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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

4 Headlines that Will Restore Your Flagging Faith in Journalism

Or at least explain what Upworthy means for the future of online content.

nieman-reports-winter-2014-coverEditor’s note: The new issue of our sister publication Nieman Reports is out and ready for you to read.

Lots of great stuff in there as usual; the main theme of the issue is the state of journalism in China, with a number of terrific reports both from Chinese journalists and foreign correspondents posted there.

In addition to the China package and other good stuff, I’m now writing a column for the print edition of the magazine. Here’s my first one.

A Kid Came Up To Her In The Hall And Told Her She Saved His Life. He Wasn’t The Only One In Tears.

Having A Bad Day? Here Are 46 Powerful Things You Should Really Hear.

A Firefighter Went To Put Out A Fire, But He Had No Idea He Would Be A Hero Of A Different Kind.

Clear Your Next 10 Minutes Because This Video Could Change How Happy You Are With Your Entire Week.

Those are all recent headlines on Upworthy, a website that launched in early 2012 and, in less than two years, was generating an astonishing 88 million unique visitors a month. ( gets about 30 million.) If you spend any time on Facebook, it’s likely you’ve come across at least a few Upworthy stories, shared by friends who found them inspiring, infuriating, or otherwise irresistible. Put 10 of them in a row and chances are you’ll find it hard to click just one.

For those of us who’ve written a lot of headlines, Upworthy’s stand out for a number of reasons, but chief among them is their comfort with emotion. These headlines aren’t afraid to tell you how you’re going to feel about clicking them. The sentiments they inspire are part of the sales job in a way that wasn’t the case in traditional media.

It’s not that journalism pre-Internet was unfamiliar with the power of emotion to reach audiences — or unafraid to use it. Tabloids were and remain the print exemplar here, with their lurid tales, clear good guys and bad guys, damsels in distress, and easy-to-hate pols. Television news has long known the value of a rescued dog story. And even the stodgiest of broadsheets trafficked in feel-good features and anger-driving columns.

But Upworthy — and BuzzFeed, Quartz, NowThis News, and other web-native outlets that one could (loosely) lump together as viral-friendly media — are different. And the prime driver of that difference is a major shift in how readers find content online.

Online news organizations spent the 2000s focusing a lot of energy on search engine optimization — tailoring their content to the needs of Google. Many outlets found that a third to a half of their readers were coming from Google searches, and there was no shortage of consultants promising to boost your stories to the top of those rankings. That led to a lot of journalists sitting through boring SEO training and a lot of keyword-clotted headlines aimed at capturing any stray “I’m Feeling Lucky” it could.

But SEO turned out to be a game that others could play better. Content farms like Demand Media sprung up to create ultracheap, low-grade work — paying $7.50 an article! — that popped to the top of search rankings. (The downside of the SEO gamble is that you exist at Google’s mercy, and a series of changes in Google’s algorithms have left Demand Media an empty husk, its stock price down nearly 80 percent from its peak.)

More importantly, search declined in importance as a traffic driver because something rose to take its place: social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other networks built their businesses around person-to-person sharing — of what you had for breakfast this morning, yes, but also of news and other online content. Every day, social’s share of online news traffic grows as more and more people get headlines from Twitter on their phones rather than a news website at their desks.

(That new environment is, for instance, the main reason headlines have become so much more emotional and evocative. In a print newspaper, a headline is surrounded by lots of other contextual clues that tell you about the story: Is there a photo with it? Do I recognize the byline? Is it blazed across the top of Page 1 or buried on C22? Online, headlines often pop up alone and disembodied amid an endless stream of other content. They have a bigger job to do.)

This shift is, on net, a good thing. You get better work when you’re trying to please actual humans instead of opaque algorithms. Making work good enough to inspire someone to tell their friends about it encourages a lot of healthy behavior. But it also encourages changes to old news forms that some traditionalists might find disorienting. It turns out that the stories that you share with your friends don’t line up perfectly with the ones old-line news organizations produce.

At Quartz, Atlantic Media’s business news site, it leads to a near-deconstruction of the traditional news story into its constituent parts — inverted pyramids traded for standalone charts, intriguing data nuggets, and other highly sharable chunks of information. At the ever-growing BuzzFeed, it leads to lots of stories in listicle form, expressive animated GIFs where text used to be, and headlines optimized for clicking. At NowThis News, a social video startup, it means news updates as short as six seconds and a visual aesthetic that recalls MTV in 1983.

This too is healthy. The newspaper article, the television package — these are forms born in and tied to their medium, and too much of the first 20 years of the news web was spent pouring old wine into new wineskins. In 2013, we saw a lot of old formats inch closer to feeling indigenous to the web; witness the transformation of many longform pieces from grey text into multimedia, browser-native experiences.

As has been the case at every step of the digital news transition, there will be awkwardness and missteps along the way. Those emotional Upworthy headlines rub a lot of people the wrong way — even in the moment they click on them. But take them as signs that online content is evolving in new ways, ways that traditional outlets will be able to learn from and that will lead to a healthier future for journalism.

Image of dengue virus by Sanofi Pasteur used under a Creative Commons license.

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  • Tim Wilson

    Thanks for the uplift from Upworthy. Here’s to old dogs getting really good at new tricks without forgetting where they were bred.

  • Danny Sullivan

    Social media didn’t rise to take the place of search. That’s a common fallacy, and it’s really one that should be stomped out. It’s the rare publication that will find that its search traffic has dropped over the years.

    No, what’s usually the case is that social has emerged as an entirely new source of traffic alongside search and, which for some publications, may drive more traffic than search.

    But that didn’t mean search somehow went poof.

    Think of it as a pie of traffic. In the past, we have a 6 inch pie that was mostly full of search, maybe 75% of it was search. Social made that pie get bigger, maybe 12%. The “slide” of search as a percentage of the pie might be smaller, but that doesn’t mean the actual amount of traffic dropped.

    It’s also a terrible, terrible journalist who comes away thinking that SEO is “boring.” The core part of SEO is understanding how your audience is seeking your content and writing in the words they are searching for.

    If you’re writing a story about an important person, subject or concept and fail to use the words that your audience is seeking, you’re potentially missed that audience.

    But hey, if people want to think that it’s all about the “you won’t believe” headlines and you can ignore search, there are plenty of search-savvy publications that will gladly take their traffic — along with the social traffic, too. Because you don’t have to be exclusive to one or the other.

  • Joshua Benton

    Danny, I don’t disagree with anything you’re saying. But a few thoughts:

    — In most news organizations I know of, SEO gets less emphasis than it used to. Part of that is because the lessons they’ve learned over the past few years still work — they don’t need to keep relearning them. Part of that is that news orgs are putting more emphasis on social and, as a share of *organizational effort* (if not a share of *traffic*), social is up and search is down.

    — I think there’s a broad perception in news orgs that social traffic is *more valuable* than search traffic on a pageview-by-pageview basis. If I’m a business selling widgets, I love search traffic, because that’s coming from people specifically searching for widgets — likely with an intent to purchase. But if I’m a news site, a reader “converting” likely doesn’t mean “reader purchases widget.” It means “reader signs up for our daily email,” or “becomes a repeat visitor,” or “signs up for our paywall,” or “follows us on Twitter.” For that kind of a “conversion,” social traffic is more likely to align the user’s interest and what the news org can provide. In other words, search traffic is still quite substantial, but I think most news orgs value it less than they used to.

    (There are, of course, exceptions, e.g. Demand Media and others with similar strategies.)

    — It’s also just a matter of momentum. Social is growing rapidly. Search didn’t go poof, but it isn’t growing at the same rate as social, which is why it gets more emphasis.

    But your points are very well taken. (Although I do still think that a news web optimized for social rather than for search is one I prefer. It’s not an either/or world, but I think social’s ascendancy has, on net, been better for journalism than search’s.)

  • Danny Sullivan

    I see it more like this. It’s not that search is about the person seeking widgets, for a news publisher. It’s for a person seeking content about a specific subject, as opposed to social which is more about discovery.

    To put it another way, the search and social readers are like this:

    Search: What the hell just happened! Or, I’m interested in some topic and would like to know more. In short, they are active readers.

    Social: I’m bored. Entertain me. Oh, that’s interesting. In short, they are passive readers.

    I don’t know that social / passive readers convert better than search / active readers. I’ve seen articles that go both ways. If conversion means getting sign-ups to come again, I can see social working better, since someone might want discover more entertaining content from a particular publication, versus the active searcher who might not care what the publication is from day-to-day but just wants the answer.

    I also don’t know that news is “optimized” for either search or social. News is optimized for humans, and both the search and social platforms are trying to appeal to the humans that use them. That’s expressly what Google’s algorithms are trying to do — match real human beings with the content they seek, using signals that they think equate to what humans like.

    The bulk of what you’ve highlighted here has been more about headlines — and there, you bet, you can have headlines that are more search-oriented than social-oriented. Until recently, those actually could work together. A search-oriented headline didn’t mean shoving in every keyword under the sun. It meant making sure your headline was both compelling from a clickthrough standpoint and also containing descriptions so people understood what it was about.

    Upworthy has broken some of that. “Clear Your Next 10 Minutes Because This Video Could Change How Happy You Are With Your Entire Week” doesn’t tell me anything about what’s going on. The chances of it ranking for anything it’s related to a pretty bad — I mean, what the heck is it about?

    That’s fine for Upworthy, which probably doesn’t care about the search traffic — unless it turns out that the social traffic dries up. Then it becomes a bigger issue.

    And then, as it turns out, that article/post could easily have had a headline that worked in search and a headline that still got the clickbait in social.

    Overall, I don’t know that the shift toward social is somehow inherently better for journalism, especially as it might pull away from the focus on good evergreen content that can also do well long-term in search. But I also don’t tend to think we’re writing stories for either / or.

    We’re producing journalism which is distributed through channels, as opposed to publications. That’s the fundamental change and the key to understanding how to survive the change.

    It’s not “right, here’s how to write for social” any more than it’s “here’s how to write for search.”

    Instead, it’s getting that there’s a huge audience out there which wants to consumer news content not by going to a particular publication each day, at a given time, but instead will encounter your journalism through channels you don’t control but can tap into and optimize for.

    That means your story needs to be told through YouTube. And written to attract on Twitter. And maybe you want to use Tumblr. And perhaps you need to be better designed for Flipboard. And how can you ensure you are doing better in Google?

    That’s what’s to me, potentially good for journalism. That good stories can potentially reach larger audiences than ever before. As you say, it’s healthy that the old formats are being broken. But it’s not healthy to think the new format is somehow “the web” or “social” or “search.” It’s that the new format is always going to be changing, because the new format is wherever the audiences are and how they want to consume.

  • rglobus

    Optimize content for the medium. That idea is as old as journalism itself.

  • digidave

    More real talk on headlines: Pondering how headlines became uninformative

  • West Seattle Blog

    This finally made me realize what I’ve been trying to verbalize regarding this headline style. It’s TV-news tease style. After spending more than two decades writing teases, you’d think I would have realized it sooner. It’s EXACTLY what we used to write, going into a break, usually to go with video – “look at this guy standing on his head – you won’t believe how he manages to keep doing it without being rattled by what’s coming up behind him” … Long-a** for story headlines, but hey, if they work…

  • Matt Coffy

    I think Danny has it right, this is channel optimization, and that’s the new human SEO. Its more interesting when you blend in Google+ to the equation that Cutts has said has no effect on rankings (he,he)..