Topic pages good for news comprehension, searchability

19 Feb

When elementary students are first taught how to write essays, they are introduced to the utility of a topic sentence. Topic sentences are handy tools that not only clue-in readers on what it is an essay is about, but they also help writers organize thoughts and put the main idea of their paper in context.

Topic pages do the same thing online for news organizations. A step beyond sections with rotating stories and headlines, topic pages have a permanent URL that readers can track and visit often for updates on ongoing stories. The pages make Google searches simpler by gathering content pertaining to one topic and putting it on one, easily searchable page. Google Vice President Marissa Mayer says it is important for news organizations to have topic pages, making sure they lead to “obvious and engaging next steps for users.”

Topic pages make use of all the visual and interactive advantages the Internet provides. A print publication can only share with a reader copy, photos and graphics, but an online publication can go many steps beyond, including incorporating video, audio and even flash animations into the explanation of a story.

The two most important functions of topic pages are details and context. Often, readers end up on a topic page after an Internet search, and they’re not looking for just one loosely related article, they’re looking for a broad spectrum of related information that fully fleshes out a topic. Compilers of the page should assume the reader knows next to nothing about its topic beforehand and strive to put it in context using links, video, timelines, etc. as effectively as possible. Identifying what kinds of information to include on a topic page can involve editors delving into archives to find years-old stories, making sure the topic and its stories make sense to readers and aren’t rendered “monkey screech.” Providing third-party content is important, too, and can be one of the best ways to provide context and build trust with an audience, according to NewsCred’s Content Strategies blog.

Individual stories are effective “when they are enriched with articles, graphics, reader discussion and the like,” said Richard Gingras, chief executive of Salon Media Group Inc. Topic pages, which compile all data a news organization has onto one easy-to-find page, foot the bill for simplicity and user-friendliness. Instead of reading just one “enriched” story, however, topic pages allow users to discover other related content that helps with overall news comprehension. So often, people complain of “news fatigue,” which results from gathering a lot of information in the form of quick updates that lack deeper information. Topic pages are the cure for that. The pages allow users to “get caught up and stay caught up” on topics of interest, said Ryan Pitts, senior editor for digital media of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. They provide background and context for stories, not just the latest updates that would make little sense if a reader hadn’t been following along from the beginning.

Most interesting to me about so-called “evergreen” topic pages is that journalists should not strive to update them daily; instead, topic pages should stand on their own as a permanent resource for a specific topic, says Robert Niles of the Online Journalism Review. The key, Niles said, is to keep the pages sharply focused, using keywords users would search for when looking for information. Topic pages should be linked to from the front page of a website and its interior pages so search engines will consider them important.

Finding information online is as easy as typing keywords into Google, but getting details on a topic in context is much more difficult. Topic pages are the cure for the common Twitter feed, bolstering those 140-character news updates with in-depth information that can be found in the same place with one search.

Delicious: A Social Bookmarking Tool

I like to think of delicious as stripped-down aggregation. Instead of posting links within original content on a blog, you need only compile the links themselves. For journalists, this would be a very simple way of sharing online sources for stories with readers and other journalists, and following other journalists would enable them to see which websites their peers find most useful.

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One Response to “Topic pages good for news comprehension, searchability”

  1. Ronald R. Rodgers February 22, 2012 at 2:37 pm #

    Well done!
    Good comments on Delicious

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