Martin Newman

Talking about creating better audience engagement online for your stories can give you an extra edge when pitching to commissioning editors, according to a journalism lecturer.

Martin Newman, who teaches at University of Technology Sydney, said having a good working knowledge of both search engine optimisation and writing good digital headlines was important, but it was just as important to let potential employers know about it.

In a workshop on Day Two at the Launceston Freelance Festival, Newman told a group of freelance journalists that getting the delicate balance of crafting headlines to manipulate search engine algorithms was more crucial than ever.

“Most journalists have heard of SEO and any digital journalist will understand it, but it’s amazing how many people in the industry still stick their head in the sand and prefer not to think about it,” he said. “I tell all my students, if you are going for a job, talk about SEO and talk about engagement and analytics. And, talk about it before you are asked. Let employers know that you understand how important it is and that you are all over it.”

He added even if it wasn’t a direct requirement of your job or story pitch, giving a good impression of your expertise helped in conversations with an editor.

Newman, who has worked in digital news for 14 years and set up and ran news apps for the UK’s Daily Mirror and Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, said using good search engine optimisation (SEO) to influence algorithms and headlines to attract readers was part data science, part imagination.

“The way key words are prioritised in a search engine, you get greater weight in the algorithm that works out where to put your story in the rankings. Every word in a story will be picked up by an algorithm, it will be assessed by a search engine,” he said.

“But, it [search engines] will give greater weight to the first 10 words of whatever is in the headline, or what is in the intro. And that will elevate it higher in the list rankings regardless of what else is in the story.”

If there’s a degree of artistry in getting people to read your story, it doesn’t mean your story is bull.

Martin Newman

He then explained several different types of headlines that are successful in digital news.

“Some common headline devices include your ‘how to’ and your ‘why’ headlines, which offer readers useful information, or suggest to them that the article contains something they do not know,” he said.

“Different words engage and get attention for different reasons that appeal to the subconscious, so you see some forms repeated a lot in online news. It can feel a bit robotised, but it works and the data shows it works.”

While appealing to readers’ curiosity in this way might lead to more rigid headline styles across digital news outlets, and feel a bit too obvious, the difference meant a much higher percentage of people reading your story.

“If you’re trying to pitch a story and get people engaged with it, you have to understand how this works. If nobody’s reading it then what’s the point of putting it out in the first place?” Newman said.

“These are just devices to get your story seen, it doesn’t change the content of your story, it’s just helping get more eyeballs on it. If there’s a degree of artistry in getting people to read your story, it doesn’t mean your story is bull.”

However, he said there was a big difference between a good digital headline that got readers interested and a clickbait headline that duped them into reading it and left them disappointed.

“This has nothing to do with deception. Tricking people is not what it’s about,” he said. “Clickbait turns people off websites, it’s a longterm engagement killer for the sake of a quick hit.”

After struggling to transition from print to digital mediums good SEO has given news organisations a clearer path to increasing readership.

“It’s just a reality of the industry,” Newman said. “If you’re a journalist operating right now it’s crucial that you know this.”

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