Today we obtained a copy of one AOL editor's "welcome to the team" email to new writers.
Reading it, we learned a little bit about how AOL — transtioning from a dying dial-up ISP to a huge media company — expects its 500 fulltime and ~2,500 freelance editorial staffers to produce 80+ content sites.
We expect some of the procedures outlined in the email will probably find their way to most any online-only publications — from the New York Times on down.
The email, from an editor at AOL site RentedSpaces.com, encourages writers to produce 300-500 word stories fast in a style that's "colorful, concise, [and] opinionated." But he doesn't want them to go too far.
"We're not Gawker, so be friendly and authoritative."
He tells them stories don't have to be based on original reporting. He writes, "All we want to know for a pitch is: what's the story, who broke it (AP, NYT, BW, Bloomberg,etc.), and how you will advance the story if you are following someone else's reporting," reads the email.
When writers file their copy, they're expected to "Include 140 characters for a Tweet or Facebook update."
AOL wants its editors to write in a way that will help Google will find their stories — that they're "search engine optimized." For example, the RentedSpaces editor tells his staffers to "make sure the first few words and first graf contain the critical keywords."
Of course, all these guidlines could change soon. AOL told the Wall Street Journal over the weekend that it's developing an algorithm that will assign freelance writers stories based on user Web searches and the sites AOL ISP subscribers visit.
We've pasted the whole email, below. Read:
Hope you are having a terrific break. I have a few notes before Monday. My apologies in advance for a long email.
First, I want to welcome Amy Cortese, who will now solo as news lead, and also announce Fred Bernstein of the New York Times as design lead, as well as the imminent hire of Robert X. Cringely as a senior columnist. Cringely was a bellweather of tech journalism, rising in the early 2000s to prominence via his own series on tech stuff at PBS (I, Cringely). Like many of us, he "discovered" real estate when his own 5/1 reset, and a couple of years ago, made some headway with a blog on the mortgage business that morphed into home-account.com. Bernstein is one of the Times' most eminent real estate and design writers. You'll find bios on all these guys at LinkedIn/Wikipedia/etc. It thrills me to have such an amazing group of early advocates for our mission, and I can't wait to witness them spread their wings through their writing, networks, and their experience of what makes real estate tick.
Second, I want to encourage each of you, writers, editors, and of course leads, to join our call Monday to Friday at 10AM. At this early stage of our formation, having the ability to build a shared DNA is a very cool thing. Don't pass it up. The calls are a half hour long, and lurkers are welcome. Of course, we're not about lurking, we're about participation, so listen in, learn, and pitch to get assignments. As I've said to many of you, this is a Darwinian platform. The more you contribute, the more you'll achieve. So pitch, pitch, pitch.
Several of you have expressed confusion about how exactly you go about pitching, and what to do once you get an assignnment. To make that a little clearer, here's a little step-by-step advice.
1) Build a pitch. All we want to know for a pitch is: what's the story, who broke it (AP, NYT, BW, Bloomberg,etc.), and how you will advance the story if you are following someone else's reporting. Here's an example:
Owners Charge U.S. Made Toxic Drywall
Now US-made drywall may be at risk, too. We blow out solutions with per foot cost estimates for each cure.
Simple, right? (And note the format: really helps to catch our eye in the AM.)
If you see a great story, or better yet, a great story than needs reporting, let us know, even if you're not the right writer. For now, send your pitches to me and Brett, and we'll forward to everyone else. By Tuesday or Wednesday, we'll have a new email address for pitches ([redacted]@housingwatch.com or something like that).
2) Write it. Don't hesitate. This isn't print. So do it fast. We're looking for colorful, concise, opinionated analysis that always expands the consumer viewpoint. We're not Gawker, so be friendly and authoritative, but on the other hand, don't be afraid to take sides.
Most important: Show, don't tell. Take a statistic and tell us a real human story attached to it. Or why current technical analyses miss the point. Don't just define MBSs (mortgage backed securities); find someone who sold them, tell his story, how the instrument evolved, what you think of it, and why we should or shouldn't allow them in their current state—and do it crisply. Appeal to, and link to, relevant facts. You have 300-500 words to make your argument, although going long is not a problem if the copy rocks.
3) Keep it clean. Yes you can write in another program and drop it into Blogsmith, but that program isn't Microsoft Word, which throws in all sorts of gobbledygood into your copy. Use TypePad (Windows) or TextEdit (Mac) and paste it in.
4) Until told otherwise, make sure the dropdown says RentedSpaces and tag your post HousingWatch (unless of course you're writing expressly for RS). Your lead will help you figure out where the story will go.
Which raises another question: How will you know who's your lead? Simple: join the morning call, and make sure your pitch gets considered (i.e., speak up) . If your pitch is good, someone will grab it.
5) All that other stuff on the page:
Links: Link promiscuously based on major points in your story. Make your story good enough that someone won't want to lose you. Link to important search-engine-optimization keywords. For the drywall example above: Drywall, rot, fungus, mildew, construction might all be keywords that would need to be linked in a story. Try not to link to Wikipedia but to other sources, even smaller ones. Create a virtuous cycle between you (AOL) and a smaller site from which you may be capturing a story. Linklove is real. Use it.
Headline: Make sure the first few words and first graf contain the critical keywords: "Now,US Drywall Rots, Sucks. Eats Your Home." That's a good head. Provoke the reader to click, and to think.
Categories: Basic taxonomical barns your story fits into. Think library science: the drywall story could be categorized under "development," "design," and if there was a local element, the specific location ("Florida"). Tags are not library science. They help you make organizational connections between stories. For example, drywall, drywallrot, construction, China, are all significantly related.
SEO: Hot topic of the day. The key is the keyword. Not any keyword, but keywords essential to real estate that AOL Real Estate can win on. For example, drywall isn't very descriptive, but "chinese drywall rot" is. Our aim is to be in the first three pages of Google listings on any term on a real estate story. Here's an interesting way to check if you're on the right path: check out your search term on Google and see who else is there, how your story can be better than theirs', and what you need to add to advance the story. Then keep sprinkling the words throughout your story without changing either the story or your voice. One keyword in every graf is a decent metric but avoid slavish repetition.
6) After you're done: Send a note to your lead telling them your story is up in Pending. Include 140 characters for a Tweet or Facebook update.
7) Our next job: capture your friends' content. If you know someone who can write for us, let us know asap. We still don't have enough writers.
8) Some pitches to pick up by or before Monday:
30 Y Mortgages Hit 38Y Low
Why Dubai Matters To You
For Athletes in Motion, Real Estate Can Be a Burden
Bidding Starts at $5.9M for McCain's Home
Also, get ready: It looks like Obama will mount a challenge to the mortgage industry Monday morning with a new campaign to pressure mortgage cos to reduce payments for many homeowners.
Have a great Sunday. Speak to you Monday.