AP Stylebook changes rule on “illegal immigrant”

On Tuesday, the Associated Press announced a change to its stylebook indicating that its writers should no longer use the term “illegal immigrant” to refer to someone living in a country illegally. The change affects more than just A.P. staffers. Many journalism outlets and independent writers depend on the Associated Press Stylebook to set the standard for terminology and punctuation ethics in the craft.

According to Jim Romenesko, senior vice president and executive editor Kathleen Carroll said that the term “illegal” “should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.”

Carroll said the decision came after extensive discussions including people “from many walks of life,” which caused them to realize their acceptance of “illegal immigrant” was imprecise and not consistent with their standards for other topics like mental health issues, which require writers to use credibly sourced diagnoses instead of labels.

“Will the new guidance make it harder for writers?” Carroll asked. “Perhaps just a bit at first. But while labels may be more facile, they are not accurate.”

Student journalists need to learn SEO more than they need AP style

Last week, journalists reacting to the Associated Press’s announcement that it would replace “Web site” with “website” in the AP Stylebook pushed the phrase “AP Stylebook” onto Twitter’s trending topics list. (FWIW, OJR’s style for the past several years has been to use “website.”)

Most journalists approved of the news, though a few skeptics, such as the University of Florida’s Mindy McAdams, demurred. Though I disagree with her on this, I loved the snark of her Twitter response: “Everyone but me is cheering AP style change to website. I think it resembles parasite.”

I jumped in with this: “If you’re publishing online, Google style (i.e. SEO) always trumps AP style.”

And… “Really, j-schools need to ditch AP style and start teaching their students SEO instead. More valuable to their careers.”

As much as I enjoy provoking folks from time to time, I am serious about this. The newspaper industry developed a common style, maintained by the Associated Press, to meet the communication needs of a print-based industry trying to most effectively communicate with a broad audience.

Today’s online publishers, editors and reporters need a new style that most effectively allows their words to reach their intended audiences. Unfortunately for them, the print-inspired AP style is not that. Today’s (and tomorrow’s) journalists need to learn search engine optimization [SEO] techniques as much as, if not more than their predecessors who worked the print industry needed to learn AP.

The importance of search engine optimization

SEO provides the key to reaching an audience not motivated by existing print brands, including younger readers and readers outside a publication’s traditional search area – folks who might not know to seek out a newspaper website, but who would nevertheless be interested in its content.

Even as Facebook and social media provide an increasing share of referrals to online news sites, search engines still provide the initial point of entry for millions of new visitors to websites each day. If there are techniques that allow you to jump to the front of the line, to attract more of those potential readers, you need to be using them.

Plus, good SEO can help make your pages more lucrative in keyword-targeted advertising systems, such as Google’s AdWords. Sloppy SEO leads to poorly matched ads, lower click-through rates and less money per click or impression.

Finally, most SEO techniques reduce to providing clear, concise writing that stays on topic – that frequently references the key words and phrases that an article’s supposed to be about. That’s good advice for any writer looking to attract readers in a competitive environment. Unfortunately, in print journalism, with readers too long delivered through local monopoly, too many reporters and headline writers became more focused on being clever than clear.

Unfortunately, there’s not a SEO writing textbook for student journalists as clear and ubiquitous as AP’s stylebook. Combine that with academic inertia and faculties loaded with print refugees, and it’s no surprise that most j-school students get much more instruction in AP style than the SEO they so urgently will need when they begin professional work. (If there is a great SEO text for online news writers out there, I’m hopeful that a reader will let us know, in the comments.)

We’ve written frequently about SEO for journalists here on OJR. In lieu of a good textbook, I’d refer students to Danny Sullivan’s Ttop 10 SEO tips for journalists and Eric Ulken’s headline-writing advice, as well as my advice on SEO-friendly hyperlinking and plea not to break your SEO-valuable inbound links.

I name-checked Mindy McAdams before, and she deserves another mention here, as she’s written what I consider the best single page of advice on SEO-friendly newswriting. Every j-student, and working journalist, should read it.

But what about both?

Replying to my tweets on this matter, Matt Roseboom asked: “I publish online and in print, as most do. Should I use AP or SEO?”

My reply? Do both. Use the print-inspired AP style when producing articles for your print publication (though I would use the inspiration of SEO to keep writing tight). Use SEO techniques when writing for the Web.

But what about articles that appear both in print and online?

(Taking a deep breath now….) Repurposing content leaves you with a website that acts like a newspaper and a newspaper that reads like a website. It’s not a completely satisfying experience for readers in either medium. If you want to maximize your readership – and your revenue – in multiple media, then your organization needs to produce its content specifically for the media in which it publishes.

Does this mean that print stories shouldn’t appear online? No.

So what does this mean a newspaper website should do, and look like?

Well, that’s the question I’m going to take up in a series of articles, starting next Wednesday here on OJR. What should an optimal newspaper website look like in 2010? Come back next Wednesday, and we’ll talk about it.

* Update: Since I’m one of those writers who comes up with his best line six hours after hitting the “publish” button, I’ll take advantage of the medium to add this:

SEO will help you gain new readers online. AP style will not. If you need new readers to make money, then SEO will help you more than AP style. That’s it. It’s just the reality of publishing online today. You can either adapt and accommodate it, or shake your fist at it and resist.

Second, I believe that much of the hostility toward this idea springs from a belief that search-engine algorithms are written to fulfill the needs of machines, and not people. I’ve been writing online long enough to see how SEO techniques have changed over the years as search engines have changed their algorithms. (Remember long blocks of white-text keywords, in the Alta Vista era?)

Why did they change? To better serve the needs of their users.

As Google and Bing change their algorithms to serve better their audiences, and various competitors to step to challenge them, SEO techniques will evolve in response. Ultimately, though, the arc of SEO bends toward tighter, more focused and more reader-friendly writing.

It's time to retire newspaper circulation data in favor of Web analytics – But which ones?

This is part one in a two-part series on Web analytics and the future of news

Newspaper circulation numbers are taken as report cards for survival. When worse than expected for too long, these numbers forewarn of future layoffs and corporate restructuring – and at the very worst, the death of a newspaper.

But we’re putting our emphasis, energy, and nostalgia in the wrong place. The future is in Web analytics, but this extends beyond just knowing about page views, unique users, and visits.

“If newspapers have any chance of making it in an online and social media world with an ad based model, we’ve got to see much more living and dying by analytics,” said Dana Chinn, a lecturer at the USC Annenberg School of Communication.

Nonetheless, a print mentality dominates our current understanding of the media landscape.

Consider, as an example of the formidable significance circulation numbers have in our industry, a June 15, 2009 AP story about the troubles facing the Boston Globe:

“In the most recent report from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the Globe’s average weekday circulation dropped nearly 14 percent to 302,638 from the previous year. Sunday circulation was down more than 11 percent at 466,665.”

Or, for instance, the February 27, 2009 LA Times article about the death of the Rocky Mountain News, “The paper’s weekday circulation was 210,000; as recently as 2000, it boasted a circulation of 446,000.” Reporter Nicolas Riccardi used the figures like we all seem to do: as a grim snapshot of decline.

The State of the News Media 2009 report gives this grim picture:

“Losses continued and, in fact, accelerated to 4.6% daily and 4.8% Sunday, in the six months ending September 30, 2008, compared to the same period a year earlier…. More papers plan to retreat geographically and put less money into selling new subscriptions in 2009. 

“The industry also continues to struggle to find a metric for total print and online readership that will be meaningful to advertisers.  The online standard – unique monthly visitors – does not compare in frequency or intensity of attention to average daily print circulation.”

But there is an increasing recognition even among the advertising side of the industry that circulation is just a number among many other numbers.

“There are a lot of new measures. It’s not anymore just circulation, it’s not just readership,” said Roberta Garfinkle, the director of print strategy at Target Cast tcm, which offers strategic communication advice for brands. “It’s really who is seeing my ad when are they seeing it and what are they doing about it.”

The State of the News Media’s suggestion that there is an industry “online standard” for measurements is deeply flawed and underscores how much the news industry has to gain from Web analytics. But analytics are not simple and are different for each paper.

Unlike with circulation, there is no way to accurately measure markets against each other or newspapers against each other online. There are two problems: the fuzziness of the Web numbers themselves and the unique variations and development on each website that make it important to customize analytics to that particular newspaper.

“In a print mode, circulation was a good apples to apples comparison. In an online world, you can use uniques, which is a bad number, visits, which is an ok number, page views, [which] can be gamed. It really depends on your end goal,” said Alan Segal, the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Director of Audience Development.

Depending on the combination of blogs, video, audio, shovelware and other forms of content on a news site, newspapers need to realize that each Web metric they generate is highly contextual to the product they’ve created. And they need to leverage that information with advertisers.

As Alex Langshur, president of the Web Analytics Association, explained, “It’s likely that each outlet will become more differentiated from the others based on the resources that it applies, which then creates different measures for success.”

But as I will explain in the next article on this topic, understanding metrics is incredibly difficult and contingent for each news organization.

We’ll parse through what some of these terms: page views, unique visitors, visits actually mean – and we’ll look at why the numbers from the major auditing companies from comScore to Nielsen to Google Analytics need to be taken with careful consideration. Finally, we’ll look at how news businesses actually can marshal this complicated mess into something that can be used to their advantage.