Guest post: Online headlines should entice readers

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, will write guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the first of those posts. Daniel Bethea of Hendersonville, N.C., is a junior majoring in journalism and political science. He enjoys sports and his internship on the copy desk at The Herald-Sun in Durham, N.C.

The headline is typically the first thing that a person reads, but a recent study shows just how important online headline writing is. The study found that 44 percent of Google News readers only read the headlines and did not actually follow the link to the publications’ Web sites.

What does this tell us about headline writing for the Web? First, online headlines should be more informative than a typical print edition headline. Names should be included. The print edition may say “mayor,” but the online headline should say the mayor’s name. Figures can also enhance a Web headline. Instead of writing “millions,” write the actual number.

Too often, daily newspapers use the exact same headlines from their print editions for their Web site. A print edition can get away with using a vague headline that will entice its reader to read the story, but if that headline is used on the Web where people are apparently only reading the headlines, the reader will learn nothing. A better version of the Hendersonville Times-News article may read something along the lines of “Polk escapee now faces 86 charges.”

News Web sites are often cluttered with several stories, and the viewer may be overwhelmed. A good online headline will stand out to the reader if the editor has implemented some of the tactics mentioned earlier in the writing of the headline.

Online headline writing is much less restrictive than print writing. Space is not nearly as big of an issue, and longer headlines are often used online. Google News and several other online news sources also use a blurb underneath the article’s title. This can either be the first sentence of the article or the deck headline from the print version of the story. It provides the skimming reader with more information and may even persuade them to (gasp) read the article.

While every news outlet hopes that readers are actually reading its stories, the reality is that some people don’t want to spend five minutes reading, but would rather have you tell them everything they need to know in 50 characters. This is the task placed upon online copy editors.

We want our public to be informed, and we need to do our best to write headlines that will give details and hopefully make the reader want to read further. The easy thing for copy editors to do is simply duplicate their headlines from print to the Web. But if you simply spend a little extra time writing new, more detailed online headlines, your Web site can be greatly enhanced.



  1. Good points. I’d include not bringing in extraneous issues in a disingenuous attempt in driving eye-balls to your content as recently exemplified by this N&O ‘blog headline – “Duke lacrosse accuser’s former strip club was site of weekend shooting” ( The headline conflated two unconnected events, the Duke lacrosse team story which had major play in the media several years ago, presumably to stir up some interest in the underlying story. Not a good headline and a real disservice to the readership.

  2. Good post. I’ve commented on it at Writing for the Web (http:/ ), and also linked to The Editor’s Desk in my site’s Web Writers and Editors list.

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