In Search of Great Web Copy

As I scrolled through the most recent stories sent to me by my organization’s web site content provider, I was struck by the prolific talents of some guy named “Reuters” and his cohort, “AP.” In fact, just about every entry was written by this dynamic duo the same content I could find in my morning newspaper or on everyone else’s web site.

Do I sound frustrated? As the purchaser of so-called content, of course I am. However, the vast amount of haggard wire copy passing as Internet content prompts a question I want to pursue in upcoming columns: Why is web site content so mediocre? (Yes, I am talking about both purchased content and what is posted by most dot-coms.) And, more important, we must ask what we can do to improve the scripted fare.

I suspect there are a number of factors at play:

Writers’ Avoidance: As a public relations professional, I am baffled when a reporter calls me up asking for an expert on their particular topic and then apologetically offers, “It’s only for a web site.” Granted, my public relations training does make me jump a little higher when I hear “It’s for Time or Newsweek” or, the Holy Grail of public relations pros: The Wall Street Journal. Yet, why the confessions of, “I’m only writing for a web site”? I suspect some of it has to do with the reimbursement. Surely it’s more lucrative at this stage to write for some of the print “biggies.” However, if the writers themselves feel that web sites are second tier, I question whether we can ever get to elevating the content currently available.

Popularity Contests on the Web: How insulting to the reader are those inane polls at the end of some web site articles asking, “Did you like this story? Respond by indicating: a) Yes, I liked it and will email it to a friend, b) This is somewhat interesting, c) I haven’t read anything since my driver’s license exam.” Have you ever seen a New York Times article concluding with such drivel? I always thought great journalists care about the truth, not public opinion. If web content is only what people like to hear, we need to start relearning how to lay type for the daily newspaper.

Print Snobbishness: All the time we see articles appearing in print finding their way onto the Internet. How many times do we see the reverse an article first published on the Internet reprinted in the newspaper? It’s a rare occasion when something published on the Internet makes its way to print, with the notable exceptions of a few Salon.com or Matt Drudge reports. The fact is, print media is still under the impression that anything of worth begins in newsprint.

The Publicists’ Curse: I’ve heard way too many of my fellow public relations professionals moan about only getting placement on the Internet. I’m well aware of the fact that they don’t like it because it’s harder to provide clients with mythical calculations such as, “Our public relations placements amount to $1 million worth of print advertising.” We all know it’s a bunch of baloney equating inches gained through media stories with advertisement costs, so let’s get a better system of accounting and learn to love our web placements.

Those Awful Rules of Web Copy: Who said copy for the web has to be less than a full page and targeted to the lowest common denominator? Apparently, that’s the rule of thumb for most web sites, although it sounds more like a page ripped from the USA Today stylebook. I propose that we don’t accept these so-called “rules” for writing web copy and work to formulate something better.

Granted, there are exceptions to the dearth of great web copy. The aforementioned Salon and Slate are wonderfully scripted. But it seems that television had a decade for its Golden Age before it was dumbed down. (Think Paddy Chayefsky reluctantly passing the torch to the Beverly Hillbillies.) Could it be that the Internet had but a shining year or so of truly compelling copy?

In future columns, I will continue my exploration of where the new, great web copywriters are and what we can learn from them… if they are indeed still out there or have not gone to “the other side” of traditional print. I’ll also offer some new insights into what we can do to revive the Internet’s Golden Age of Content.

And, by the way, don’t forget to email me and let me know if you a) Liked my article a lot, b) Liked my article a little, or c) Would rather be buying Backstreet Boys tickets on eBay.

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