Looking for truth in the post-truth era: new challenges for the web journalism

Looking for truth in the post-truth era: new challenges for the web journalism

How is journalism evolving in the digital era? What are the needs, challenges, and opportunities for web journalism in 2017 – and in the years to come? We are interviewing web writers, journalists, and publishers to understand the state of the art of digital journalism and try to predict future trends.

In the middle of the Nineties, my father used to buy – and read – a newspaper two or three times a week, plus one or two weekly magazines – and he also watched daily news on TV. In early ’00 online media started to erode, year after year, the space of printed media and television. Nowadays most of the information diet of the Millennials is based on articles and news published online by several kinds of sources and repurposed seamlessly by search engines and social media.

The publishing industry has evolved more quickly in the last 25 years than in the previous 250.

Journalists and web writers are facing this evolution. Sometimes they’re surfing it like a good wave, sometimes they are just overwhelmed. In this article you’ll find the opinion of three expert web writers who deal with the challenges of online journalism in their daily work.

Skip to…

  1. Attention is shrinking
  2. What happened to the truth?
  3. SEO is a must or…
  4. Long-form articles are coming back
  5. Time management is complicated

1. Attention is shrinking

Human attention span

We’ve lost 4 seconds of our attention span in just 13 years: how long will humans be able to keep attention in 13 years from now?

According to a recent study published by Microsoft, human attention span is gradually dropping, year after year: in 2013 average human attention span was around 8 seconds – which means that we stay focused for less time than a goldfish!

For journalists who write articles and want people to read them, this is a real challenge: what kind of strategies can you use to keep a high level of attention over your content?

Valentina Ferrero, Editor in Chief at Diario Innovazione, has her own recipe:

“I use to write emotional articles and I use storytelling techniques to make them appealing. I also link similar stories and deep insights into my text in order to give something more to my reader and engage him within the website.” 

A similar advice comes from Ben Dickson, Software Engineer and Contributor at TechCrunch, The Next Web, Venture Beat, and more.

“I’m focused on two areas in terms of editorial planning:

  • Timely writing: Delivering articles that relate to things that are happening now or will happen in the near future

  • Evergreen writing: Articles that will be worth reading for months and possibly years to come.”

2. What happened to the truth?

In the end of 2016 post-truth was elected ‘word of the year‘ by the Oxford Dictionary, even if fake news are not new at all: there have been hoaxes as long as there’s been someone reporting news, more or less.

So what’s the point with post-truth?

  • Readers’ (bad) habits: today many people only scroll the latest news on their smartphones and sometimes they share articles without reading anything but the title
  • Hoax production is easier than ever: if you have a look at the most famous historical hoaxes, you’ll notice that – at least – creating a hoax required some effort. Today anyone can produce them with a device connected to the Internet.
  • The fear of missing out is forcing digital journalists to write more and more news – sometimes regardless to the most elementary fact-checking.

In this scenario, fake news spread like wildfire, and people seem more likely to be engaged by any news which appeals to emotions, rather than actual facts.

Today fake news affect social life, politics and even economics: just as an example, many commentators claim that Trump’s election was influenced by fake news about Hilary Clinton. In the latest months, search engines and social media are preparing their weapons to detect and fight fake news.

Meanwhile, media and journalism are losing their trustability, and to gain it back they need to work harder on fact-checking and quality. How?

Here is the experience of Ben Dickson:

“I think fake news is not new. Mainstream media has been dabbling in biased reporting and misrepresenting the truth for a long time. Although for the most part, mainstream media don’t go as far as bringing up falsified facts (such as the Pope supporting Trump), they do tend to only reflect the part of the story that serves their own end, or quote unnamed and anonymous sources that can’t be verified. There is more than one case where top news outlets have reported events in ways that represented or worked towards furthering the political ends of the political party or school of thought they represented.

However, with the explosion of social media and online services, fake news has become democratized and it’s now within everyone’s reach. This is a deeply social, ethical and political issue. There’s not consensus on what’s true and what’s fake. And though I’ve seen some tools and efforts to fact check and evaluate the reliability of a site’s content, I’m not sure if we can develop a tool (or set of tools) that will ultimately rid the web of fake news.

I personally think the truth is out there (wow, X-Files meme!) and I believe reader discretion and research is the key to separating fact from fiction and hype from reality. When I read something for a fact, I always try to find the counter argument and see the other side of the story. I always check a fact from several conflicting sources and then try to find the median. It’s tough work, but it’s rewarding!”

There is also another face of the moon, and I’d like to show it to you through the voice – well, the words – of Alfonso Biondi, Web Content Specialist at Banzai and Co-founder at Lercio, one of the most popular satirical news journals in Italy.

The Lercio-man adores fake news: they’re what he can do best after drinking for free. I would like to clear up any misunderstaning: fake news I love and enjoy writing are those with a satirical slant, I’m not talking about hoaxes. Where is the difference? Let’s make an example (the same you find on Bufale.net).

Take these two news:

1) Boldrini: “Disgusted by Referendum’s result, I quit politics, you don’t deserve me!”

2) Boldrini: “We should educate fetuses not to kick their mothers”

Both news talk about the same person – Laura Boldrini, an Italian politician well-known for her feminist battles – and both are false. So, they are two examples of fake news, right? But, as you can notice, in the first example there’s nothing fun, it’s just a hoax indeed, a bait for ingenous fishes; in the second case, the satirical intent of the news is obvious, you can’t misunderstand it: it’s Lercio, baby.”

3. SEO is a must, or…

Dead or alive, SEO is a matter of concern: you need to stay up-to-date and sometimes you feel like you’re walking on the thin line of a delicate balance between spam and optimization.

Ben’s strategy is quite sophisticated:

“I mostly focus on content and intent than technical SEO tricks. As far as SEO is concerned, I’m focused on writing human-friendly content and stick to writing best practices (short sentences, active voice, short paragraphs, subheadings…). In some cases, when writing evergreen content, I also do a little keyword research and optimization.”

Again, Valentina agrees with Ben:

I only follow SEO rules for cold, evergreen content, which can attract visits without regard to timing.”

Sometimes, you can even ignore SEO and still rule the traffic game, here is the experience of Alfonso Biondi:

When I write for Lercio, I enjoy keeping SEO in the drawler of the useless things – not far from my gym pass. It’s quite obvious: satirical fake news are 100% creative pieces of content, due to their eccenticity and singularity. They just can’t be kept in a keyword’s cage.

Well, I know that our case is extraordinary in the context of online publishing, where SEO is a primary need in content creation and writing. I know what I’m talking about, since I work as a web content specialist and I use to deal with SEO daily.”

4. Long-form articles are coming back

For long years, journalists were convinced that readers don’t consume long articles online, but only quick, straight-to-the-point, short content. In the last five years, a countertendency emerged: there is space for successful long-form articles, containing more than 1.000 words – and up to 20.000… that’s truly a lot to read! – and often enriched with visual media such as pictures, graphics, and videos.

Long-form Articles - The Quartz Curve | WordLift

As you can see from the Quartz curve, chances of success are at their lowest between 500 and 800 words

A lot of interest over long-form article was raised by Kevin Delany, Editor in Chief at Quartz who in 2013 presented the so-called Quartz Curve to explain his editorial choices. This U shaped curve, shows that articles with less than 500 words and articles with more than 800 are more likely to have success.

People read short, fast content on the webhe saidand also long-form, analytical pieces. Articles of between 500 and 800 words are too long to be sharable, and too short to be in-depth”

It may look like a contradiction in the context of a shorter attention span. To get deeper, we asked Ben Dickson, who uses to write many long-form articles, if this kind of content is a gamble or a winning strategy. Here is his what comes from his experience:

“I think that if you start with a strong lede, and structure your article in a compelling way (with smart use of sub-headings and bullet points) you’ll be able to cater to the needs of both readers who are looking to skim over the subject and those who would like more in-depth content.”

5. Time management is complicated

We use to say that writers should write but, actually, they are super-busy with many other activities beyond writing.

In every newsroom, the lack of time is one of the major complaints – and if you ask freelancers their pain is the same, or even harder. This is not an emerging question, but with tons of distractions, a multitude of available sources and – often – even new tasks to accomplish, timing is more crucial than ever.

We asked Ben, Valentina, and Alfonso what are the activities that take them more time and how they deal with them.

Ben: “I do a lot of research and fact checking for my articles. I like to interview subject experts and corroborate my research with thought leaders and people who have experience and know-how in the domain that I’m exploring. I believe that it slows down my production rate somehow, but it’s worth the effort. It forces me to socialize and get in touch with wonderful people. I think this is an important issue in a day and age where Google is trying to answer your every question and social media platforms such as Facebook try to dictate their knowledge to you.”

Valentina: “Digital relations, partnerships, and alliances are a must. Like it or not, cooperation in these days counts more than anything else!”

Alfonso: “If we agree to keep out of the list of the most time-consuming tasks the keyword cleaning from muffin crumbles, I don’t have doubts: the most difficult thing is to turn that ‘misterous something’ floating in the air in an actual idea you can write about. This is the stage before writing, but here is where writing takes place: the idea before the idea. Besides being the most difficult part, it is also the most beautiful one. Can I have the ice-cream you promised me?”

Some key learnings to think about

What did we learn from the experience of these digital journalists?

  1. Use emotional writing and storytelling to keep the reader on your page
    You can also add internal links to help your reader get deeper into his matter of interest: WordLift can do that on the basis of a semantic text analysis, so you’ll be able to retrieve old articles – even if they are written by other contributors of the same website.
  2. Research, fact-checking, and counter arguments: these are the weapons you have in your constant search for the truth.
  3. Focus on writing for humans and optimize SEO keywords for evergreen content
    After years of online writing under the diktat of machines and keyword optimization, focusing on a human-friendly text is actually a good strategy, since also search engines are moving from keyword to natural language processing.
  4. Structure your article to fit the needs of all your readers (those who are just scanning content and those who need some deeper insight)
    We would also add to this structure the entities, as a primary brick to build the meaning and context of your content.
  5. Relations and cooperation count more than ever.

Ben, Valentina, Alfonso and many other web journalists out there are working really hard in a world that produces data and information like never before, and that’s way more complex. Online journalism needs new tools to match the growing need of valuable, trustable information in a World Wide Web which is evolving in the direction of semantics.

May semantic technologies be the answer?

A semantic cure for online journalism

Well, semantic publishing may not turn the day into 48 hours, but… by automating tagging, on-page SEO tasks, and categorization, it reduces the amount of manual work and helps sparing precious time.

It can be a valuable content marketing strategy to brilliantly overcome many of these challenges turning them into opportunities to shine in the market. How?

  • It enriches content with a context and helps publishers build their trustworthiness and find data that can support their writing process.
  • Linked Data helps engage different kinds of readers with a personalized experience, giving little bits of information to those who need a quick answer and giving many chances of getting deeper in the matter to those who want to learn more.
  • The internal vocabulary can be used as a shared knowledge base within the newsdesk, helping journalists to cooperate with their peers.

Wanna learn more?

If you are curious about semantic publishing, you should give WordLift a try: book a live demo now!

How to survive 2017 with your blog: a conversation with Luca Conti

How to survive 2017 with your blog: a conversation with Luca Conti

Rapid changes are transforming the online media industry, demanding new evolutions to editorial teams, bloggers and content writers.

Last November, the Oxford English Dictionary chose post-truth as Word of the Year 2016, an adjective that can be used to denote those “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. On the other hand, Ev Williams, Medium’s Founder and CEO, was forced to fire one-third of his company’s employees a few weeks ago. Williams stated that Medium is still looking for a model that fits the aim of promoting quality content (and make money out of it).

Meanwhile, more challenges are becoming tangible for web content writers: according to Google today voice search covers 20% of mobile queries, new potential threats to the open web such as Google AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) are raising questions and doubts, and new web search algorithms that resemble more and more our natural language are desperately scanning sites for high-quality content. In this scenario, many questions come out, and could be summed up with: what’s the future of blogs? How should they evolve in a transforming and challenging web?

We had the chance to discuss these themes with Luca Conti: a well-known Italian blogger, web marketing consultant, author of many books, and professor at Milano-Bicocca. We met him last December at the WordPress Meetup in Rome and, back then, in his talk Luca presented us his clear vision of the future of the Web.

S. As you said many times, content marketers should strive to answer the questions that are relevant to users. Nowadays, figuring out the question seems even more important than the answer itself, doesn’t it?

L. Predicting users’ question helps to better promote a valuable answer. Choosing the right words and working with web analytics tools to spot all the hidden needs are starting points of the process of content-crafting, truly relevant to readers. When an answer meets a real need, then the goal is fulfilled.

S. We dwell in the fluid context of post-truth, where facts appear less important to public opinion than emotions and personal beliefs. What would you suggest to those who want to start a blog in 2017?

L. Engage your readers, speak both to their emotional mind and to the rational one. Empathy and sense of humor always help when trying to walk in your reader’s shoes. Choosing the right words in the right way, also definitely helps. It may seem easy, but it’s not easy at all. The first gap to fill is learning specific skills and applying them in your writing. When you have filled that gap, your new writing and understanding of the topic will grow your readership in a context where attention is scarce.

S. According to your experience, is there a way to create an economic value through a blog?

L. I keep on firmly believing that a blog is capable of contributing to create value: never underestimate the social side of the web, especially Facebook, because that’s where people spend more and more time (maybe too much, in my opinion). In this scenario, wisely keeping a blog means weighing the contribution it can offer, in a mix of different content formats. The specific value of a blog can be derived from the opportunity of owning an online identity under one’s complete control. Of course you can get thousands of easy clicks on Facebook, but relying on social web only, means investing a lot in advertising and becoming a “digital sharecropper” working for a more powerful absentee landlord. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe just nostalgic, but I know one thing for sure. I don’t like it.

S. More than once, you wrote that you consider blogs as hubs of good content marketing strategies. Do you think that blogs will still be relevant in the years to come, when referred to the context of an evolving social web?

L. There are powers, such as Blockchain, whose aim is to avoid that the web will converge into too few hands. This challenge is apparently much like tilting at windmills when we consider the power that Facebook has today, but only time can tell. Not everyone happy being confined into a Facebook page, and this is the reason why I think bloggers still have more aces in their sleeves.

S. In your recent article, you wrote that semantic web is preparing itself to start a revolution in the world of content. How do you figure out this revolution will look like?

L. Digital assistants are the weapon that can contribute into the breaking Facebook’s monopoly. In this field, Facebook is just a follower and the game is pretty hard. Google Home and Amazon Echo are moving their first steps into American houses and, once integrated into a family context, they will change forever the way we keep ourselves informed. Semantic web is the chance blogs were waiting in order to make a great comeback straight into the heart of a new context of free and open information, thanks to standards such as schema.org. The best is yet to come.

S. You’ve started to use WordLift on your blog: what are your first impressions as a seasoned blogger?

L. It’s a very useful product. Maybe it needs some refinements before it becomes a tool used by the masses, but it has all the potential to contribute to the structured content revolution in blogging and more.

Talking with Luca is always inspiring, and you can get even more inspiration from his books: check out his Content Marketing guide, written with Cristiano Carriero and published by Hoepli.

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