Headless body but James Earl Jones still alive

‘Headless Body in Topless Bar’ — this famous 1983 New York Post article headline will no longer “cut it”’ in the newspapers that are starting to overwhelm market share. I speak of internet news websites run by newspapers.

Chances are, too, that the paragraph you just read will also be a flop online, although the headline was a hit in print. It has little or no “Google juice”. As Stephan Spencer, president and founder of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) company, Netconcepts, told Elinor Mills, staff writer for CNET News, “No New Yorker searching Google, Yahoo News, etc for local crime news would have found this story [about the headless body]. [It] needs to include ‘crime’ and/or ‘murder’, along with some location-based keywords like ‘Manhattan’ or ‘NYC’.”

That’s just one of myriad examples of how SEO is rewriting the book on journalism, and also rewriting the headlines and articles we read in online newspapers. But it is spreading further than that, as we shall examine below.

SEO is beginning to affect journalism — what I call a “trickle sideways” effect — in print and other media, and the time must be ripe to open wide a public debate on this reality. The big question is this: “Is the daily tabloid or broadsheet you read on the train or at your breakfast table now being tampered with by the world’s most popular current search engine terms?”

The algorithms of search engines like Google are mainly interested in headlines and the first paragraph or two of articles. Now a savvy online news writer or columnist must write the headline and early pararagraphs to be Google-friendly. The publisher, the accountant, the ad sales team, the advertisers and the editor all want it. They want it very, very much. So does the journalist. After all, they’re losing their jobs at a rate of knots due to the global financial crisis.

It’s not the first time that technology and news formats have changed how journalists have to write. Beginning about a century and a half ago, with the invention of the telegraph, words on the wires were so expensive that journalists had to ensure that the most newsworthy points were made at the beginning of the story. Before that, newspaper articles had been more shambolic. Since that time, it became customary for reporters to make their stories “paragraph sub-editable” (the “Inverted Pyramid” model of article writing), meaning that the last paragraphs were of less importance, so if the story needed to be shortened, the sub-editor could slice from the bottom. In the days of hand typesetting, this was particularly useful to compositors, who had on their hands plenty of lead and ink but very little time. Paragraph sub-editability still applies to newspaper and magazine journalists — what is new is the SEO keywords they must now place at the top of the piece they have written.

Such is the growth and impact of internet newspapers and their marketing revenues that some, such as the Drudge Report, do not have print equivalents. However, virtually all the world’s larger newspapers, and even little ones like the Courier-Sun in my home village of Bellingen, in New South Wales (population 2,200, the road sign says), are now online as well as in print.

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