Online Exercise: Write an FAQ

FAQs are a good way to introduce students to online news writing and editing for three reasons.

The key to good FAQs — of course — is to formulate a good set of questions. A good question is at the start of all good reporting. And to formulate a good set of questions, the FAQ writer needs to have a very good sense of his or her audience. There are a few questions to consider when thinking about writing an FAQ.

  • Who is the audience?
  • What would they already need to know to get value out of this FAQ?
  • What search terms would they use to find this FAQ?
  • How would they use the information they find on the FAQ

Consider those questions and see if you can answer them for each of these examples of online FAQs that employ different styles.

Good FAQs use a hybrid of the traditional linear inverted pyramid style — putting the broadest and most important information at the top and the most detailed, least important information at the bottom — and a non-linear style that lets the reader choose what she or he wants to read most.

Look at the order of the questions in this FAQ. It starts with a question about how the recounts start, and it ends with a question about how the recount would end. Because this was published before the start of the recount, the newsiest information is about the potential triggers for the recount. The possible outcomes are further in the future, therefore carry less news value.

But it is also nonlinear. By turning each question in to a link and posting all the questions at the top of the page, the writer gives the each reader a chance to find the point of the story that most interests him or her. (Here’s are two tip sheets on HTML for journalists from J-Learning.org and the Knight Digital Media Center.)

This FAQ, written by Ed O’Keefe and Jeffrey Marcus when they worked with me at washingtonpost.com. It doesn’t have the links at the top of the page, but uses many more links to in-depth news stories and off-site information that allows each reader to delve deeper in to the topics in which he or she is most interested. This also demonstrates how FAQs are a nice way to introduce a complex issue to a casual reader.

This example follows a conversational style of Q&A. It begins with a very broad question and then each subsequent question builds on the answer to the previous question. This serves readers who want to follow a linear story line.

Right about now, I hope that at least some of you are confused. You might be asking me, “But, Ryan, do you want us to be non-linear or conversational? Conversations aren’t naturally non-linear. In fact, they’re very linear. A non-linear conversation would completely freak me out.”

That’s right. Online journalism CAN BE conversational. It CAN BE non-linear. They are two separate qualities that are not mutually exclusive, as this example shows. The authors use different tactics (links and the conversational progression) to accomplish different communication strategies.

Slate’s Explainer column isn’t exactly an FAQ. But it does a great job of illustrating how all good journalism starts with a good question. The Explainer columns almost always have a solid news peg, but the writers do an incredible job of thinking about questions that readers haven’t yet thought of. For most FAQs, the value is in their ability to predict the questions that readers might have. But The Explainer demonstrates that some of the best journalism is getting the audience interested in questions they hadn’t even considered.

The Explainer also uses links inside the text of the article to annotate the column and create an element of user-driven non-linear narrative where the reader can click to get more information on the items he or she chooses.

This also isn’t a traditional explainer, but it also demonstrates how trivial information might be used to draw readers more deeply in to public affairs issues. What’s it missing though? Context. Links. It reads more like something you’d find in a magazine sidebar rather than an online news site. It does not take advantage of the medium.

This example takes that trivia concept and converts it to a format that works so much better on the Web.

This was a feature I launched on washingtonpost.com because we were looking for a simple way to get people engaged with the news and draw them deeper in to the newspaper’s incredibly deep coverage of government and politics. We had seen in some research and observations that readers just love to click on stuff. Seeking no gratification other than entertainment (or perhaps a boost to self-confidence if they got the right answer), people loved to click on things. A great example of this is the ubiquitous polls you see in low quality online banner ads. We aimed to upgrade it a bit. I hope we succeeded.

When we first launched this feature, we made it a contest. The winners tracked their scores and received a prize. A secondary goal of this effort was to get more people to registered for the site. But it didn’t work very well.

When we took away registration (and the social gratification of playing against others), traffic skyrocketed and it became one of the section’s most trafficked features of the 2004 presidential campaign.

Finally, this is an example of combining the concept of FAQ with structured data. In this example, the questions are implied in the data fields that The Post chose to display on these candidate “baseball cards.” These kinds of projects — whatever their form — can be the foundations of “sustainable journalism” that can be created once and used over and over again.

Lesssons From Non-Journalism Sites

Finally, it’s worth looking at some examples from the technology and shopping sectors. These sectors are notoriously focused on both customer experience and efficiently. Good FAQs on a site can help the customer without adding extra burden on the service staff.

Take a look at these three examples. How are they different from journalism FAQs? How are they the same? Who is/are the audience(s) for each?

Assignment: Create An FAQ on Your Beat

Now it’s your turn to write an FAQ on your beat. Before you start, write down a description of your audience, make a list of 10 questions they might have about your topic and then choose the five most interesting and relevant.

Here is my grading rubric.

Once you’re done, post your links here and I’ll critique them.

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1 thought on “Online Exercise: Write an FAQ”

  1. I think this is a great idea for an assignment. Research done at The Poynter Institute shows that readers retain more information when reading in this format vs. the inverted pyramid. The Q&A, therefore, is a great way to explain the news.

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