David Arkin's blog

The way digital companies write headlines blows traditional news headlines away


Headline writing has evolved quite a bit over the years for newspapers in the transition from print to SEO-friendly.

Newsrooms have learned about search engine technology and what delivers good results. We have balanced writing good headlines while trying not to load up on too many proper names, all in the name of getting as much Google juice as we possibly could.

As newspapers have worked to develop better SEO they are unfortunately getting passed over by digital news organizations that have figured out that writing engaging, sharable and fun headlines, is the wave of the future. And their growing audiences are proof that they are very successful in this approach.

We need to catch up. And we need to catch up fast.

Here are four examples of headlines that appeared on Vice, Vox and Mic over the last few days that talked to readers in a way traditional news organizations just don’t.

1. Why Wal-Mart is so upset with a guy for Photoshopping this picture of a horse in front of one of its stores. (Vice).

2. Where the world’s migrants go, in one map (Vox).

3. Ben Stiller just announced Zoolander 2 in the best way possible(Mic).

4. What it’s like to grow up with an alcoholic mom (Vice).

Why do these headlines work? They provide information but create a sense of curiosity that traditional headlines don’t. Sure, you could argue these are national stories, and there may be different liberties publications like Vox can take, but it wouldn’t be hard to apply some of these practices to what you may cover on any given day.

This post is only about headlines. But you could argue that some of the challenge for legacy media companies is our content approach. How often do we create a story with just a few graphs explaining a map? Likely not that often. But it works as you can see above.

Back to headlines.

Let’s dig into a few stories that both BuzzFeed and traditional media have run over the last few days. The difference in headlines and engagement is pretty amazing.

1. Apple leverages iPhone to help doctors research (USA Today).

BuzzFeed headline: Apple’s ResearchKit Will Turn Your Phone Into A Medical Diagnostic Device

2. Disney’s ‘Cinderella’ is hardly revisionist, but succeeds with old-style charm (Minneapolis Star)

Buzz Feed headline: The Glorious Realness Of The Wicked Stepmother In “Cinderella”

3. Blue Jays’ bohemian lefty anything but your normal prospect(Santa Cruz Sentinel)

BuzzFeed headline: This Pro Baseball Player Lives In A Van Behind A Florida Walmart

Let’s now take a look at three stories on the New York Times, LA Times and Seattle Times that were interesting but had just dreadfully boring headlines. Here’s a look at what they did and what they could have done to be more engaging and friendly.

1. Apple Watch displays your digital world, at a glance (New York Times).

Better headline: Why you may want to wait for the next version of the Apple Watch

2. Feds accuse DirecTV of deceptive ads, seek millions in refunds (LA Times)

Better headline: Feds accusing DirecTV of deceptive ads; were you one of thousands who were duped?

3. Starbucks readies rollout of mobile ordering in Seattle area(Seattle Times).

Better headline: A Starbucks line that doesn’t last 20 minutes? It may exist, starting next Tuesday

A headline’s tone should reflect the story. All of the above examples from digital news organizations aren’t sensational and do reflect the story. They are just more conversational. Just because a headline is more conversational doesn’t mean that a headline writer should just forget about good news judgment. Good news judgment should always prevail. To that point, there could times when a conversational headline doesn’t work. A murder story would be a good example. Mic does a good job creating lots of conversational headlines throughout their site but on their news section they play it a little straighter. That balance is important.

I don’t believe conversational headlines should just be featured on social media. Do it on your desktop and mobile sites. While those social media audiences are likely to be a bit younger, the idea that headlines could talk to our readership in more direct ways than they do today is a benefit to readers on all of our platforms.

We should uphold every standard we have when it comes to good headline writing. None of that has to change. But our tone and delivery is what needs changing.

Newspapers don’t have to sacrifice meaning or SEO to be more engaging. We just need to be more conversational and social.

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