Using Online Media Types

By Mindy McAdams
University of Florida

> Online Journalism
> Writing for the Web
> Interactivity
> See the chart of online media types
Text How much will a person read on a Web page? Is there a limit? Maybe. My informal analyses have shown that a typical long-form journalism story "switches gears" after 300-400 words, then again after 600-800, etc. (See the Web writing tips page.)

Even one relevant, good-quality photo might make the story more interesting to the online user. Don't forget to get pictures! Standard mug shots are not interesting. Posed photo ops are not interesting. Some online photos are saved improperly; this makes the file size over-large and the download slow. Do gaudy ads on the page diminish the impact of the photo?

Graphics Can you illustrate any part of the story? Can you use a geographical map? A diagram? A bar chart or pie chart to compare numbers? Users can understand better and faster when certain kinds of information are presented visually. Plan ahead and get the graphic artists involved in your story.
Audio If you can get people in your story to speak, the user will get more out of hearing their real voices. Let them tell their own story. It only takes a little practice to gather good audio. If the photographer can't or won't do it, then send someone else along. All reporters should invest in a decent, sturdy, omni-directional microphone.
Video When is video justified? When does it complement or enhance the story? Video always requires a big download. This is becoming less burdensome as more people get broadband Internet connections, but most video online still makes the user wait. And wait. After the video begins to play, how long will the user sit and watch before getting a twitchy mouse finger?
User interaction Form input What are you asking the user to tell you, and why? Will your questions seem intrusive (e.g., "What is your income?"), irrelevant, or just too time-consuming?
E-mail input Can the users find an e-mail address for you quickly and easily? If they send e-mail, will they get an answer? Will someone read their e-mail, or does it just go into a trash bin?
Discussion Many discussions deteriorate if there is no moderator, but it's usually impractical to have a moderator. Giving users a way to report foul language or even "topic drift" provides a workable compromise.
Chat A controlled live chat in which a special guest answers qustions from users can be really excellent. The trick is to have a human filter between the users' questions and the live chat interface.
Publication Users' articles or blogs can be excellent or terrible, much like discussions and chats. Do you edit them or not? Who polices the content, or is it unmoderated? If you have a clear plan, you can make a user-written section of the site vibrant and valuable. What kinds of content should users contribute, and why?
So how do you want to tell your story? What media types advance the story or make it most clear, most interesting? Always ask yourself what else you can bring to the act of storytelling -- what, in addition to your usual form, your usual medium?
Publication date: 8 April 2005