The Internet is Killing the Headline

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If I titled this post 11 facts you didn’t know about headlines, or I was writing the headline to this post… you’ll never believe what happened next, it might have gotten more clicks. A lot more.

Headlines in these styles are notoriously popular, courtesy of Buzzfeed and Upworthy. The first kind even has a name, listicle, which to me conjures up the image of an underdeveloped testicle. Buzzfeed didn’t invent this, but made a business model out of it. Everyone is doing it now – we even get meta-variations like this Wired piece called 5 Reasons Listicles Are Here to Stay, and Why That’s OK. But, at least, a listicle headline contains information about the article itself. It just offers it in a slightly sleazy way.

Upworthy, on the other hand, uses a strategy known as curiosity gap: it tells you as little as possible about content and promises to surprise you, demanding a click. Examples include: 9 out of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About This Mind-Blowing Fact (Pageviews: 6.3 million), Watch The First 54 Seconds. That’s All I Ask. You’ll Be Hooked After That, I Swear (Pageviews: 4.6 million), and His First 4 Sentences Are Interesting. The 5th Blew My Mind. And Made Me A Little Sick. (Pageviews: 4.9 million).
If you never visited Upworthy, you’d never guess that it’s actually a social issues website with a strong liberal leaning – that I almost completely share – because clickbait usually goes hand in hand with the trivial. They use this trick to attract people to content that would otherwise get little traffic: Upworthy’s tagline is Things that matter. Pass’em on.

The rise of these viral tactics highlights a radical change in the role of the headline. In a newspaper, it has a function. It must inform and attract. A perfect headline is elegant and inevitable, and can not only make or break an article, but alter its perception in the reader. But on the web, there’s a war for your attention. Words are weapons, and the headline is a battlefield. The journalistic headline has become much closer in functionality to the advertising headline – “the ticket on the meat”, as David Ogilvy defined it – which you use “to flag down readers for the kind of product you’re advertising”.

This is the most famous headline in print-advertising history:

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That’s an underdog story, in fifteen words. Notice the peculiar use of the hyphen.
You don’t care it isn’t plausible, it just draws you in. It was written 60 years ago to sell correspondence music courses and it’s still being plagiarized by copywriters today.

Headlines used to be longer. In 1932, before the dangers of radioactivity became obvious, you could buy Radithor, a “medicine” of water and radium which was advertised to give you “perpetual sunshine”. One famous athlete, Eben Byers, was such a fan of the concoction that he drank 1,400 bottles of it, until his face literally came apart, as this headline from The Wall Street Journal perfectly narrates:

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Wordplay, or syntactic ambiguity, is a great tool for crafting headlines. This is by far my favorite from last year:

Screenshot 2014-04-09 21.50.58Assonance and consonance – the repetition of vowel sounds or consonants – can also be of great help. This New York Post example is proof that great headlines can be found anywhere:

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What about rhyming? it’s old school, but effective. You may be familiar with the Mile High Club, but you may not know that its founding father is also the inventor of the autopilot, an essential device if you’re at the controls and looking for distraction. His name is Lawrence Sperry, and in 1916 he showed his invention – and presumably more – to one Cynthia Polk, while flying low over water. Something went wrong, and the two plunged into the water. They were rescued, both naked, by duck hunters. One unidentified New York tabloid brilliantly summarized the episode:

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My favorite sports headline ever comes from a November 1968 issue of The Harvard Crimson. It reports on a football game played between the best of the Ivy League, Harvard and Yale. Yale was on a 16-game winning streak and was nationally ranked. They were leading 29-13 with less than a minute remaining. Then, the unthinkable happened. A fumble, a two-point conversion, an onside kick, another fumble, and another two-point conversion. Harvard scored 16 points in the final 42 seconds. With no overtime, the game ended in a tie, but Harvard got there in such an amazing way that it felt like a win, and a crushing loss for Yale. Hence, the perfect headline (above the masthead):

otsAcShThis recent example is from The New York Times:

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Sure, it needs a subhead to explain itself, but it carries a lot of weight: it sets the tone for the whole article, making it clear that the topic at hand is addressed – as it should be – with a lighthearted touch.

A great headline is a gift to the reader. You can savor its perfection, you can dwell in its stylistic sobriety – 6 to 8 words being the accepted ideal length for any headline. But clickbait headlines are never short, nor beautiful. They are a trap, and they don’t give you anything but an urge to click. It’s a transaction, not a gift.

Tim Radford, former Guardian science editor, writes in his brilliant Manifesto for the simple scribe: «When you sit down to write, there is only one important person in your life. This is someone you will never meet, called a reader».

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