Many colleges and universities learned that lesson the hard way. Impressed with the potential of the Internet to reach worldwide audiences and feeling the pressure from peer institutions that already had a news presence online, they invested substantial resources—but not enough time and thought—in building their media Web sites.
These hastily constructed sites failed to create media magic because they met the needs of the institution or its news service office—not those of reporters and editors. This was a mistake we at the University at Buffalo were determined not to make in 1996 when we began work on a site for journalists.
Surveying the field
UB staff members in the Office of News Services and the Electronic Media Unit discovered just how media-unfriendly institutional news sites can be when we visited and critiqued several dozen higher-education sites as part of a benchmarking project. Most of our news-service editors had previously worked as journalists, so we asked them to think like reporters and editors when they visited the sites.
You want journalists who come to your site to feel it was worth their time. You want them to come back, as well as encourage their colleagues to visit. Many of the sites we assessed failed the media-friendliness test in one way or more. News was hard to find in some cases, stale in others. Some sites were difficult to navigate—visitors could easily get lost.
Words to live by
Determined to learn from the mistakes of others, we set out to create a custom-designed site for reporters, www.buffalo.edu/news. The following guidelines that we developed will serve others well.
Make sure the site is easy to navigate. Most journalists have less experience using the Web than your average campus public information officer. For this reason, make sure you offer multiple ways—such as search functions, navigation bars, and featured headlines—to find the same information.
Design the site with download time in mind. Again, most journalists are using slower modems and computers than we on campuses are. Ensure your site is media-friendly by testing it on a computer with slow download time and viewing it on different platforms. The total byte size of a page, including graphics, should not exceed 1MB; 60K is a reasonable goal. Hint: Using the identical element on multiple pages means the user has to download it only once.
Place timely, important news up front. Don't make reporters click through several screens before they find your news. That's what they are visiting for. The UB page opens with our top national stories up front with prominent links to our other news areas.
Build on opportunity. When reporters come to your site for one story, offer related ones that may interest them. UB 's site loads associated items based on the prevalence of flagged words in the story's summary and automatically notes in the margin when related news releases are available.
Organize your content for different media audiences. At UB, we separate all news items into two major categories: "National News," which includes our most recent major stories; and "Campus News," which contains headlines about events, honors, and other items usually of interest to only the local and campus news media. We also feature news by two topic areas, "Medicine/Health" and "Technology."
Update mercilessly. We limit the stories in the national news section to about 10. Every time we post a new story, that action eliminates the oldest item, which in some cases may be only a week old. Campus news stories stay up for a maximum of 30 days, or until the day after an event when they are event-based.
Keep descriptions brief but meaty. Reporters don't have the time to read each news item in full, but you should give them more than a headline to size up a story. The UB site provides a headline along with a one- or two-sentence summary of each news item plus a hyperlink to the full-text press release should a journalist want all of the details.
Date everything. Make sure each news item carries the date you posted it so that reporters know how old it is.
Provide contact information. Make it easy for a reporter to follow up on a news release by including the name, phone number, and hyperlinked e-mail address for the appropriate contact person in your office. If an article highlights a professor, include his phone number or hyperlinked e-mail address whenever possible.
Provide search functions. Your site takes on added research value if you have a keyword-searchable news archive. Search results on the UB site not only highlight the keyword in red but also provide a relevance score based on how frequently the word appears.
On our site, reporters also may search for news by using a pull-down menu of 16 topics ranging from architecture to technology.
Include bells and whistles. Whenever possible, accompany news items with downloadable, high-resolution color images. Such images--and audio and video files, if available--help sell a story and increase the likelihood of a news outlet picking it up. Even if the reporter can't access these files through her own computer, she can point her designer to your site. Make sure to provide any visual or audio files in multiple resolutions and formats.
Make experts handy. Use your site to provide immediate access to your faculty members and their expertise. Our "UB Experts" section is keyword searchable. Searches produce a synopsis of faculty members and their expertise, as well as a hyperlinked list of news releases in which they or their work have been cited.
Provide services. Make your site proactive by letting journalists sign up to receive e-mail news releases. The UB site allows them to subscribe to releases in 24 interest areas, ranging from arts and humanities to engineering to women's issues. The database ensures that only one copy of each news release is sent to each journalist, even if its content applies to multiple interest areas. The service sends the news release at the same time we post the story to the Web site.
If you build your media Web site properly using these tips, journalists will come--again and again.
Rebecca Bernstein is director of electronic media and Arthur Page is director of news services at the University at Buffalo.
This article is from the July/August 2000 issue of CURRENTS Online.