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Yahoo style guide editor Chris Barr speaks to journalism students

Betsy Drazner '12 JOURN
2/18/2011  6:30 pm

Journalism students at the University of Illinois had the opportunity to meet Chris Barr, senior editorial director for Yahoo on February 9, 2011. Barr picked the top journalism schools in the country as destinations to promote the Yahoo Style Guide as well as recruit writers for the Yahoo Contributor Network.

Barr spoke to the Introduction to Journalism, News Editing and Issues in Journalism courses, along with Illini Media employees and taught students about writing specifically for online audiences.

“Computer screens, as great as they are, are not paper,” Barr said. It is easier to lose a reader’s interest on the Internet.

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Yahoo recently published their “secret sauce,” the style guide they composed to guide writers who publish on their website. A style guide is a manual that sets the rules to help writers understand what is appropriate for the publication.

Barr emphasized that writing for the web is different than writing for print. A person’s attention span is minimized when reading on a screen compared to paper.

“It’s great to be a skilled writer, but being a skilled writer for the web means writing clear and concise,” Barr said.

When a piece is read on a laptop, BlackBerry, iPhone or any other digital equipment it will be seen differently.

“You need to think about how it’s going to appear on the device,” Barr said. The breaks on the page show up differently than in print.

Yahoo used eye-tracking technology to understand the patterns of how people read stories on the Internet, Barr said. These experiments revealed that to hold a reader’s attention, writers should front-load their stories- or present the most important information at the beginning.

“Lay it out there,” Barr said. Write sentences with a subject, verb, object structure. Put the action right up front and make it easy for an audience to get through.

“Make it more readable and skimable, because people skim,” he said. People who are reading stories online do not dedicate a lot of time to each story. It is important to be brief and let the audience get the gist of the story before they get bored. Barr said online writers should do the work for their audience. Use bullet points and bold subheads to attract the eye and make skimming easier.

Barr also said it is important to give readers somewhere else to go on the website at the end of the article, otherwise the viewer will navigate away from the page.

Compared to print newspapers, headlines don’t always work online. Barr recommended using keywords in a headline that will show up when a consumer searches for a certain topic. This is called search engine optimization.

Barr said to ask the question, “What are people going to type into their browser?” Barr suggested testing out headlines before publishing them online. Search a headline before using it and see what shows up. If the results are similar to what the story is about then it’s a successful headline.

In the end, the most important part of publishing work online is accuracy.

“When it comes to news and information, you have to be correct,” Barr said. “Think clarity first, cleverness second.” Credibility is a necessary element. Without reliability a publication will not have the trust of its audience and readership will go down.

Yahoo Contributor Network

Barr introduced an opportunity for students to get involved with Yahoo and become published writers on their website. The Yahoo Contributor Network is a place where anyone has the chance to write about anything. Barr was excited to establish this opportunity for trained journalism students to use their skills to get published on Yahoo.

“We want people to write what they’re passionate about and what they’re knowledgeable about,” Barr said. “Writing well is a skill that will serve you no matter what field you go into,” Barr said.

 

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