The lost art of the print headline

A market based on clicks and search engine optimisation means puns and enigmatic headlines are being consigned to history

A number of journalistic skills are required in order to create great content – from editing copy to sourcing images. One that often passes under the radar is a sub-editor’s ability to write compelling, concise and inventive headlines.

But in the online landscape, the interpretation of what makes a successful headline has changed completely.

For print articles, no extra effort to read the content needs to be coaxed from the reader – they have already bought or picked up the magazine or newspaper.

Online, there is still the matter of convincing people to click on your story, so more information must be given. In essence, on the internet there is an extra barrier between content and audience. Content marketers must choose headlines wisely to entice people into crossing that additional barrier.

Levelling the playing fields

Print provides another set of conventions that are non-existent online in terms of the gravity of the content.

On the page, headline size and column width is a clear indicator of a piece’s importance. However there is a much more level playing field online. Post a link on social media, for example, and an article from the Financial Times will be formatted and appear in exactly the same way as one from a parish newsletter. The gap in credibility between sources is narrowed.

One of the consequences of this is a spread of misinformation from outlets with strong and often deliberately misleading intentions. That issue has been cited by many commentators in relation to coverage of the shock election victories for Brexit and Donald Trump.

This lack of distinction as well as a saturation of information means content marketers face an even greater challenge to attract people to click on headlines.

The SEO bun fight

Perhaps the clearest difference between print and online headlines is the necessity for search engine optimisation (SEO).

As content marketers, the fight to be near the top of the search results tree is a crucial one. And the more key words that feature in the headline, the more Google is likely to prioritise your content. Which renders some iconic print headlines utterly useless in the digital age.

When US forces captured Osama bin Laden in 2011, The Sun filled their front page with the words ‘Bin Bagged’ alongside a large picture of the former al-Qaeda leader.

The enigmatic headline would never have made it to an online version today, lacking any information on the content and no key words (bin Laden, Obama, USA, terrorism, etc).

On the other hand, the headline from the Daily Mirror in 1911 ‘Why Were There Only Twenty Lifeboats For 2,207 People On Board The Ill-Fated Titanic?’ could be straight off a modern news site. The MailOnline, for example, writes lengthy headlines, ticking every SEO box and giving as much information as possible – putting up the lowest barrier they can to people consuming the content.

What headlines look like today is simply jawdropping…

The rules are changing for what makes a good headline. The attempt to create mystery around content and induce the click has seen the “You won’t believe what happened next…” trope become tired and actively damaging for a brand.

In a post-BuzzFeed world, the same might be thought of lists – “Top 10 ways to treat your cat” and other such listicles.

But lists do remain an effective way of conveying information quickly and clearly, in an age where digestibility is key.

When it comes to headlines, you may need to innovate and adapt your tone accordingly. If you’re recycling content for print and online, adjust the headline. Adding every conceivable ‘famous name’ to a headline may increase SEO but will look awkward and ultimately drain the piece of credibility.

Clickbait may technically be effective at garnering clicks, but bait comes as part of a trap. Set readers up for a grand revelation and you’re in danger of letting them down and making them feel ensnared – a loss of loyalty being the death knell for any content provider.

Effective online headlines are headlines in the classic sense of the word – the major point of the article, written in a concise, explanatory fashion.

And that’s what the art of writing them is all about: understanding exactly what the text is and relating it in a short sharp sentence. That may sound obvious, but the key is clear-headed comprehension of the subject matter – and what your audience will glean from your words.

For your audience, headlines act as beacons in a sea of content. Don’t lose sight of the top line.

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