes the response (as happened with the recent Nick Clegg negative attack which went viral in a matter of hours and backfired on those who had unleashed it) is the story itself.
 
The result of these changes is as predictable as it is inexorable: traditional journalism has found it harder and harder to justify its presence and has, as a result, hidden behind paywalls and disingenuous arguments regarding the quality of writing. The latter is entirely true, professional writing is always better balanced and more effortless to read the former is a kneejerk reaction which smacks of protectionism and either should not be a reason for missing out using correctly the online revolution.
 
This is the same revolution which creates Twitter memes in minutes, makes The Huffington Post a valuable journalistic resource and, if accepted and adopted by news organisations, has the potential of changing the face of media forever.
 
What this involves at a practical level is as simple as it is ideologically difficult to accept:
 
1. Throw away the dynamic of the model where a news organization holds complete control over the fates of its journalists and uses the paymaster reins to complete control their output and their value to what it deems to be fair. Give journalists SEO training and employ the technology necessary to gauge the effectiveness of their reach and the popularity of their writing.
 
2. Reward top performers and accept that there are also times when the writing they will do is important but not as popular and calculate this factor in the reward model.
 
3. Re-invent the profit-based model to provide totally free content which leverages the reach and immediacy of the web to profit from those accessing it in ways that are more democratic and utilize the public’s access to news content better. This may involve any combination of existing online advertising models and it allows the option of paid-for content which has a heavy analysis-biased or implementation value (like the FT or current online intelligence sites).
 
4. Actively employ SEO to do what Google does: reach everybody for as low a cost as possible and work to make a small amount of money from a massive amount of people. This means the news organizations must also change their traditional views as the gatekeepers to news and news gathering and become instead managers of news streams and breaking stories.
 
The sticking point to all this is ideological. Hiding behind the copyright act news corporations are seeking to find ways to restrict access to their content at a time when the only real model which makes sense is one which throws their content wide open to the online reading public. Hiding behind a top-down, traditional profit model of news access they fail to see anything other an erosion of profit and a reduction of circulation figures which leads to a reduction in advertising revenue.
 
In each case they blame it on copyright theft (debatable) and a drop in the number of people reading (completely wrong). Copyright is important but it should not be a lock on information. There are ways to respect it and still find the means to make it accessible and that is the challenge we should all be looking to solve. The number of people who read has grown exponentially with the adoption of the web, what’s changed is the format. There are more people reading information online every day from both those who used to read it on paper and those who used to never read it at all. The result of this migration is a reduction in circulation figures for traditional paper and a reduction in the number of people who were simply uninformed.
 
If journalism and news-gathering are to survive then what is needed here is a wholehearted adoption of technology, search engine optimization and a free-content based model which is monetized through carefully thought-through approaches which work within the needs of its target audience. Is that easy to implement? No, it isn’t. It requires the same amount of effort, thought and refinement which has led to the current paper-based model. But to use that as an excuse to do nothing will only ensure that eventually, when something has to be done, the margins available for errors and experimentation will be minimal.