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Print! A Guide for Perplexed Web Denizens

Preliminary advice for web writers on managing the weird world of the dead-tree press

I’ve never taken it as such. I do not consider blogging, tweeting and status-updating to be an inferior form of journalism. I was a blogger long before I was a columnist or a foreign correspondent, which meant that I had to work out how to write accurately, engagingly and fast all by myself. I picked up the basics of how not to get sued without the self-censorship that comes from a long apprenticeship on a newspaper straight out of college. I come from a world of angsty LiveJournal updates, fanfiction, forums, and nerdy early specialisation. By the time I got into a newsroom, I already had a sizeable online following and many published pieces.

This is how most people now become professional writers.

The industry has been slow to catch on to that idea. I was informed, upon starting coursework for the official NCTJ certificate, that the best way to train as a real writer would be to go and cover flower shows and dog grooming contests for a local paper with no web outlet for a few years. I knew that this was arrant bollocks. I was already cutting my teeth in public, with all the challenges that involved.

The people who are in charge of the news economy still largely got their start on the geraniums and the pedigree poodles. They come from a different time, when the scrutiny that journalism was subject to was more sporadic, less personal and exacting. Some people get it — people like Kath Viner, editor of The Guardian’s Australian incarnation. Her recent speech is an excellent rundown of all the things web writers have known for years and print journalists are struggling to acknowledge.

Journalism is in a weird liminal space, caught between the possibilities of digital and the traditions and rigours of analogue. There was a time when journalism was something that happened in newspapers, which were funded by a combination of advertising revenue and people going to shops and buying the physical products and read them from the front cover to the back, or from the back cover to the front, depending on how interested they were in team sports. That time is over. But we still haven’t quite worked out what comes next.

I like to think of print media as a frail and distant elderly relative.

Print may or may not have vast wealth to bequeath us, and is keeping us in thrall to its increasingly eccentric requests until it eventually dies, which might be in two years or in twenty. Print shambles on, and in the meantime we have to prop it up and bring it news of the outside world, and put up with it telling us we’re rude and strange.

Print is outdated, and doddery, and badly adapted to the modern media ecosystem. But, to extend the maiden-aunt metaphor, it has also been around for longer than us. Print is smarter than we sometimes give it credit for. And like it or not, we are related. Today’s web journalists have inherited some of the congenital weaknesses of yesterday’s hard-copy hacks; vestigial traces of a time when discursive space was more limited, when stories broke once a day rather than continually, when journalists and columnists spoke only to one another and were not routinely required to engage with readers.

So here — as an addendum to Viner’s speech to editors trying to adapt themselves to the web — is some advice for web writers trying to understand the weird, stilted world of print, how to manage it, and where it keeps the good drugs when it goes for its nap.

Hard copy cannot update. This is the most obvious and frustrating part of transitioning from web to print. If you’ve grown up as a writer in an environment where you could always go back and correct yourself, or add a clever phrase you’ve just thought of, or respond to readers in the comments, writing for print is going to come as a shock. With print, you’ve only got one bullet, and even if you aim it right, by the time the edition goes to press the target might have moved. This is one of many reasons why we should not consider print the highest possible form of contribution to public conversation. Just because it rots doesn’t make it readable.

Word counts are good for you. Writing online, my essays tend to gravitate to one of two natural lengths: 1,200 or 1,900 words. That’s about enough room to truly flesh out two or three ideas. Hard copy permits far less space — an 800 word report is now considered a ‘long piece’ in many papers. Word counts are frustrating as hell. They force you to stretch or squash your writing into toturous new shapes and still make it say something decent and meaningful. That’s why they’re good exercise. Word counts suck like sit-ups suck.

For six months, I wrote a regular column at the extremely tricky length of 600 words, which is not enough space to complete one idea discursively, and too much space for a simple observation. I did it by chopping down a longer web piece which would go online three days after the print edition hit the stands. Most professional web outlets still set word limits for their writers, albeit more sensible ones, because it’s a discipline every wordmonger can learn from.

The web is where you write with the fucks back in. Literally and figuratively. When I write online, I can be more profane, more honest, angrier. Most importantly, I am not required to address every possible person who might pick up the paper for the crossword and flick to my page. Online, people are directed to my writing via recommendations, links and shares. That changes everything. I can assume a greater degree of knowledge, or provide links to back up facts without having to deviate into long explanatory parenthesis. However, the experience of writing for print has taught me that most comment pieces work better if you pretend you’re talking to a very clever friend who knows nothing about the subject at hand. For that reason, I tend to write with fewer hyperlinks than many other web writers I know; it’s a habit that comes from years of having to adapt copy for print.

Hard copy is not part of a spectrum. I am a professional writer; I am also a social being. When I’m working on a piece, like this one, it exists on a continuum between the purely social and the professional, a continuum that includes my friends’ angsty late-night status updates, fluffy Buzzfeed articles, serious longreads and reactions to those longreads and reactions to the reactions on private and public sites. I’m typing this up in an email to myself, and I have Twitter and Facebook open in different tabs, as well as a few other articles that have been shared on people’s feeds. I get my media through recommendations, shares and retweets. I rarely watch TV news; in fact, this year I have appear on TV news more often than I have watched it of my own accord. The word ‘social’ is rapidly becoming an obsolete prefix to the word ‘media’, and everyone with regular internet access is, to some extent, a writer. Journalists should not hold ourselves aloof.

That doesn’t mean we don’t deserve to get paid. Getting paid is one of the best and most important parts of being a writer. Good writing and hard-hitting journalism still matter, and people are still willing to pay real money to support that effort. Which brings me on to the fact that…

Hard copy occasionally pays actual money. This is the main reason we still have to play nice and engage with it. When you eventually receive a cheque from a print outlet, do not freak out, and don’t go and spend it all on shoes, or chocolate, or chocolate shoes. Understand that the print/web pay differential is a temporary anomaly, and concentrate on making your writing as good as it possibly can be whatever your audience. Just because print pays more doesn’t mean that print is more important, or more widely read, or more meaningful.

Because web copy pays less, some editors — albeit fewer than a few years ago — still think that it takes less time and effort. I know young writers working for feedsites that require them to turn out five or six long, well-researched pieces per day. They are burning out. They have no time to read and develop their ideas. Web editors must understand, and the best ones do, that successful web copy is not a question of commissioning everything you possibly can for as cheap as possible, throwing it all at a wall and hoping something sticks. The best writers can come up with several truly great pieces per week, and that’s the case whether they’re writing three or thirty articles in that time.

If you’re in the latter category, toiling away on a content farm or chained to the production line on the factory floor of ideas, I am truly sorry. Hang in there. The one thing we can say for sure about the current digital media economy is this: it won’t be forever.

cc image from Wikimedia Commons

Based on a true story. Author, journalist, screenwriter, social justice bard.

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