Student guest post: Writing headlines for smartphones

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing posts for this blog this semester. This is the 12th of those posts. Ashton Sommerville is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in journalism and women’s and gender studies. She plans to take a year off after graduation before pursuing a career in media law, excited to explore and follow the ever-changing mass media landscape. She enjoys coffee, reading and managing her wedding and pop culture blog kissingthecooke.wordpress.com.

Are smartphone-friendly headlines our next step? In the age of new media, many journalism students, like myself, face curriculums that focus less on traditional legacy media and more on how to grow as writers and editors who are producing creative content for an impatient and often fickle audience.

Media consumers in coming generations are proving to be less loyal to brands than generations past and more loyal to convenience, usability and brevity. The Internet has produced a level of media competition unlike any other platform in recent history. With so many options available to users, publications are challenged with being the best, the most interesting, and more importantly, the first.

At UNC-Chapel Hill, part of our copy-editing education involves practice with writing headlines for a number of mediums including print, Web and Twitter. But is that enough? Have we already fallen behind?

In January 2012, a Tumblr account popped up aptly titled Bad Headlines — a collection of publication blunders, the culprits ranging from BBC to The Associated Press. One thing many of the posts have in common is that they are screen shots from the bloggers’ smartphones, and the primary gaffe for each is a headline too long to be communicated via push notification.

Just as bumping headlines can cause confusion for print readers, headlines cut off in awkward places can make for very humorous and unintentional story twists. “Police make third arrest in murder of Colorado socialite” becomes “Police make third arrest in murder of Colorado.” “Romney praises Olympics security, says he won’t run for president” turns into “Romney praises Olympics security, says he won’t run.” The loss of just a few words completely changes the implications of the headline.

While it’s probably safe to say that most readers are wise enough to catch on, the situation remains that credible, revered media companies are being made the subject of a running online joke. So what can editors and educators do to combat this new social media challenge? I suggest two things:

  • Increase the educational focus on the five-second spot: Although the move to writing for an alert, involved Twitter audience is a challenge still being faced by media professionals, 140 characters is still a luxury when fighting for the public’s attention. Add smartphone-friendly headline creation into the curriculum, and encourage your students to prioritize clarity and succinctness when writing for online media that will be pushed to users on their cellphones.
  • Develop a character limit to act as a standard for the newsroom. Do some research and decide where the cutoff is that separates newsworthy from a good laugh. If there is a noun-verb construction in your headline that can’t afford to be separated, include it early to prevent an unfortunate misunderstanding. Create a procedure, and stick to it.

As the media landscape continues to morph and grow, it will be our job as creators and editors to do our best to keep up. Stay alert, stay brief and don’t forget who you’re writing for.