Opinion

Why paywall journalism is changing how journalists write

The introduction of online paywalls is changing the way journalists write and this means an audience adjustment says Tim Burrowes.

I was taught that the perfect length for an intro was 24 words – anything between 18 and 32 was acceptable, but 24 the ideal.

Having spent my early career at news agencies, tabloids and daily papers, I was also taught to write news stories in short, sharp sentences – with one idea per sentence.

If you had to read a sentence twice to absorb it, then there was too much information.

Then of course – particularly for news – there’s the story pyramid, layering information as you go.

In part, the idea being that a hypothetical sub editor could easily cut from the bottom to allow for available space. With online, this of course becomes far less of an issue for verbose journalists.

But I wonder if we’re about to see news writing being taken in a new direction as paywall journalism takes over. For the wrong reasons, the rules are being rewritten.

Most publications with paywalls allow the reader to see the headline and the first paragraph or two. To read more you have to pay.

So with a one fact story – Fred X has been named as the new boss of Company Y – there might be insufficient motivation for the non subscriber to subscribe – unless they can be tantalised.

Instead, we’re moving to a situation where intros absolutely cannot get straight to the key fact. Instead, it must be written to intrigue the reader. Company Y has named its new boss. To read more, please log in…

It goes beyond paywall journalism to other online writing.

One of my competitors is fond of sending out breaking news alerts to its subscribers by email without the actual news. Instead, a vague two-paragraph intro that explains there’s some news later in the story.

To read the actual point of the story, you have to click on the link and get to the third paragraph.

And then of course, they’ve been able to serve you some ads, which is their business model.

Paywall journalism is here now and, give it a year or two, they’ll be teaching it at journalism schools around the world.

It’s now part of the game – and has become part of the economic reality of online publishing.

The danger is that it fails to put the reader first. Each time creates a minor annoyance, until the reader starts to subconsciously associate that with the publication in question. It already happens on sites that disrespect readers with things like autoplay video.

Readers like to be respected. And in the end, they go and find publications that respect them.

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