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freelance.stanford.edu – Jun 18-19 – Stanford University

Writing in the Digital Age Puts New Demands on Freelancers

Publications looking for freelancers who can make video, take photos, copy edit, social network and interact with readers

By Kathryn Roethel

According to editors and panelists at Stanford's Future of Freelancing Conference, the biggest difference between writing for print and writing for online publication is the demand that writers interact with their readers.

The internet has made it possible - for the first time in the history of the news industry - for publications to track which articles people are reading. And any author who can demonstrate that his work has a following is a writer editors want to hire.

"You have to remember that work doesn't end as a freelancer after you turn the piece in," said Scott Robson, vice president for MTV's new movies initiative. "You have to be able to blog about it and get it out to your network. Get involved in comments, look at web traffic and decide if the it all warrants a follow-up article."

Karen Steen is a senior editor at BNET, the business advice website that relies primarily on freelance contributors for its content.

"The biggest difference between writing for print and writing or the web is that people can comment on the web articles. Some of our best story ideas come out of reader comments. There's a lot of back-and-forth between readers and writers."

Steen added that BNET expects its bloggers to be proficient in all areas of publishing - many of which never used to be expected of writers.

"When you're a blogger, you publish your own stuff," Steen said. "You're the writer, the photographer, the copy editor, the video producer. You have to optimize for search engines and choose topics that will be of interest. I encourage my bloggers to use tools like Google Trends and Google Insights to learn what topics they should be writing about. There, you can get the top 20 things people are searching for today."

Jonathan Weber, editor-in-chief of the online Bay Area Citizen, which produces Bay Area content for the New York Times, noted the difference in online and print writing styles.

"The most effective online writing is stylistic," he said. "You have the opportunity to experiment with different kinds of writing styles that you don't have in print. We do two print pages every day for the New York Times, which is very formal in style. It's hard to satisfy the needs of the Times but at the same time have our online writing that's not totally bound by that."

Another difference Weber noted was that cute, pun-filled headlines, which catch readers' eyes in print publications, are not well suited for the internet.

"They're useless for search engine optimization," he said. "They don't tell Google, or people searching on the internet what the article is really about."

Steen also had advice for writers looking to prime their online articles for better search engine optimization: selectively link key words in the content.

"If you're linking to an article in the New York Times, don't link the words 'New York Times,'" Steen said. "Instead, link to the words the Times' article is about - especially if those words are hot searches on Google.

We've learned, sadly, that using celebrity names and the word 'porn' in the headline do work for search engine optimization. I don't recommend doing that every time, but there's still strategy we can take away from that."

Marcia Parker, Patch.com's west coast editorial director, echoed what her colleagues at the conference said, but she had one more traditional point to stress: good content is still key.

"You still have to have good journalism skills for digital writing," Parker said. "That's the thing we value most. Think of the rest as using technology to find new ways to connect with your readers."