Five Lessons From Newspapers to
Boost Your Blog’s Circulation


It’s been said many times that printed newspapers won’t last – they’ll be killed off by the web.

And that would be a shame: the death of papers would see the demise of some tremendous writing and editing skills. I should know – my last job on a newspaper was just last year.

So, while we still have ink on paper, here are five things you can learn from newspaper editors and reporters to improve your blog’s copy.

1. Chop it down 4 inches!

Space is at a premium in newspapers. And cutting a 800-word story down to 100 words (or, to use the measurement-speak that newspapers favor, by four inches) isn’t easy.

It’s a skill practiced by editors every day, and enforced conciseness has its benefits. There’s nothing like brevity to concentrate the mind and bring focus to a story. And a story that gets to the point quickly is more likely to be read and understood by busy readers.

So, bloggers…: What would happen to your writing if space was limited, and you were forced to edit your blog post down by 50%? Would cutting out 300 words make your post punchier and easier to read? How about you try to cut your favorite post in half to see what happens?

2. What’s the hook? Where’s the lead?

Editors across the world scream at reporters, “why did you bury the lead?”

News stories are usually written in inverted pyramid style: the first paragraph encapsulates the story, the rest fills in the details. (Another, less common style is the “dropped intro:” the story starts with an intriguing proposition and the main point is made a few paragraphs further down. This works well for quirky stories and longer articles which need a set-up before you hit them with the pure facts.)

Readers want to skim the page and get their news quickly, deciding after a couple of paragraphs whether to read the rest. So if the lead (or lede), as it’s called, doesn’t hook them, why should they stick with the story?

So, bloggers..: Are readers going to get the point of your post in the first couple of paragraphs (or the abstract in their RSS feed reader)? Or are they going to get lost, give up and click away from your post?

3. Headlines: the ultimate salesman for your story

If a reader is not grabbed by the headline, only the most ardent follower of the news is going to stick around for the rest of the story. So newspaper editors spend inordinate amounts of time writing the best headlines they can.

Headlines often tell the story in a succinct manner – this works well with big stories featuring famous people. And it works well with quirky stories that are just – well – so bizarre that the headline doesn’t need to be clever. (A story headlined Sudan man forced to marry goat keeps popping up in the most-read section of the BBC news website.)

But even if your story isn’t about a goat or Britney Spears or the iPhone, spend a few extra minutes on your headlines to maximize readership.

So, bloggers…: How long do you spend working on the headline of each post? Are your headlines compelling enough to make people click through from their feed reader?

4. Captions: the Cinderella sentences

Captions, poor things, are much underrated. They’re just there to explain the picture and give credit to the image’s source, right? Well, no. Pictures are one of the most looked-at elements on a newspaper page. And where do the eyes go after glancing at a picture? To the caption.

So that’s why editors spend time working on captions that help push people into the story; captions act like a second story lead. If the caption is good, maybe the reader will stick around and take a look at the rest of the article.

So, bloggers…: If your blogging platform allows it, do you put captions or alt tags with the images in your posts? Are they as compelling as your headline?

5. The blog of record

Newspapers like to think of themselves as the first draft of history, so accuracy is a vital part of a newspaper’s brand. Every article is written carefully by the reporter, and then fact-checked and copy edited by multiple editors before it makes it into print.

Of course, most bloggers don’t have that luxury of editorial support. But accuracy – spelling names right, linking URLs to the right places – is important in building your blog’s brand, too.

So, bloggers…: Have you taken the time to read through your post more than once to ensure there are no howlers?

(On that point, I’d better go back to the start and take another look at this post!)

About the Author: Simon Payn has left the newspapering world and now blogs about the power of customer newsletters and offers real estate newsletters that Realtors can use to build relationships with clients and prospects.

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Reader Comments (68)

  1. says

    I’ve written for newspapers for years, some of these things become a reflex. My articles and blog posts are so tight, I have trouble meeting the word limits on some topics. Your explanation is sensible and memorable. I’m going to print it.

  2. says

    I also think that blogging is another way to be a journalist and it’s shocking for me to see that, even if I do have some knowledge in the newspapers area, I kinda failed using such “tricks” on my blog. Excellent idea.

  3. says

    Being a “wordy girl” m’self – I think I’ll try editing some of my longer posts down to 100 words. Seems like a good challenge!

    Thanks for the tips!

    Meg Meyer

  4. says

    Newspapers are also big on photos and illustrations, columns and special sections devoted to niche topics. A lot of blogs I read would already be considered a niche section or a column.

    I like the tips. Now, how will your blog help me if I run out of toilet paper, or bird cage lining? πŸ˜‰

  5. GirlPie says

    Excellent post – thank you for restating the basics and reminding bloggers how to apply each to the post they’re drafting (and crafting and trimming and proofing and punching up and proofing again~!)

    All the more vital since limited time and attention are won by those clever few who cut through the clutter of the exponentially expanding blogosphere. Wish it were part of the entrance exam… (there’s not? You mean anyone with a keyboard…?)

  6. Tracey says

    Great post, thanks for the tips! I have to remind myself to get back to the fundamentals.

  7. says

    Great insight. Often the posts on my advertising blog are just a paragraph or two, but I always try to stay focused on the point I’m making. That tends to cut down on the rambling and disconnected thoughts.

  8. says

    Maybe it’s the journalism training but I can’t post a blog without re-reading it three times and checking the links. I also spend about five to 10 minutes on the headline. Having trouble getting pictures though … where do you usually get the stock photos?

    Also, thanks for the reminder to keep it short. That’s the one thing I’ve yet to master :)

  9. says

    I liked this post as well. However, I suspect there are a lot of newspaper editors who would benefit from reading it as well, lol.

    On another point, one of the big troubles I see with newspaper writing is that the editors do too much editing! If you have to cut down an article by 200 words, so be it. But they often wind up taking out the passion of the article as well. I suspect this is one of the reasons why so many newspapers are just such dreary reads. The articles themselves just lie dead there on the page.

    So, I guess what I’m saying is by all means edit your articles, but don’t take the passion and fun out of it at the same time! If you do that, you might as well just work for the New York Times πŸ˜‰

    – Dave

  10. says

    @allison- I take my own photos but some people like to use

    Btw, there’s an article in the NYT today about the opening of the “newseum” in DC. Part of the exhibitions is a posting of about fifty daily newspapers front pages-viewed at once, they are looking more Bloglike in layout than a traditional newspaper…like a short attention span theatre billboard or something.
    Here’s the link: Just click on today’s front pages.

  11. says

    I loved this post. Thank you!! I came over because of the title or headline!! Good hook for a blogger who writes about interviewing and uses very interesting headlines. Or at least I think they are interesting and catchy. Great tips!!

  12. says

    My blog posts are usually 150 to 400 words, very rarely longer. They also always include two “lessons” that give readers something to do or think about.

    As for the headlines – almost all of my random Google entries into my blog come from people searching words found in my headlines.

    Great article!


  13. says

    Welcome to the Copyblogger family Simon. Wise advice indeed.

    I humbly, humbly, humbly suggest, though, that you take notice of the following passive voice usages in the piece:

    “It’s been said many times”
    “they’ll be killed off by the web”
    “It’s a skill practiced by editors”
    “more likely to be read and understood by busy readers”
    “and you were forced to edit your blog”
    “News stories are usually written in”
    “the story starts with an intriguing proposition and the main point is made”
    “If a reader is not grabbed by the headline”
    “Every article is written carefully by the reporter”

    Watch out! Although the blog community doesn’t get the literary credit they deserve, this is Copyblogger – we’re serious readers, writers, editors, and howlers over here πŸ˜‰


  14. says

    Coming from a design background, I would put headlines at the top and captions right below it. People make a decision whether or not to read the rest in the first two seconds, and a clever caption can often push it over the top.

  15. says

    Personally I think there will always be a place for newspapers – the fact that we are talking about what we can learn from them shows how relevant they are.

  16. says

    Nicely done, Simon. Solid (and too rarely followed) advice, delivered with punch.

    Kudos too for the audacity to put what’s *right* with traditional media front & center. I admire folks who zig when everyone else zags, it’s much more interesting.

  17. says

    Another thing newpapers do that most blogs don’t do is not publishing the whole article on your front page. I like blogs that follow your blog’s format. A quick into into the post on the front page and a “read more” link. Most blogs have blogs of test on there first page.

  18. says

    Great post! Crisp, action-oriented, interesting. (As a journalism-trained business consultant, whose husband is a newspaper journalist, I see your excellent advice from many different perspectives).

  19. says

    I am often amazed when I read over a post I’ve written – it’s amazing how many times synonyms were typed but not the word I wanted. Need to do better with titles and do love captions – great advice in the ongoing blog journey

  20. says

    This is a great summary of the best lessons you learn writing for an old school newspaper. I think my writing benefited more from the time I spent working in journalism than any class I took.

  21. says

    Using captions under the images… I can’t believe I haven’t considered that. If I browse through newspapers, I scan headlines, images and captions under images before turning to the actual text. Yet I don’t use this on my blog…yet :)

  22. says

    Thanks so much for this well-written and thought-provoking blog post. I am an editor–formerly for a newspaper and now for a magazine, e-newsletter, and blog–so your comments are particularly pertinent. I have bookmarked this blog post and also forwarded it to several “news junkie” friends and colleagues. Thanks again!

  23. says

    Another lesson can be learned from eye track studies. See the Poynter Institutes eye track studies of the news. They are the ones that discovered that four inch articles are easier to remeber. Imformation imbedded in long paragraphs tends to get skimmed. So your point is backed up by scientific research. Keep it short, sweet and simple.

  24. says

    Bingo. Too many bloggers field the need to right a novel in each post. Be succinct and accurate. I don’t have time for 800 words per post. Great post.

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