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Will Journalists Adopt SEO Best Practices to Succeed?

Tricia Harte

By Tricia Harte

Should Journalists Be Paid Based on Article Popularity? 

It recently came to light that British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, is going to link elements of journalists’ pay with article popularity online. If indicative of larger industry trends, this announcement could change journalism in two key ways:

  1. Incentivizing the pursuit of click-worthy stories
  2. Altering the way journalists write their content for the web with SEO in mind

As a former reporter, I have a lot of thoughts about this decision. As a digital marketer, I have a different set of thoughts about it. In this blog post, we will explore this topic from both of those lenses.

[Click here to read the 3 ways journalism could start embracing SEO tactics]

The BIG problem with paying reporters for traffic 

At first glance, this strategy may seem to make sense — If one writer’s articles draw a higher volume of traffic, then, like the MVP of a sports team, they ought to be compensated better…right

This is problematic for a few reasons. 

First, high quality journalism is supposed to aim towards a standard higher than just to “be popular.” In the United States, journalists are protected under the First Amendment. Their sources can be concealed, they are trained to vet stories, and they’re supposed to operate without fear of governmental interference.

These protections exist because journalists are expected to cover stories the public needs to know, not just stories that the public wants to read.  

In this former journalist’s opinion, when you attach compensation to the digital popularity of articles, you de-incentivize the essential, albeit, less click-worthy journalism. Topics like city council recaps, economic trends, or repercussions of legislation are important, but hold more narrow appeal. They may not draw record-level clicks, but that doesn’t mean they should go unreported.

Second, this pay structure incentivizes more salacious news headlines and stories. There are a lot of reasons people distrust American media…salacious headlines is just one of them. 

Journalists are people too. At the end of the day, journalism is a job, it pays money, people do it to feed their families, cover their rent, buy their clothes, and yes, pursue their passion for journalistic endeavors. 

Giphy: Ocean's 11 "pay me my money" quote

When you attach compensation to article popularity, it’s not hard to see how editorial teams and journalists could be encouraged to pursue more click-worthy content. 

The writing implications of paying based on article popularity

This type of compensation structure could also change how journalism is executed. 

Television, magazine, newspaper, and radio journalists file online stories nowadays. But for many die-hard journalists, their original medium (broadcast, magazine, print, etc.) remains their primary focus. 

Many journalists accept web articles as ways to promote their work to a larger audience. More often than not, the online articles closely reflect the medium in which they were created: short and sweet for TV reporters, longer and detail-oriented for newspapers, and shorter and sweeter for radio. 

If the success metric suddenly shifts to web traffic, then the ways in which reporters write for web will naturally shift as well. 

Suddenly, the worlds of journalism and SEO more obviously intersect. The most successful articles will not only be click-worthy, but also optimized to reach the widest audience possible on the internet! Leaving journalists suddenly scrambling to learn best practices for optimizing copy for search.

Gif: People running around in a frenzy.

How (Some) Journalists Approach Web Articles

*Disclaimer: I do not speak for every journalist. However, my experience gives me insight into how many reporters approach their web stories, specifically from the local television field*

When I became a television reporter in 2013, web stories were part of the daily routine. However, I didn’t think too much about them because my focus was always on the on-air report.

The web story, from my point of view, was a vessel to hold the video report I worked on. I used it to cram in extra details that didn’t make it into my 120 second segment. 

Oftentimes my web story was a verbatim transcript of my report, cleaned up grammatically for readers’ eyes. If the story warranted it, I wrote extremely long web stories chock full of details. But I never thought about “keywords” or how users might search online for the information I covered. My writing didn’t actively engage or reflect search engine optimization (SEO) best practices. 

My real-life TV news headlines:

My news articles’ headlines sometimes reflected a shocking quote from police or family members of a victim. More often than not, they offered a summarizing overview of the story:

Search Engine Results for local TV news station article with the headline: Elkhart man who killed and mutilated girlfriend appeals sentence.

Your goal is to attract viewers and readers with the language, but I never thought about how someone might Google the content. Other times I tried to be a little more creative, clever, or even cheeky when I wrote my headlines.

Search engine results for news articles. Headline of the article reads: "creepy clowns in South Bend? Not yet, police say."

It’s important to note that article placement on general assignment news websites tends to prioritize “breaking” stories and headlines. The expression if it bleeds, it leads exists for a reason. Article placement on a website has a tremendous impact on readership and impressions.

Did I write headlines I think would earn clicks? You bet. 

Was I compensated better for having high click-through rates on the website? Nope.

However, we did receive daily emails ranking the top-performing website articles. There was a natural newsroom competition to see how your story performed compared to others, but it was fleeting.

The daily rankings of article popularity did not change the way I did my job, or dictate which stories I pitched. Nor did they alter how I covered stories because nothing changed for me professionally. There was no benefit or punishment for having a low-click web story.

A (former) print reporter’s perspective

Before working at DTC, Collin Czarnecki, spent 8 years as a print reporter working at both traditional newspapers and digital-only publications. I consulted with him about the approach print journalists take to web stories. 

When Collin started reporting, society was witnessing the “slow death” of print newspapers. As more readers consumed news online, newsrooms were faced with two choices: adapt to digital, or die. 

Some large print newsrooms adapted by introducing paywalls and online subscriptions, such as The New York Times. However, many smaller newsrooms across the country either consolidated or closed as they struggled to transition to a digital world. 

Throughout this transition, large legacy news corporations, such as Gannett, put an emphasis on measuring digital traffic. 

During Collin’s time as a reporter at Gannett’s Tennessean newspaper in Nashville, real-time traffic analytics for the publication’s top digital stories were displayed on TVs inside the newsroom. 

The company began to view pageviews as an important metric, but a reporter’s performance or compensation was never based on how many pageviews their stories received. Obviously that could change if Gannett and other legacy newsrooms adopt The Daily Telegraph’s new model of linking journalists’ pay with article popularity.

3 Ways Journalism Might Embrace SEO

Let’s forget about journalistic ethics and how story selection might be altered by a pay-for-clicks compensation model.

If journalists are compensated based on how many clicks or views their web articles get, it’s only natural that journalism will have to start factoring in SEO to maximize their results.

We’ve identified three key ways journalists might change their habits if they’re paid based on traffic. 

  1. Keyword stuffing articles to appear higher in organic search results
  2. SEO-friendly writing style: Less pith, less creativity, more straightforward sentences.
  3. User-intent headlines

Keyword-stuffed articles

I never thought about keywords when I wrote web articles about my news reports. I don’t think I even understood what a “keyword” was or its impact on visibility online. You’d be hard pressed to find too many journalists who prioritize optimizing their copy with keywords or even know how to go about doing that. 

If journalists are incentivized to increase page traffic to their articles, then naturally they would have to do a little keyword research to maximize page views.

Will publications invest in digital marketing and SEO tools to help their teams of journalists find high-volume search queries to write content about. Will journalists suddenly start searching Google Trends data to find popular topics for story ideas? 

Maybe…maybe not? 

SEO-friendly sentence structure

You know what print journalists love? Creatively written sentences.

You know what search engines hate? Creatively written sentences.

Google’s algorithm, at the end of the day, is interpreted by bots. No-sense-of-humor robots analyzing page copy. There’s no room for dramatic flair, large words, or creative sentence structure when evaluating a page. 

Reporters looking to give their web copy the best chance of drawing more views will need to embrace SEO-friendly writing techniques. 

User-intent headlines

If the eyes are the window to the soul, then a headline is the window to a web article. 

In the SEO world, article headlines, or H1 tag, are supposed to summarize the content featured on a given url. 

SEO best practices used to dictate only one H1 per page, making the H1 the largest font size on the page, and including only your most coveted keywords. Now, the rules around H1s and their influence on organic rankings in Google are a little looser.

Search engines understand the importance of H1s for communicating information to users. The exact rules are a little more flexible. But do journalists understand those SEO rules?

When I looked at H1s on websites for national newspapers, broadcast networks, and magazines, most of the article headlines instinctually follow some basic SEO best practices. But sometimes, writers opted for dramatic flare. 

Example #1: Figures of speech

CNN headline: DeSantis stands tall among US governors on the front lines of Covid fight.

Take this CNN headline for example: “DeSantis stands tall among US governors on the front lines of Covid fight.”

As readers we know that Governor DeSantis isn’t literally standing tall, it’s a figure of speech. But Google’s bots don’t love figures of speech as much as they love straightforward sentences.

A more SEO-friendly headline would read: “Florida Governor DeSantis says Covid policies saved Florida’s economy.” Adding “Florida” to the H1 helps Google pick up queries for those who may not know DeSantis by name, but by his state and title.

Replacing “stands tall” with “saved Florida’s economy” gives greater context that the article is about the economic impact of Governor DeSantis’ Covid policy on the state.

Example #2: Stylistic prose

Cosmopolitan magazine headline: "We never dealt with anti-Asian hate crimes in the first place, so why'd we expect them to stop?"

This Cosmopolitan article delves into anti-Asian hate crimes during Covid. The headline is designed to have readers reflect on societal behavior, and as such, is artfully written for magazine prose. For those already on Cosmo’s website, this style of writing likely draw clicks. 

However, if journalists are trying to reach a wider audience, stylized writing is not perfectly optimized for search. This sample headline includes a targeted key phrase, “anti-asian hate crimes,” its structuring doesn’t reflect user search behavior.

A stronger SEO headline might read: “America’s history with anti-Asian hate crimes before and during the pandemic.” 

These are just a few examples of stylistic headlines that could fade if journalists are incentivized to reach broader audiences via organic search. 

The Pending What If’s

I acknowledge that I just did a lot of hypothesizing about potential SEO techniques adopted by journalists if this pay structure became more widespread. What the Daily Telegraph does with compensation does not necessarily indicate a broader industry trend of paying journalists for article popularity. But it’s not all that crazy to think that other publications may start incentivizing web traffic.

After all, compensating success is nothing new. 

The salary for a journalist of TV anchor is often determined by ratings (i.e. how many viewers tuned in to watch their reports). In my last TV market, we received minute-by-minute ratings from the previous day. The information was so granular that we could see exactly when viewership dipped, and could identify what story ran at that very moment.

With that level of data available, it is incredibly easy to define “successful” content from an editorial standpoint.

Likewise, newspaper success was largely gauged by circulation. Now, many print newspapers have shifted to digital subscription models for access to their full content. Is it that surprising that with the additional, page-by-page insights offered by the internet that some editorial or compensatory decisions wouldn’t be made based on success?

Whether you like it or not, the news industry is a business. Media outlets need to pay their staff and they do that through advertisers. In a digital age, those advertisers want to be featured on websites, and they want those ads on pages with high traffic; it’s the nature of the beast.

Only time will tell how the increasing emphasis on digital news will lead to a corresponding interest in SEO best practices.

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