Guest post: How to pack facts and flair into online headlines

by andybechtel

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the latest of those posts. Maggie Tobias is a journalism senior about to graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill  and into the real world to pursue a career in health-related journalism. She loves writing about health, reading about health, bein’ healthy, running, watching Spanish movies, cooking healthy foods and singing rap songs at the top of her lungs. She is a member of the American Copy Editors Society, an avid reader of The New York Times, Women’s Health and many novels. Occasionally, she likes cooking unhealthy things, eating unhealthy things and watching “Glee.”

During the recent American Copy Editors Society national conference in Philadelphia, I attended a seminar called “Surviving the Switch to Online Editing.” This topic isn’t something new to me. Journalists get told every day that their writing isn’t direct enough or fast enough for the new world of Internet and iPads. The speaker, Paula Devlin of the Times-Picayune, gave us the rundown of different ways to increase traffic and readership for our news websites, but she also talked about the difference between headlines in print and online.

Print headlines have the luxury of being vague at times, as readers spend more time reading a newspaper than a website. But writers for online publications need to learn how to write headlines that get to the point and entice the reader, Devlin stressed in her presentation.

I argue that it’s possible to do all this and still keep a sense of humor in headlines. My generation is especially well-suited for this task. We’re already primed from years of texting to produce pithy, factual, funny content.

Devlin gave examples of rewritten print headlines.  Here’s my take on that.

Example 1:

Print headline: “Not by bulbs alone”

Why it’s wrong: This is a headline from The Carrboro Citizen for a story on Lou Ann and David Brower, a Chapel Hill couple who created a lavish garden in the woods around their house. This headline is lovely for print, but in an online version, I doubt a reader would think twice about clicking on the story.  It lacks proper names and buzzwords, there’s no sense of place and it relies on a biblical reference that many young people might not understand.

Suggested online version: “Chapel Hill couple takes gardening into the woods”

Comments: It’s not a riot to read, but I was able to add a place, people and a sense of what they’re doing. Some people might catch the shout-out to Steven Sondheim at the end. At least he’s more current than the Gospel writers.

Example 2

Print headline: “Talking trash at the Shore: Plastic, butts, underwear”

Why it’s wrong: This quirky headline from a Philadelphia Daily News story on pollution at New Jersey beaches might be unique, but it’s also misleading. I had no idea what the story was really about until I read the actual text. For all I knew, they could have been discussing the way beaches are overrun with rednecks and trailer trash. In addition, which “butt” are they referring to? What “Shore” do they mean? All in all, I think this was an awkward headline.

Suggested online version: “Jersey Shore’s trash collection eclectic and … dangerous?”

Comments: My version adds a location for those of us who don’t automatically assume “Jersey” when we see “Shore.” I wasn’t able to put in details about the trash, but by using the word “trash” instead of “plastic, butts, underwear,” I was able to clear up confusion about what those words were meant to suggest. Another element that the headline didn’t capture was the environmental hazard of this beach trash. If space permitted, I think the ending of my headline would intrigue people but give a good idea of what the article was about.

Example 3:

Print headline: “Cheek to Cheek (And Tongue-in-Cheek)”

Why it’s wrong: A first glance at this headline from The New York Times would leave anyone but the most perceptive musical theater lover at a complete loss for what the subject of the story is. “Cheek to Cheek” is a reference to Irving Berlin’s jazzy standard of the same name. But the number of online readers who know the song, much less who Irving Berlin is, must be pretty small. The story is actually a review of the latest season of “Dancing with the Stars,” whose line-up includes Pamela Anderson and soap opera actor Aiden Turner.

Suggested online version: “Pamela Anderson and others give dancing a whirl on ‘Stars’ this season”

Comments: Sure, it’s not quite as dry and witty as the Times version, but I think my headline gets to the point quicker and tells you more about the story’s contents.  Most people who’d want to read a story about this TV show would be attracted by buzzwords like the show’s name or a celebrity’s name. Also, TV lovers have reportedly lower attention spans. Even though my headline is longer, it takes less time to figure out than the questionable Times quip.

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