Neither Taylor Momsen Nor David Carr Wrote This Headline

David Carr’s Media Equation column in today’s New York Times discusses the death of the witty headline and explores the art of the reductive, sexed-up, search engine-optimized headline as practiced by online news outlets, including, most ably, the Huffington Post.

In the piece headlined “Taylor Momsen Did Not Write This Headline,” Carr makes his point with this lede:

Don’t know who Taylor Momsen is? Neither do I, beyond that she is the mean one on “Gossip Girl.” But Facebook knows her well, Twitter loves her, and she and Google have been hooking up, like, forever.

One more fact about Ms. Momsen: she has nothing to do with this column, let alone the headline. But her very name is a prized key word online — just the thing to push my column to the top of Google rankings.

I recently weighed in on the art of headline writing as practiced by Huffington Post for a package of CJR essays commemorating the HuffPo’s fifth birthday earlier this month. Arguing that the Huffington Post is the New York Post for liberals and comparing the Post’s classic “Headless Body in Topless Bar” headline to HuffPo headlines like “Tiger Woods Sex Video” (which linked to a nature video of tigers procreating in the wild). I wrote:

Both share a refined taste for the salacious, lowbrow, and downright distasteful; both take an almost palpable pleasure in writing eyeball-grabbing headlines on such subjects, though the way they go about grabbing eyeballs is quite different.

The Post is noted for the clever wordplay in its headlines. The HuffPo is noted for its clever methods of headline manipulation; tagging stories with popularly searched keywords, testing two headlines in real time to see which gets more clicks and soliciting crowd-sourced headlines from its Twitter followers.

But there’s room for something in the middle between the crass grabs for search engine attention and the wordy witticisms that don’t get any traffic, Carr says. Flip the metaphor and the New York Post could be viewed as the old media version of the Huffington Post for a conservative audience. Carr writes:

People who worry that Web headlines dumb down public discourse are probably right. But some of the classics would still work. Remember “Headless Body in Topless Bar,” perhaps the most memorable New York Post headline ever? It’s direct, it’s descriptive, and it’s oh-so-search-engine-friendly. And not a Taylor Momsen in sight.

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.