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The end of headlines?

This article appears in the issue March 2015 (100 Companies) [Vol 24, Issue 3]


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It can take a while to realize that Inside.com is a news aggregator without headlines. It turns out that headlines were yet another bad bad choice imposed on us by the limitations of paper.

At Inside, you’ll see an endless list of stories, all formatted exactly the same. There’s a topic sentence in bold, 12 to 15 words long. Then there’s another sentence or two or three, making a single short paragraph. And a relevant image.

Then comes the metadata: a link to the original source, to the author and the author’s Twitter handle, a link to the user who curated the article, and the usual set of social media buttons to favorite the item, comment on it, or post about it on Facebook or Twitter.

But no headline. The bold-faced first sentence plays that role. But plays it differently.

Headlines are a precise rhetorical form. Newspapers and magazines and websites have rules about how long they can be, which words you can drop and which abbreviations you can use. For example, Variety’s famous “Sticks nix hix pix” headline indicates a pretty lax attitude toward spelling.

Explicitness

In a traditional newspaper, the headline serves two purposes. It informs us of the news and it entices us into reading the article. And sometimes they are just virtuosic displays of cleverness, as when The Washington Post headlined the news about Chris Rock’s divorce as “Rock’s papers scissor union.”

Headlines often have trouble informing us. Sure, it’s no problem to write a headline that says “Gov. So-and-So Wins Election!” but it’s much harder for any event that’s not as binary, which is to say, almost all events. You can see this if you compare the headlines aggregated by Google News and the ones composed by Inside.com’s 50 part-time writers.

Here’s Google News presenting a story from SFGate:

Federal judge stays Alabama gay marriage ruling for 2 weeks

It’s not bad, but it doesn’t actually tell you what the ruling was. Can same-sex couples get married now in Alabama?

Here’s the topic sentence of the same story at Inside.com, this time summarizing an article in an Alabama newspaper:

The federal ruling saying Alabama’s gay marriage ban is unconstitutional is on hold for two weeks.

Aha. So, nope, gay couples will have to wait.

Another example. Google News:

Loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 Is Declared an Accident

Inside.com:

Malaysia’s Civil Aviation Authority officially declares the MH370 incident an accident.

The Inside.com topic sentence has the space to get to make explicit who has declared it an accident, and that it is an official—and thus presumably final—assessment.

Using a carefully constructed sentence as a headline seems like an advantage with no drawbacks. What it gives up in impact is made up by the amount of understanding it can convey.

But, as noted, informing readers is only one role of a headline. The other is grabbing readers’ attention. And that’s another reason to prefer the bolded topic sentence over headlines. The way information wants to be free, headlines want to be clickbait.

Clickbait

This has never been as true as it is now. “Goodbye, Human Race” reads a headline at the top of The Huffington Post. It’s an article about the new KFC “Double Down” hot dog. And Huffington Post is like great literature compared to the real clickbait sites where item #4 on a list “will change your life forever” or is “a promise no hottie can say no to.” In fact, even great literature has used clickbait: “This unusual book may shock you, will make you laugh, and may break your heart—but you will never forget it.” That’s on the original cover of the paperback version of The Catcher in the Rye.

Clickbait works. Of course it does. And there is no inherent shame in a headline being used to get us to click on a story that will inform us and expand our understanding and sympathies. “A Tragic Choice: Fight Malaria or Starve” reads a New York Times headline. “Christie on Air: Undiluted and Pretty Great, if He Says So Himself,” reads another one, although if the paper lifted its constraint on headline length, that first phrase could have been more clearly stated as “Chris Christie talks about himself on the radio … ” These are New York Times-style clickbait and there’s nothing wrong with them.

But if you’re trying to inform readers, headlines suffer from constraints that are now unnecessary. Or as Variety might say:

Heads Shed Cred. Dead.
 


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