The death of the clever headline?

Writing a good headline – accurate, clear and clever – is the most difficult task in the process of journalism.

The evidence for that appears on a thousand newspapers and news web sites every day where you don’t have to search very hard to find inaccurate, confusing and mundane headlines that give readers good information about the article they represent.

Writing a good headline is also one of the most important tasks of journalism.

The headline is the reader’s first view of the article and often their only course of information about the story. A good headline has a lot to do with whether or not a reader dives into the story. Headlines also set the tone of the publication.

Headlines are notoriously difficult to write. For decades I have watched students and professionals struggle with find those few exactly right words that will say just what should be said about the story. And I have participated in plenty of those struggles myself.

The headline writer is faced with substantial and often complex information but must make a clear, coherent statement about it using only eight to ten words (if that many). The headline has to accurately reflect not just what the story says but it also has to take into account the context of the story and the ability of the reader to understand it. Plus, the headline writer has to do this again and again every day under the pressure of a headline.

Now there is yet another pressure: Google, and all its kind.

In an article this week in the New York Times, Steve Lohr writes that headline writers are increasingly called to take into account what search engines look for when scanning web sites looking for relevant material. (The Boring Headline is Written for Google) A high placement for a story by a search engine can draw readers by the thousands, and that in turn can mean increased advertising revenue.

So news organizations large and small have begun experimenting with tweaking their Web sites for better search engine results. But software bots are not your ordinary readers: They are blazingly fast yet numbingly literal-minded. There are no algorithms for wit, irony, humor or stylish writing. The software is a logical, sequential, left-brain reader, while humans are often right brain.

 

Lohr makes the point with a number of good examples of how news organizations have changed headlines to make them less clever and more bland, satisfying the search engine’s tastes. Some news organizations are even writing two headlines, one that can be picked up by the search engine and one that can be seen by the readers of the site or that will appear in the print version of the story.

Whether search engines will influence journalism below the headline is uncertain. The natural-language processing algorithms, search experts say, scan the title, headline and at least the first hundred words or so of news articles.

Journalists, they say, would be wise to do a little keyword research to determine the two or three most-searched words that relate to their subject — and then include them in the first few sentences. “That’s not something they teach in journalism schools,” said Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineWatch, an online newsletter. “But in the future, they should.”

Another challenge to us all.

Jim Stovall (Posted April 14, 2006)

Update: But worse than the boring headline is the useless one. Here is Steffen Fjaervik’s take on this. (Posted April 14, 2006)

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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