Headlines that work

Tuesday, January 18, 2005
(From the archives, a historic memo)

From: Meyerson, Charles
Sent: Tuesday, January 18, 2005 2:46 PM
Subject: Thoughts on “headlines that work”

I’ll preface these with the usual cautions:

-- Many of the techniques below can be overused, for sure. NOT Nos. 1 and 2, though.

-- The urge to sensationalize is a constant danger; headlines must accurately represent stories, ideally drawing on the universe of words and phrases contained within those stories. (See No. 10 below.) That said, if the heads don’t work, the words that follow will simply not get read (or, on the Internet, clicked). So they certainly should be as sensational AS POSSIBLE — within the realm of accuracy.

The following thoughts are based mainly on what the chicagotribune.com team has learned from watching clicks on the Web site front page and our daily Daywatch e-mail newsletter day in and day out for the last five years or so. Anyone who wants to see those daily reports is welcome to drop a note to Ben Estes (Web site) and/or me (Daywatch).

Those numbers have confirmed much of what I concluded during my time in radio news, where — as with the Internet and, metaphorically at least, with newspapers in this multimedia age — the competition is always just a click or button-press away. That’s never truer than for a newscast on a music-oriented station, where the main rule of survival is...

1. Assume most of the audience is NOT interested.
Every headline is a battleground for your audience’s attention. Don’t speak just to the news junkies; they’ll pay attention in any event. Keep the tent as big as you can.

2. Place the story’s most interesting word or phrase as close as possible to the start of the headline.
That may or may not be the same as the news (latest development). “Judge sets mom’s bail at $500,000” would draw far fewer clicks than would “Baby-killing suspect’s bail set.” “Judge” and “bail” are the news, but “baby-killing” is the most interesting phrase.

3. Play down location.
Keep the focus on the story — on the human experiences — rather than on geography, which serves simply to divide our metropolitan (or, on the Web, national) audience. A Highland Park reader might skip an “Orland Park” headline without a thought, but people everywhere are interested in landmarks preservation, recycling, new Ikea stores, etc. On the Web, “Teardowns protested in suburb“ will do MUCH better than “Hickory Hills residents protest teardowns.” Exception: Sometimes, the location IS the most interesting word or phrase in the story. The word “Disneyland,” for instance, should almost certainly be in the headline for a story that mentions Disneyland.

4. Avoid use of names for all but top-line newsmakers.
-- Sports headlines, for instance, do much better when they emphasize teams or players’ distinguishing characteristics rather than a player’s last name. “Thibault out for season” will draw far fewer clicks than “Hawks goalie out for season.” (However many people know who Thibault is, even more know — and might care — what “Hawks goalie” means.) “’Desperate Housewife’ dating NBA star” will trump “Longoria dating San Antonio’s Parker” every time.

-- Similarly, don’t overestimate the appeal of politicians’ last names. “Bush,” “Daley,” and “Kerry” carry some weight. But “Blagojevich,” “Burke,” “Mell,” “Madigan,” etc. carry nowhere near as much. Headlines do much better when they omit such names, and instead emphasize titles or other subject matter.

6. Don’t rule out simple, direct headlines.
Internet-side joke: The most-clicked headline ever would be “Someone you know is dead.” [Belated credit, added April 28, 2015: Paul Muth.] An exaggeration, of course, but it’s a reminder that giving readers the basics without giving away the whole story — using words comprehensible to the maximum number of readers and not just businesspeople or political wonks or sports fans, for instance — is a good way to get the most people to read what we write. “Sitcom star dies” or “Car explodes on expressway“ may not be the most creative headlines ever, but they will get people to pay attention to the stories that follow.

7. Other highly effective approaches:
-- Questions. “Who was Deep Throat?”
-- Ellipses/teases. “Nation’s fattest city is...”, “Plane grounded after passenger writes one-word note”
-- “How-to” or “Why.” “How to try Atkins,” “Why explosion happened”
-- Second person. “Check state’s list for your name”
-- Pull-quotes. Particularly those that express strong opinion. The quotation marks themselves seem to lend power (clickability). “Suck it up, wussies,” did very well for Charlie Madigan’s blog last fall.

8. Accentuate the positive.
Headlines that emphasize things that aren’t happening or changing will not draw substantial response. Put yourself in the position of a reader who has a zillion things to do and dozens of stories from which to choose. For example: “SmithCo CEO not worried about SEC report” (If he’s not worried, why should I be?) “Charity funding stable” (Good. Next?) The most successful headlines will stress the news: What’s changed?

9. Encourage reporters and writers to visualize their headlines before they file.
Some of our bloggers’ biggest days have come when their work includes — and they recommend — a headline that they think will best “sell” their work to readers. I’ve been surprised, on occasion, to talk to reporters who say they don’t consider themselves qualified to write or recommend headlines. Who better to know how to sell a story?

10. Consider words’ “point value.”
Our work on headlines has been influenced partly by this account of a news-headline game. I’ve never played it, but gauging each word for reader appeal is not a bad approach to writing headlines for the Web — or radio or print.

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