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Aim for the Heart, Ch. 13: Tell the Story Online

This week’s reading was a chapter out of a great resource that I’ve actually used in a previous class for this program. Like Krug, Tompkins is direct and gives simple advice with simple reasoning: every lesson is themed to maximize your content’s appeal to a reader. This chapter focused mainly on the advantage of interaction that online news and storytelling has over broadcast and print media. Over several pages of bullets highlighting the difference between those passive forms of consumption, the message I walked away with was that while interactive stories are more complex, the engagement your readers have with your story and in a sense, with you, proves to pay off in reader loyalty and in turn even more interaction. My favorite quote to sum up the chapter, from p. 174, is, “Interaction promotes a deeper understanding of the story.” Not only do you have a more nuanced arena to display your knowledge and news gathering, but you can now choose what parts of your stories you want to depict differently, and still create a cohesive story through different media. Like Tompkins says, the flexibility and control of online media compared to broadcast media gives users more access to their news sources and to more information about the story that grabs their attention.

For instance, a common idea is that people don’t want to read stories that are too long. While this may be understandable, there are definitely ways to connect many different smaller works of research and stories into a larger theme or beat. For online journalism though, you can just use this model to continue to bring your readers back, to build updates and context. This would basically lay like a breaking story, then with more time a more investigative piece could be done about the consequences of or events leading up to that story. From there, profiles of the main involved people can be written, all linked to in relevant updates that keep traffic steady to the story as a whole. The Atlantic is my favorite for longform journalism, and the steady pacing, tone of the writing, and plethora of links to related stories throughout are the main reasons why. It keeps you immersed without being overwhelming, even when the story is a a few thousand words long. This story is a great example.

Tompkins’ practical advice for using video and leveraging your digital assets, I found really useful a a beginner in consistent online publishing. While a lot of advice may feel like common sense in hindsight, that’s usually just an indicator that it was good advice. So while I catch myself thinking, “Yeah, makes sense,” while I read about closeup shots and medium shots being better for online video because so many people watch on small devices nowadays, it’s not something you actually cognate until someone outlines that it does make a difference. Then you remember that some videos you watch on your phone feel “busy” or “crowded” and you can connect that that’s probably because their shots weren’t appropriate either for their story or the screen size the intended audience is seeing it on.

Meaningful engagement was interesting to read about because I’d assume you want any and all engagement, but it was validating to read about not all stories being left open to comment sections, because I agree that not all stories benefit from having them, or the audience doesn’t benefit in every case of a story having comments open. Using data to know what engagement is most effective, and making sure to use your analytics to understand when and what to post, again sounds like common sense, but mapping out guidelines like that for your organization can really make or break your viewership. In this same section, (p.183) there was advice given about being consistent and updating often during breaking news, special events, or elections. While I also as a consumer sample more during these occasions, I hadn’t thought about it as a journalist as such an advantageous opportunity to engage a new audience.

All in all, I benefited immensely from this chapter’s practical advice. I especially loved the simple bullet list of “Skills you need to get hired or keep your job” (p 190) and the social media guidelines from the Radio Television Digital News Association. Even more on this second read, I’m appreciating the perspective and experience Tompkins shares.

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Don’t Make Me Think, Steve Krug

In probably the most straightforward and useful textbook I’ve been assigned, Steve Krug gives simple techniques for creating websites that enhance user experience without complicated way finding or overly elaborate marketing schemes.

By sticking to the idea in the title, Krug hones in on a simplistic principle that can be applied almost anywhere: if your product needs explaining, make sure it’s the simplest explanation it can be. There were certain themes I thought I understood and had the most obvious answer to, that I realized could be tweaked to be incredibly more effective, considering how small the changes needed to be. For example, the necessity of a clear page title and tag line: I’ve been making the mistake of thinking that that information is implied and would be redundant. In chapters seven and eight, verbatim and with clear diagrams to support, Krug explains why orientation as the first constant is such an important foundation of a clear, effective website.

The metaphor of the internet being a place that you’ve been dropped into and need to navigate blindly really helped me see holes in what I considered good web design. The “You are here” indicators are my favorite and the first thing I look for on any map, and that shouldn’t be any different when navigating the web. Again, the metaphors presented were explained all the way through.

The information on usability was useful because chapters nine and ten lay out a practical plan to run usability tests and guidelines to qualify usability.

I also appreciated the succinct structure; the chapters were short, the diagrams useful, and the flow of information stayed interesting.

One criticism I’d have would be the footnotes. They were interesting and often funny, but just often enough, there’d actually be useful and relevant information, not just puns or anecdotes. That made me hesitate to skip them, and while it’s always good to read the footnotes, they just seemed to take up a pig portion of the text and labor of the book, which makes me think it was a style choice. I do think it was funny and the sprinkles of real information were probably intended to keep you reading the footnotes, as they did for me, but I don’t think it’s a reliable place to put real information that’s part of your intended lesson, especially when your tone is already informal and the majority of the footnotes aren’t serious.

So it’s not a problem at all, it’s just a second comment on the style choices of the book, but chapter 4 is basically two pages long. While it was slightly jarring to turn the page into another chapter, I understand the format seemed to be a priority to the author, and maybe the information just really needed to be divided that way.

All in all, this might have been one of the easiest reads I’ve had, as a textbook. Krug promised in the introduction that the book could be read on a single airplane ride, (although that also confused me because it’s an incredibly ambiguous claim; where did you depart from and where are you flying? What if it’s only an hour long?) and it did go by surprisingly quickly, while feeling so useful throughout.

Especially for websites based in news, articles, or blogs, I think this book is an essential read.