Slugging It Out

I just got busted for referencing a '60s Charlton Heston movie. OK, I get nostalgic. So when I heard an interview in which someone referred to "slugs" in the context of journalism, I felt like I was taking another joyride in the Wayback Machine: Could slugs be alive and well in contemporary journalism?

Like all good reporters, I did my research. I emailed my university to see if they still call the interdepartmental publication Slug (they don't), hit the search engines, and poked around journalism websites. As I am apt to, I also asked the intern. Surprisingly, the term is still in use. In the words of editorial intern Kate Poole: "Slugs are like short names for articles when they're still in the editing process. We use them at school for organization sometimes."

A slug is a short phrase used to indicate the story content of newspaper or magazine copy, serving as interoffice shorthand to help keep content sorted. In my j-school, the slug had to be eight characters, followed by the assignment number, a hyphen, and the writer's initials: brief, yet chock-full of info.

While Kate knows about them, she clarifies their usage saying, "I think they're taught just so that we are aware of what they are, not necessarily for the benefit of using them outside school."

However, the humble slug has not been put out to pasture; it has even crept into modern thinking about URLs. Based on the work of usability expert Jakob Neilsen, New Media Journalism includes this advice in its best practices: "The importance of hierarchical urls is connected to the importance of having ‘hackable urls', essentially allowing users to modify the url to get a broader set of information." The site suggests that a news organization should use this URL structure: section/ subsection/YYYY/MM/DD/slug.

Reuters' Handbook of Journalism devotes almost 600 words to slugging, including the insight: "A slug is a tool that media and online clients use in word searches to retrieve stories that interest them. It is also a key tool within Reuters' own systems to allow related content, including video and still images, to be packaged."

Far from the unpleasant ooze left by their namesakes, these slugs leave a valuable info trail that can be put to work to traverse a mountain of scholastic assignments, steer the course of search engines and searchers, and organize the trafficking of workflow on- and offline.

Slugs are a powerful communicator of information, yet they are not, themselves, the whole story. Nobody expects a journalism student (or seasoned pro) to provide complete coverage in a few characters. However, we do teach our interns and new hires the art of crafting effective subject lines, which is a surprisingly challenging skill. For our enewsletters, we try to create subject lines that are not only catchy and otherwise enticing but that actually say something. They have to communicate information about our top story in about 40 characters. Consider the way subject lines display in your inbox. If they are too long, the lead gets buried ... in your trash. However, our objective is not to report the news in a subject line. While I expect budding writers to communicate succinctly, I don't quantify reportage in character counts.

I don't think media outlets expect to effectively report in 140 characters or less, though a good number are deploying Twitter feeds as a way to keep readers abreast of coverage. Looking at some of these feeds, it appears that The New York Times tweets headlines along with shortened URLs to direct readers back to full coverage. Others, like the Chicago Sun-Times, provide casual commentary-based tweets, which feel more like the way marketers and average Joes and Janes communicate with Twitter. However, unlike many chattier tweets, these link to the full story.

As with most digital delivery mechanisms, news organizations are writing Twittering rules as they go. MediaShift, a blog that provides a "guide to the digital media revolution," did a two-part series on the intersection between traditional journalism and Twitter-based news dissemination, which reported that The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Bloomberg, AP, and others have introduced policies covering social media. These policies generally revolve around limiting liability and increasing the level of professionalism. They don't cover what it takes to effectively leverage character-limited communication.

While not focused on news, Twitter has introduced Twitter 101, a site designed to share "interesting findings, best practices, steps for getting started, and case studies," which may provide a basis for discussion. Regarding Twitter's announcement, I read a post on P2PNet that said, "Severely limiting the maximum number of characters to 140 for any given post means data and info are passed without gas." Clever. And a mere 100 characters. Yet, like the word slug, gas can mean more than one thing. One man's gastronomic discomfort is what gets another's ideas aloft.

Something I learned in school certainly applies today: Approach every assignment as a story-with a beginning, middle, and end. Tell the whole story, not more and not less. Let us master the tools at our disposal without abandoning the fundamental principles of effective communcation, regardless of the medium.