Online markets open up for journalists, published in the UK Press Gazette

Published in UK Press Gazette

With the growing hegemony of the internet the lines between journalism, copywriting and PR are becoming increasingly blurred. Companies are realising that they no longer need to hire advertising or PR companies to transmit their messages for them. The cost of production and distribution has fallen dramatically. And they realise that online visitors are unimpressed by hard sell and quickly lose interest and click out of the site.

So a new kind of journalism is emerging, where companies hire journalists to write news and features for their websites, sometimes asking that the company gets a positive mention, but not always. The company is seen as an objective commentator on its business sector, a reliable information provider. Its site is regularly up-dated with news and comment, bringing in repeat visitors and showing the company to be responsive and alert.

One example is Lloyds TSB, which hires my company - - to contribute several news articles and features every week. We are not asked to mention the bank, and we very rarely do so, only where there is a genuine reason. On the other hand, we would steer away from negative comments about Lloyds TSB (though we've never explicitly been asked to do this).

Commissioning and editing for the site - - is very similar to any regular publication: in fact we work with a very experienced former newspaper editor, who's comfortable with journalists. This is not always the case.

Sometimes, the person commissioning online journalism will be a marketeer. The process will go something like this:

1. Marketing executive emails to say 'can you write articles for us?'
2. You say you're interested.
3. They ask you to quote.
4. You agonise over quoting too high or too low.
5. They agree a figure and set a (vague) brief, with no deadline.
6. You try to narrow them down on the brief, write an article and it goes to a committee, where it gets passed around, then eventually published a month later.

There can be more reliance on the journalist to define what the news element of a story is, what will be interesting and relevant to external readers. Companies tend to stick up endless appointment notices on their own websites, satisfying management egos but boring the rest of us. The more imaginative companies have twigged that getting an objective outsider to write lively articles about a company gives far more credibility to a site.

This view is not uniformly held, however. Some senior executives still struggle to understand the basics of the Internet and email, they have seized on the bust as evidence that new technology is a waste of money and will only sanction the barest investment in a brochure website. Other companies have on-going feuds over the strategic direction of their site, meaning that commissioned articles may get binned in a fit of office political pique. Similar, in a way, to being spiked because of extra advertising.

It is hard to prove that website journalism increases revenue, but companies who have taken on the concept wholeheartedly say it is making them money. They are particularly keen on email newsletters, which are cheap and quick to produce, getting right in front of the customer's nose and able to contain interactive features such as surveys or competitions.

As a journalist, you may feel queasy about being part of such a full-on marketing drive. But then publishing is rarely altruistic. As a website journalist, you're increasing the company's influence on its customers, adding to its image as a trustworthy source of information (and co-incidentally reflecting well on its products or services). So there is a subtle tilt away from the conventional journalistic role: in print publications, the journalism serves (from the advertisers' point of view) as a credible backdrop to show what good company they keep, whereas on company websites, the news sections are often given prominence and advertising kept to a minimum.

The credibility issue is crucial. Website visitors are looking for authority, objectivity, accuracy, currency and audience-awareness - all criteria which journalists are trained to deliver, but which marketeers and PRs are less good at. Journalists know how to spin, but their aim is generally to make a story more current, lively and fresh, rather than to make a company look good. When a company can harness this skill without neutering it, the journalist can write great stories, the company appears more credible and website visitors get what they're after.

Website journalism means more than reproducing print articles online. The medium demands more concision, more varied typography - more bold headings and subheadings, more bullet points, more white space - than print. It means using hyperlinks to allow readers to scan summaries before clicking through to a longer article. So website journalists need to get the technology underlying the Internet, although it's rare to be asked to use HTML.

You may be asked to comment on design issues, so a broad awareness of different website models is useful: what kind of navigation works best, what sort of illustrations are quick to download. My first website - - was designed by a friend, but produced a rush of companies and publications asking me to write about the Internet or for their Internet sites, because it was an innovative, fun site. Even today, few journalists have credible sites of their own. I'd definitely recommend putting one up, especially if you're serious about writing for websites. Companies like to see that you can walk the walk.

Some contract publishing companies have begun moving over into website content provision, which is a pretty natural step for them. But they still retain a sheen of PR-speak, since most contract publishing has a eunuch quality to it, which transfer to a new medium does not solve.

The fracturing of media in the digital age is creating myriad new opportunities for journalists. Writing for company websites is just one of these, but an important one, since it cuts out the traditional middleman role of the advertising or PR agency, allowing companies to appreciate the skills and qualities of journalists and raising the standard of corporate communications. The more company website managers come to understand this, the less hype, flannel and jargon there will be on the Internet, which has to be a good thing.