How to Write for Web Pages - Part 11 – The Lifecycle of a Story
Posted by Bill Anderton
In previous installments of this tutorial, I have written about various phases of content development and how the story moves through pages to it completion.
In this installment, I am writing about the entire lifecycle of a story and where each phase and process fit a complete birth-to-death model.
I have written about some of this material has been discussed elsewhere in this tutorial, with pieces often provided in depth. However, I am going to summarize the phases and process here to make it easy to see the whole lifecycle within one installment.
I believe understanding of the entire lifecycle model for content will help writer-reporters better understand the web publishing process. Most writer-reporters only work on the content creation phase of the lifecycle and have no visibility into what is happening beyond the submission of the completed manuscript.
In this installment of the tutorial, I will describe a conceptual model of the lifecycle and describe each of the major phases of the lifecycle and the processes contains in each phase.
All stories have a lifecycle that begins with an idea and ends with the story retired.
You can arrange the entire lifecycle of a story in a generalized timeline composed of five phases:
Each phase of the lifecycle contains multiple processes performed within the phase in a generalized sequence of events, some performed sequentially and some in parallel with others.
One can show the entire lifecycle and is sequences graphically.
Each web publication might have a unique variation of the lifecycle model. However, the one shown about is the lifecycle model I use in my websites as a standard operating procedure. It is not as important that you conform to my model but that you have one. You should commit your model to paper and share it with the web team
A writer’s involvement in a story might or might not begin in the ideation process. Some writers participate in ideation; some come up with their ideas themselves and some simply receive a writing assignment from webmasters or assignment editors.
The act of assigning a story to a writer-reporter and having the assignment accepted begins the writing-reporting phase of the lifecycle.
The writer-reporter primary work is in the process of developing the story. As the story progresses through its lifecycle, the writer progressively becomes less involved when with the story compared with the intense work of developing the story. However, the writer-report is never completely removed from the process.
All stories begin with an idea.
Some ideas are spontaneous and arrive in a flash. Other ideas come more slowly and as a result of an intentional ideation process where ideas are collected and curated. The best of curated stories get assigned to writers-reporters for development.
The ideation process is important enough to be worthy of a dedicated installment in this tutorial. My ideation installment will come in the next installment of this tutorial. I will discuss the ideation of stories in depth at that time.
For now, let’s assume that the idea for a story exists. Also assume that the idea has been curated and vetted. Serving as editor-in-chief of the website. the webmaster has decided that the story should be assigned to a writer-report and developed for publication in the website.
I will go into more details about the ideation phase in the next installment of this tutorial.
In this phase, the vetted and curated idea is passed to a writer-reporter for developing the content.
In previous installments of this tutorial, I have written extensively about the processes that occur in this phase of the cycle. However, to recap:
This phase of the lifecycle requires a highly variable amount of time. For simple short news assignments with lots of pre-existing materials in the story’s givens provided to the writer-reporter, an experienced person might only need a few minutes to complete the entire phase. For a long-form complex feature assignment requiring lots of research and reporting, it might require months to complete.
The tasks in the phase happen, more or less, in the order shown. However, there can also be variations appropriate to each assignment.
The assignment from the webmaster may come to the writer-reporter with certain “givens” or details. The writer-reporter will typically work within the provided givens and develop the story accordingly.
An often un-discussed task that completes the assignment part of the lifecycle is starting a new notebook for the assignment. It is almost a ritual for writer-reporters to instantiate as a new notebook for a new assignment. I’m not talking about anything fancy. Field reporters usually use a cheap 4” x 8” reporters notebooks that are spiral bound with wire at the top. There are about 70 sheets (140 pages) in a notebook and cost $1.80 at Walmart. I write the title of the assignment of the cover along with the date I started the assignment. Everything I find in my reporting get written in the notebook.
Discussions might include a wider group of people associated with the website. Wider discussions might be helpful in some situations where the stakeholders of the website might have certain technical requirements for the story, editorial views or important background information that should be passed along to the writer-reporter. For example, names and contact information for possible sources.
Discussions in this phase are not intended to replace the original reporting that is coming. Instead, discussions are typically limited to the assignment and any helpful background.
At this point in the reporting that is just beginning, the writer-reporter is an outsider, aloof from the details. This detachment and distance from any pending answers provide great opportunities to look at the topic of the story and see the obvious things or those things that should be obvious, but often obscured when one gets close to the topic.
The formulation of new questions never stops through the whole development processor. If you work hard (and smart), you will get the big question formulated quickly. As you go through the development process, your new questions will likely get more specific and smaller in scope or scale. Be open to surprises at any time, even late in the cycle, and be prepared for new questions at any time.
The research at this stage doesn’t (or shouldn’t) replace the upcoming reporting tasks. Instead, in this initial research, writers-reporters are looking for context and deep background. This type of background research might provide some tentative answers to your initial questions, but should always be subject to your validation in your reporting. Or, this type of research might help you formulate additional more-informed questions.
You as you will never be finished asking questions, you will never be finished finding answers too.
Although some interviews are spontaneous, reporters typically prepare for interviews in advanced based on their formulation of questions and research.
Be sure that you use a good naming convention for all of your various files that you will be sending to your webmaster. Some webmasters may make a file-naming standard for use by the entire web team. If so, be sure to comply with the furnished standard.
Your submission should include all of the various files you make including the main story, metadata and any other files with important information including any photos you are submitting.
On large stories with many files in their submissions, some writers bundle all of their files into a single ZIP file. This technique is used not necessarily to compress the files for faster transmission but to put all of the files into a single ZIP archive to aid logistics by putting all of the files in one place.
The editorial phase is largely a quality-assurance or a quality-improvement phase that makes the most out of the writer-reporter’s manuscript. The phase also includes technical processes that paginates the story and adds it to the web server.
This phase of the lifecycle requires a highly variable amount of time ranging from minutes to a few days.
This phase can be executed manually or with the help of a content management system (CMS.) CMS-based web pages can complete the editorial cycle very quickly and efficiently.
Work copies of the original should be made and distributed to the appropriate editor. Making work copies preserves the original as a fallback safety in case something goes wrong in the editorial process.
Copy editors are not proofreaders. Whereas proofreaders simply check for typographical errors, copy editor are seeking to improve the story in every sense, often catching even nit-picky things as it relates to consistency.
The fact checker may also check all factual assertions to determine their veracity and correctness. The job requires a great deal of general knowledge as well as the ability to conduct quick, efficient and accurate research.
If a story doesn’t have any photographs, the webmaster may commission photos to be made by volunteer photographers. Alternatively, the webmaster may select some free pictures from public-domain sources or elect to purchase stock photography from the online stock photo agencies.
Webmasters should first deal with the problem of potential plagiarism by teaching writers about plagiarism and how to avoid it. Rookie writers may not even know that they are plagiarizing. Teach the proper way directly to quote third-party sources and how to use proper citations.
To backstop your training, use one of the online plagiarism checkers. Plagiarism checkers crawl and index the text that appears on billions of web pages and their databases available for checking. For all submitted stories, use one of the online plagiarism checkers to clear all of the text you publish.
Webmaster or a specialized web editor serving as a coding specialist typically code finished stories into HTML.
Much of this information, including the metadata, will be very helpful to the search engine optimization (SEO) process. Wikipedia defines SEO as “the process of affecting the visibility of a website or web pages in a search engine's un-paid organic search results.” SEO helps search engines in the indexing and ranking of stories so that more people can find the story in the search engines.
This step is very important for the overall success of the story and the page(s) that carry the story by increasing a page’s visibility among the general public.
With the story published, the fun begins. The published story is the payload. All of the work performed on the payload in prior phases was in order to get to this phase for the pay off.
However, after publishing the story, important work remains to be performed on newly published web pages.
Most of the post-publication processes make broader audiences for the new web pages. Because the webmaster typically performs the work in this phase, writers-reporters may not be aware of these tasks. Building viewership (readers) of published webpages is very much like the circulation department of a magazine or newspaper. It is important work. Why settle for merely hundreds of readers for your story when thousands are available, with a litter work!
Building viewership of the new web pages is not something that should be left undone. Don’t rely on, “If you build it, they will come.” Instead, you should be proactive.
This phase of the lifecycle lasts as long as the story is available to visitors online. The first few processes in the cycle typically occur the first week the story is online. The remaining processes can occur at any time over the remaining life of the story.
On advanced proactive websites pushing sitemaps.xml files to the search engines, this process can be very fast for Google, hours if, not minutes.
On less aggressive websites without proactive functions, this might take a week for Google to get around to crawling your site and even longer for the other search engines.
Good webmasters will not be satisfied with performing just basic on-page SEO techniques. In addition, they will look for other websites that will link to your story or public relations opportunities such as local press outlets (“old media”) to feature your story. At a minimum, they will promote the story on social media with links to your story.
Not only to these activities bring in new visitors to the website, they also provide signals that search engine can sense and then will use to increase the page ranking of your story.
The general idea is to monitor how the public is using the page and tease out any indications of how the story is working among its audience.
However, after publishing a new web page and collecting real-world analytics over time, there may be opportunities to refine and improve SEO strategies.
The webmaster will handle most of any follow-up required. However, the reader may ask one or more questions that the writer may have to answer. Typically, these questions will require information not contained in published story, but known by the writer as a result of their reporting. If so, the webmaster will contact the writer for help with the inquiry.
Sometimes, it is appropriate to remove old stories from the website. In these cases, I rarely delete an old story. Instead, I move the “dead page” to secure private folder on the web server (or CMS) where it can no longer be accessed by the public. I call this “near-line” storage; the files are online in an absolute sense but not accessible by anyone but the administrators of the website. Website administrators can still access the old page if needed and possibly re-activated at some point in the future if appropriate.
If you ever remove a page from public access or totally delete the page from the web server, you should always set up appropriate HTTP status code 301 for each removed page. The 301 code signals that the requested page has been assigned a new permanent URL and any future references to this page should use the URL automatically returned in the 301 code. You can redirect visitors to any page in the website you wish. Importantly, the search engines use the 301 code to trigger an automatic update to their indexes, this preserving your good will in the page, as well as it SEO rankings Ideally, you will redirect users to a more current page. Remember, the page you are deleting is likely indexed in the search engines. Rather than just returning a “page not found” error that dampens the deleted page’s good will, an HTML redirection code will take the user to a new page and inform the search engines of the change.
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