Saturday, February 3, 2024

What's in a headline? Find out here

Goodness, it looks like 2023 was an all-time low for this blog, with one (1) post.  Not sure how that happened.  I honestly thought I'd posted at least one more.  On the other hand, I suppose it's consistent with the overall handwringing about whether there's even anything to post here.  But this post won't be that.

When I was in journalism class in high school, which was more than a few years ago to be sure, I was taught the "inverted pyramid": put the most important information, the who, what, where, when, why and how at the top of the article, then the important detail, then other background information.  The headline should concisely sum up the most important facts at the top.

Some typical headlines might be

  • Pat's Diner closing after 30 years
  • New ordinance bans parking on Thursdays
  • Midtown high senior wins Journalism award

If you've noticed that the titles (that is, headlines) of posts here don't exactly follow that rule, that's because I'm writing opinion here, not news.  That's my story, and I'm sticking with it even as I go on to complain about other people's headlines.

One of the worst sins in old-school journalism was to "bury the lede", that is, to put the most important facts late in the story (lead as in lead paragraph is spelled lede, probably going back to the days of lead type where the usual spelling might invite confusion).  If Pat's diner is closing, you don't start with a headline of Local diner closing and a paragraph about how much people love their local diners and only later mention that it's Pat's diner that's closing.

Except, of course, that's exactly what happens a lot of the time.  Here are some examples from the articles currently on my phone:

  • Windows 11 looks to be getting a key Linux tool added in the future
  • Nearly 1 in 5 eligible taxpayers don't claim this 'valuable credit', IRS says
  • 46-year old early retiree who had $X in passive income heads back to work -- here's why
I've tried to get out of the habit of clicking on articles like these, not because I think it will change the world (though if everybody did the same ...), but because I almost always find it irritating to click through on something to find out that they could have just put the important part in the headline:
  • Linux sudo command may be added to Windows 11
  • Nearly 1 in 5 eligible taxpayers don't claim earned income credit, IRS says
  • Early retiree with $X in passive income back to work after house purchase and child
One of these rewrites is noticeably shorter than the original and the other two are about the same length, but they all include important information that the original leaves out: which Linux tool?; which tax credit?; why go back to work?

The lack of information in the originals isn't an oversight, of course.  The information is missing so you'll click through on the article and read the accompanying ads.  The headlines aren't pure clickbait, but they do live in a sort of twilight zone between clickbait and real headline.  If you do get to the end of the article, you'll probably see several more links worth of pure clickbait, which is an art form in itself.

Real headlines aren't dead, though.  Actual news outlets that use a subscription model tend to have traditional headlines above traditional inverted-pyramid articles.  They probably do this for the same reason that newspapers did: Subscribers appreciate being able to skim the headline and maybe the lede and then read the rest of the article if they're interested, and that sells subscriptions.

I'm pretty sure half-clickbait headlines aren't even new.  The newspaper "feature story" has been around considerably longer than the web.  Its whole purpose is to draw the reader in for longer and tempt them to browse around -- and either subscribe for the features or spend more time on the same page as ads, or both.  For that matter, I'm pretty sure a brief survey of tabloid publications in the last couple of centuries would confirm that lede-burying clickbait isn't exactly new.

I started out writing this with the idea that the ad-driven model of most web-based media has driven out old-fashioned informative journalism, and also those kids need to get off my lawn, but I think I'm now back to my not-so-disruptive technology take: Clickbait and semi-clickbait aren't new, and the inverted pyramid with an informative headline isn't dead.  In fact, when I checked, most of the articles in my feed did have informative headlines.

In part, that's probably because I've stopped clicking on semi-clickbait so much, which is probably changing the mix in my feed.  But it's probably also because the web hasn't changed things as much as we might like to think.  All three kinds of headline/article (informative, semi-clickbait, pure clickbait) are older than the web, and so are both the subscription and ad-based business models (though subscription print publications often had ads as well).  It's not too surprising that all of these would carry through.

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