Datelines aren’t dated, even on the Web

Writers and editors often can befuddle their readers by delivering compelling content that lacks key contextual information—such as where or when an event took place.

In the world of print newspapers, readers rarely have to ask themselves “Where did this news happen?” or “When did this news happen?” The dateline on an article tells them the location of the reporting, and the header on the page gives them a publication date that they can use to bring the context of time to what they’re reading. But in the online realm, such time and location tidbits (metadata?) often are nowhere to be found.

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Web content from small newspapers or TV stations, for example, often fails to give readers useful location information. An online article might mention an event that took place in the town of “Spring Valley” or “Lincolnville” while providing no clues as to the state (or even the county) in which the town exists. That’s no big deal for local readers viewing the content online, but far-away readers who discover the article via Internet searches, news aggregation sites, social-media posts, or other means will be lost. Readers near and far need time and location context because (1) it helps them determine how timely and personally relevant the content is and (2) it gives them details that they can use in citing, referencing, or sharing the content with secondary audiences—be they next-door neighbors, social-network connections, blog followers, or market-research clients.

Sure, readers might look for location clues in the name of the news provider or in a page header or footer. But often the clues simply aren’t there. The newspaper’s name (“The Spring Valley Times”?) doesn’t help, and the headers and footers fail to mention a city, a state, or even a region. And yes, a reader could always google the name of the media outlet to find out where it’s located. But why risk losing the reader’s attention? Why ask him to step away from your content to do some research? Why not include the location information in or alongside the content from the get-go?

Sometimes the answer lies with the people who designed or built the website, and who failed to consider that their World Wide Web site for local content would attract readers worldwide. “So what?” they might say. “Why does it matter? Why should the providers of that content care about readers beyond their target area?” It matters because, in a world in which we can communicate globally and instantly, the line between global events and local events blurs.

Locals sometimes find out about local events from people thousands of miles away. Companies want to find new sources of information on out-of-state business partners and competitors. In the realm of public policy, even seemingly small bits of local news can have an impact across state lines and at the national level. Online advertisers and marketers want to reach important audiences regardless of their physical location. Researchers want to pull information from more corners of the planet to identify trends early and discover fresh sources of innovation. Local problems can be solved by nonlocal sources who have discovered those problems by reading about them online. But not knowing where something happens makes all of these things difficult.

Sometimes the designers and builders of content sites also include a date-stamp feature that shows the current date alongside the content instead of the actual publication date of the content. Many websites today stamp 10-year-old press releases and ancient news stories with today’s date, unintentionally fooling and confusing readers. “Evergreen” content—generic advice columns and broad “about us” profile information, for example—probably won’t suffer much if it lacks a publication date. But news and “newsy” content (product releases, information about an event, etc.) should include accurate time clues for the benefit of current readers as well as readers who might discover the content many months or years from now.

Writers and editors should remain aware that their content has a life and an audience beyond today’s local reader. And they can help their readers by including datelines, providing useful location and time details within or alongside their content, and urging Web staff to ensure that online date and place/source information won’t confuse future readers or far-away readers.

Copyright © 2013 by L. Scott Tillett, All rights reserved.

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