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7 Terms Every Digital Media Journalist Should Know

Understanding a few simple concepts will help aspiring online writers and editors succeed in an increasingly digital world.

- August 18, 2014
As print newspapers and magazines continue to shutter or lay off staff, one thing remains evident as move further into the 21st century: Digital has officially taken over. And while scoring a gig with a traditional ink-and-paper outlet may be more difficult than ever, websites and blogs provide countless (and growing) opportunities for enterprising journalists, whether freelance or full-time. The caveat, though, is that you have to know the lingo. If you can't understand the clear distinction between digital and print, your career may be going the way of the Sunday classifieds.

So in an effort to ensure a well-reported future, we've culled a list of the most important terms every digital journalist -- or wannabe -- should know. Study hard. Your future depends on it.

SEO (search-engine optimization)
As one of the most basic digital terms, SEO has been around forever. But because of increased competition due to the relative ease in launching a digital outlet, it's more important than ever. "SEO is probably the top term digital media journalists need to know because it determines rankings in Google, Bing and Yahoo searches," says Brande Victorian, the deputy editor of, a website geared toward women of color that generates more than 2 million unique monthly visitors. "It's sort of this game of picking out keywords that are going to make the content that you write show up in these searches so that you're getting more page views than anyone else."

Once the keyword is determined, the goal is to authentically weave it into the headline and body of the article as early and often as possible, to ensure that search engines pick it up.

So what exactly is a keyword? In short, it's the main topic or idea of a story, and it's the foundation on which the entire piece should be built. Typically, you want to shoot for keywords that are highly searched because if a journalist writes a killer article and no one is there to read it, does it ever make a sound? Of course not.

"There are plenty of keyword tools, and you can find a variety of sites that can of help you narrow it down," says Ashley Haugen, senior digital content strategist of PGOA Media, parent company of the sites,,, and Google had a popular keyword tool that is now only available to users with an Adwords account. But there are a number of free keyword tools you can find online.

"SEO is probably the top term digital media journalists need to know because it determines rankings in Google, Bing and Yahoo searches."

"What a writer should be looking for is a keyword that has a fairly high search volume -- meaning a lot of people are looking for that word or phrase -- but with little competition. The lower the competition, the fewer the sites that your site has to compete with to rise to the top. And with Google trends, you can actually compare keywords against each other, like mittens versus gloves, to see which one people are looking for more."

Target audience
Another simple but important term, target audience refers to the core consumer you expect to reach with your content. Just as important as this is to print outlets, understanding the needs of their target audience is critical to digital operations that expect to remain viable in an industry of increasingly niche sites (see as proof).

"Sometimes people just want to write without thinking about who they are trying to reach, but I think it's a lot easier to really build an audience if you know exactly who you're trying to reach," says Victorian. Freelance writers should be sure to ask their editors for a clear definition of this group so their work can be tailored accordingly.

Copyright infringement
You know that awesome blog post you read on last week? It would be OK to just "borrow" a little (or a lot) or the copy and integrate it into your own article, right? Wrong.

"When blogging first started, it got to be so big that people were doing what they wanted to do, taking other people's content and photos and that sort of thing," says Victorian. "Now that blogging has become an established industry there are clear rules that you cannot just take other people's content and repurpose it, even if you provide links back to the original post or give credits."

Copyright infringement is real, folks, and if found guilty, you could be facing termination and/or fines. The solution? "If you want to take written content from someone, I'd write them a note and say, 'Hey, I loved this article you did, I'd like to put it up on my site. Do I have permission to do so?'

"You want to shoot for keywords that are highly searched because if a journalist writes a killer article and no one is there to read it, does it ever make a sound?"

And ask for what parameters they want," Victorian adds. "As far as photos, you really need to have contracts with some of these agencies like Getty or, if you use stock images, Shutterstock. Social media has definitely opened up the floodgates of being able to get some great photos, but you still have to be careful when you're taking images from celebrities' Instagram accounts that have been taken by a photographer. So it's best to play it safe and embed the whole social media post, as opposed to trying to take a screen shot or something and pass off the photo as your own. When you embed it, you're pretty much using the function of the site, and that's OK."

Linking to sources you've referenced or quoted within your article can certainly cut down on infringement claims and also bolster your credibility as a journalist. ("I've had writers turn in articles with these bold claims, and I'm like, Where did that come from?" says Haugen. "At least link to it or let me know.")

But like all things, there's a right -- and wrong -- way to do it. "I'm not a huge fan of linking out to other sites, like a news story that supports a statement that you've made," Haugen adds. "I think it's distracting, and it takes readers off the site. The goal for me, as the site manager, is to keep readers on the site and clicking through as much as possible, so I'll put in related story links that are on our site that are along the same topic."

Linking to the personal sites or blogs of sources is OK, says Haugen. And, regarding source links, she has an insider tip that will help journos log some extra brownie points with their editors: "An .edu site has a lot more credibility in terms of giving clout to our site, so instead of using a doctor who has his own pediatric practice in the middle of nowhere, finding a doctor who's a pediatrician but is also a professor at the University of Tennessee, for example, is much more beneficial. Then, as far as content promotion, I can reach out to the university and say, 'We used your doctor, and we'd love it if you could include us on your media page or retweet us.'"

"It would be nice if digital journalism operated by the 'set it and forget it' approach but, unfortunately, writing quality copy is only half the battle."

It would be nice if digital journalism operated by the "set it and forget it" approach but, unfortunately, writing quality copy is only half the battle. Sure, proper SEO management will draw some eyeballs to your work, but for maximum exposure (read: more assignments and cash!) you're going to have to actually promote your work.

"If you have a steady flow of content that you're producing, you should definitely be promoting it as often as you can because you want people to see it," says Gordon Hurd, editorial director of NewsOne. "In the past, folks were kind of reticent to [promote]; they don't want to bother people or be obnoxious or intrusive. But I think it's important to think about the fact that people are signing up for this stuff and they're subscribing to newsletters and following you on Twitter. They want this information. Consider the content you're producing as serving an audience and that it may be of use to them."

But, wait! Because even though you've generated sufficient buzz around your new article, your work is still not done. Now you have to interact with those click-happy people who took 3 and a half minutes to read your piece on monarch butterfly migration habits.

"If you promote your story on Facebook, and some people have asked questions or pointed out something from the story, part of the job these days is to actually go back in there and engage with the audience," says Hurd. "And not to sacrifice any journalistic quality, but with engagement in mind, you can think about the best way to present a story. It can be a long form; it can be multi-page; it can be broken into a multimedia gallery experience. Your lead could be something more like a question, or something you're looking to the audience to help resolve in a way. And then, getting down to a basic engagement tactic, you can ask a question at the end of your story. Stuff like that that can help spark conversation is definitely useful for people to keep in mind. You don't want your story to just disappear."

Andrea Williams is a freelance writer based in Nashville. Follow her at @AndreaWillWrite

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