Keep calm and write a headline worth reading

Ease up on the exaggerations because someday you may need those explosive adjectives when a truly big story lands

Facebook announced recently that it would be cracking down on teaser headlines crafted to lure readers into clicking on weak content, and it was a gratifying win for the newspaper traditionalists.

The art of writing a headline—fitting an accurate, compelling, occasionally clever description of a story into a tight space—has been on the decline since the rise of Twitter and Facebook. The “newsfeeds” on those sites, and others like them, are tailor-made for posts topped by come-hither pitches that overpromise on stories that underdeliver.

You won’t BELIEVE what Tori Spelling went and did to herself,” read the headline on one recent post. She cut her hair.
California Faces Major Likelihood of Destructive Aftershock Within A Week,” read another following last month’s Napa earthquake. A reader who clicked on the story would find that the “major likelihood” was a 29-percent chance. Of an aftershock that, by definition, would be smaller than the original quake. Which lacked initial* fatalities.

Hyperbolic come-ons of this sort run counter to principles more traditional (some might say outdated) news outlets take pride in following. Among them: Keep the exaggeration in check and the blowout language in your back pocket, because someday you may need those explosive adjectives when a truly big story lands. Using “destroys” to describe what a comedian did to a politician’s position looks odd when the word also characterizes the devastation wrought by deadly floods.

News organizations that have been at this a while know readers don’t like to be tricked into reading something. But many upstart Web publications haven’t been around long enough to learn this rule. They do, however, know they might not be around much longer if they don’t attract clicks.

The internet seems to be catching up with them, though. In Facebook’s announcement two weeks ago about what it called “click-baiting,” it said it would henceforth give preference to interesting, relevant stories rather than ones it called “spammy.” Specifically, the social network is targeting curiosity-gap headlines, ones that tell you everything but the one fact readers might care about. (“You’ll NEVER believe which two stars got into a fight on the red carpet last night!!”) A discussion has bubbled on Twitter of late over the merits of “spoiler” accounts that recirculate such tweets, but with the missing info added. Some argued that tweeters like Saved You A Click are cheating by adding on the facts that were left off. But when a story can be rendered moot by a couple words added to a tweet, it’s the story that’s the problem.

Certainly, not all the changes brought about by online trends are for the worse. The old guard might resent writing keyword-focused headlines that rank highly on Web searches, but there is plenty of room for artistry. The numbers show Web traffic is often drawn to a smartly chosen quote from a story or a single, jarring fact. Removing the space constraints of the printed page allows for headlines that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. And readers like them.

Data analysis also now lets editors monitor reader engagement in real time, allowing them to sharpen a headline or reposition a story in ways that broaden its reach.

But one can think critically and write creatively without resorting to pandering or deception. Recently, a friend asked if I’d seen a fantastic article he read about a Kansas City Royals fan’s journey from South Korea to see the team he had been following for years. I had, in fact, seen tweets touting coverage of a fan’s “best trip ever” but hadn’t bothered to click, assuming it wasn’t. After my friend’s mention, I tracked down the story. As far as best trips ever go, turns out it was, or pretty close. Here’s hoping we’re returning to the days when headlines could be believed.

*After the piece ran, officials reported one death attributable to the quake.

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Michael Driscoll is an editor at The Wall Street Journal. He has also worked as an editor at the New York Daily News and as a reporter at The Journal in Martinsburg, WV. He lives in Brooklyn.