How to show off your documents and PDFs online

There’s nothing like the smell of documents in the morning: Great, powerful, telling documents — documents confirming that the mayor really was running a meth lab in the basement of City Hall. Or that the county commission chairman really was betting county workers’ pension money on illicit goat-roping contests. Or that the police chief really did show up to work one day drunk, wearing only his boxer underwear, singing “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” in the style of Tiny Tim.

So now that you’ve got these great documents, how do you show them off online?

In my last post for Net Worked, I talked about software you can use to scan in and optimize your PDFs, and why optimizing PDFs rocks (for both you and your readers). This time, let’s talk about presenting those documents online.

First, let’s start with how you actually get your documents online.

One way is to upload the files directly to your Web server, either using your publication’s content-management system or using an FTP program like FileZilla or, another one I’ve used sometimes, CoffeeCup FTP.

But then there’s also, a free service that lets you upload PDFs and which converts them to Flash presentations. That’s really cool because it means that readers can quickly scroll through a big PDF file and find some relevant page in the back without having to see that “downloading … downloading … downloading” message across their screen (and you know what I mean if you’ve ever had to upload a 600-page government report to your site. Why does the government always put the interesting stuff in the back of the reports?).

Using Scribd also means that those huge reports don’t eat up a bunch of your Web server space, because the file is sitting on Scribd’s servers. There’s also some social networking capability to the site, too, so people can “friend” you and subscribe to your documents, and you can return the favor.

The site I work for, a nonprofit news site called Texas Watchdog, uses Scribd quite a bit. We like that we can upload a document and make it “private” — shielding it from access by the entire world, but allowing our reporters to access it via e-mailed invitations — and then quickly throw the switch to publish them to all the InterWebs when we’re ready to publish our story.

Then there’s also Google Docs. Google Docs will let you upload and share a PDF with the world that’s up to 10 megabytes. This service is also free.

(There may yet be other services out there for PDF-sharing — if you know of others that people should try, please comment below!)

So, once you’ve got your documents uploaded to the Web in some way, how do you present those documents online?

The easiest thing to do is simply link from the story text to the PDF in question.

I’ve seen people do bulleted lists of document links at the end of their stories, like this:

+ PDF of the mayor’s arrest report
+ PDF of city workers’ e-mails discussing the mayor’s arrest
+ PDF of the mayor’s e-mails in which he says he “just loves making illegal meth”

But I’m not terribly jazzed about this approach. For one thing, you never know if a reader will read all the way to the end of the story to see those links.

Plus, it’s inconvenient for the reader. If I come across a passage in the third graf that makes reference to a document, I might want to click on that document right then and see it for myself. My personal preference is to link phrases in the story to the documents to which they refer — a little bit like putting footnotes in a school term paper, only through the Web. offers a fancier approach: It enables you to embed the Flash presentation of your document in the story text. I think this is just cool as heck, but I’ve had trouble getting it to work for readers using Internet Explorer. Some of them have told me they just see a big blob of white space on the page where the document is supposed to be. We stopped using the Scribd embed function after we heard that. I hope that eventually it will work for all browsers.

But here’s something that’s more reliable. You can use the front page of the document — or a picture that zooms in on one key phrase or passage in the document — as an art element in your story or post, and then make that art element a hyperlink to the PDF of the document.

When I worked in the Tennessean newsroom in Nashville, we used to call these “document tears” when they were used in the print edition — they looked like they had been torn from a document and put onto the newspaper page. So that’s what I call these today when I create them for Texas Watchdog.

To create a document tear, you have at least two options. If you have access to Adobe Photoshop or other picture-editing software, you should be able to open the PDF file in Photoshop and simply save the first page of the PDF as a .jpg file. (If you want to spotlight one passage in the document, you can use the crop tool to cut out all the rest of the picture.) Then you can save the file for publication on the Web (72 dpi, I believe) and upload the newly created .jpg like any other photograph you might use on your site.

If you don’t have Photoshop or another photo editing program that will open a PDF, you can also do it the old-fashioned way: Get out the digital camera and take picture of the piece of paper. Then download that photo from the camera, crop it as needed and upload it to your site.

After you’ve got the picture of the document, or the document tear, uploaded, insert it at the requisite spot in the story text. Then, go back and get the URL of the PDF file of the document — whether it’s on your Web server, on Scribd or stored as a Google Doc — and copy that URL into the clipboard. Now, switch back over to where you’re working in the story text and wrap the A HREF HTML tags around the .jpg of the document tear so that the picture file itself becomes a hyperlink to the document URL.

But I’m sure those aren’t the only ways to present documents online. What are some of the tips you can share with our readers?

Jennifer Peebles is deputy editor at Texas Watchdog in Houston. E-mail her at jennifer(at) You can find her on Twitter (@jpeebles), on MySpace, LinkedIn, Digg, Newsvine, Publish2 and more Nings than she can keep track of.

Defending the First Amendment and promoting open government are more crucial now than ever. Join SPJ's fight for the public’s right to know — either as an SPJ Supporter or a professional, student or retired journalist.

  • Scott

    Thanks for the good tips. Google Docs is useful, though in my experience not ideal for large files with numerous graphics (and, of course, the 10 mb limit for open documents will quickly be reached with any substantial document).

    Suggestion for the future – this type of tutorial, which is very valuable, lends itself to visual aides. Readers would likely benefit from embedded pictures, screen grabs and even short video clips.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Jennifer Peebles


      You’re right, Google Docs isn’t so great for large files. I’ve had pretty good luck with Scribd, but I’d be glad to hear from other Scribd users out there about what does/doesn’t work and how far you can push its limitations.

      Take care, and please keep reading and commenting,

      Jennifer P.

  • THANK YOU SO MUCH for this information. This is exactly what I needed at this time. You are truly appreciated.


Twitter Facebook Google Plus RSS Instagram Pinterest Pinterest LinkedIn

© Society of Professional Journalists. All rights reserved. Legal

Society of Professional Journalists
Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Center, 3909 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, IN 46208
317/927-8000 | Fax: 317/920-4789 | Contact SPJ Headquarters | Employment Opportunities | Advertise with SPJ