There’s sort of an art to headline writing, and though I’ve done it for years, I still struggle each week. I know I need to get readers’ attention, but I don’t want to scream. I know headlines need to be somewhat proportional to the importance of a story, or they’ll look sort of crazy. “Word War III launched” in a small 10-point type would be way too understated. “VFD to hold BBQ fund-raiser” in 120-point “we’ve-gone-to-Mars” type would be humorous.
When putting headlines on the front page each week, I have certain space constraints that I don’t online. Stories sometimes run in narrow, one-column spaces. So, there’s always a tendency to look for the best shortcuts. “Considers” becomes “mulls.” “Competes” becomes “vies.” The fewer the letters, the bigger the type size can be. A headline that is 10 words long won’t work. It’s better to have one or two words played big, then a sub head under it. This looks better. It’s also important to create clear borders between headlines and other stories. For instance, a report of a man charged with child molestation needs a distinct line between whatever is nearby. You certainly don’t want someone’s smiling face in a feel-good piece blending into the ugly crime report next to it. There are countless ways to screw up. This is one of them. There can be some sort of aesthetic error like that, the ugly and the nice too closely grouped. And unless you look for it, you can miss it, until it’s sitting on a newsstand. Then, it’s too late.
The worst headlines are the ones that seem disconnected from the story, like whoever wrote the headline didn’t also write the story and didn’t bother to read it. Likewise, headlines are also bad when they seem intentionally deceptive. This is central to clickbait. We see so many headlines that are dramatic, and then when we stop to read the story, there’s no real news there. It’s just an effort to get our click. If you ever see “you won’t believe…”, remember that someone is trying to suck away some time from you with nothing worthwhile.
There is such competition for our attention that headlines come screaming at us like those old late-night commercials where the volume was suddenly twice as loud. Remember how loud those used to be? I was snapped out of a drooling stupor at 2 a.m. on the sofa many times by someone shouting about a Flowbee do-it-yourself haircutting system or that weird little ch-ch-ch-ch-chia jingle. I don’t sit with the TV on late at night like I used to, but I think the insane, sudden volume boosts were regulated out of existence. There’s one regulation we should all agree on, right?
The proliferation of clickbait headlines is just a part of the hyper-competitive market for eyeballs. If you open one screen, you’re immediately confronted with a dozen pleas to get you to click on the next one. And a primary tool to get you to move to the next thing is a catchy headline. I’m terribly vulnerable to this. I can’t help myself. For instance, if I see “Meatball sandwich horseplay leads to two deaths, family betrayal, two trials,” well, I’m clicking. I love weird stories. And the Internet provides a deep rabbit hole of such oddities. That’s why I often have to print out longer stories to actually read them. Otherwise, the crazy headlines and other distractions will pull me away.
When you read what we do at this paper, know that we’re aiming for some balance. We want to be attention grabbing without being clickbait. We want to tell things straight, but in an interesting way.
Now, I’m off to browse more news sites. Aren’t you? Wonder what percentage have “Trump” in the headline? Whatever you think about him, that name is the ultimate clickbait, isn’t it? See that name and you know the clicks will be there. And so will the fight beneath the story. That’s just our current state of affairs.
That seems like an appropriate two-word headline of the times.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.
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