Headlines matter

“Even with the best-crafted headline in the world, for every person who clicks on it, there are hundreds, if not thousands, who see it, digest it, and simply move on. People get their news from headlines now in a way they never did in the past.”

2017 will be the year that news organizations start approaching headlines with the importance they deserve.

felix-salmonA few years ago, around the time that a scary-exciting new thing called “social” started becoming more important than search engine optimization, digital media organizations discovered that nothing mattered more than headlines, at least when it came to getting stories effectively distributed by social media. Organizations like Upworthy and ViralNova embraced aggressive A/B testing and often wound up with hilarious curiosity-gap headlines, but the bigger lesson was deeper: Putting aside whether or not the curiosity gap worked, the first measure of any headline was how effective it was at driving traffic.

That lesson spread, almost by osmosis, throughout the digital media sphere, and we’ve now reached the point at which the amount of time and effort put into “packaging” a story can significantly exceed the amount of time and effort that went into writing it in the first place. And that’s at old-fashioned news organizations which write the story before they have a headline for it. At many digital outlets, you don’t even bother starting to write unless and until there’s a good catchy headline you’re writing to.

What precious few media organizations ever worried about, however, was the fact that even with the best-crafted headline in the world, for every person who clicks on it, there are hundreds, if not thousands, who see it, digest it, and simply move on. People get their news from headlines now in a way they never did in the past, just because they see so many of those headlines on Twitter and Facebook.

Which means that, for any remotely serious news organization, the amount of traffic that a story drives has to be less important than the message that headline imparts, when it’s divorced from the article it sits atop. In 2017, it will be clearly inadequate to excuse a bad headline on the grounds that anybody who hasn’t read the full 4,500-word story is unqualified to pass judgment. Even people who get their news from individual news organizations’ apps find themselves scrolling through headlines these days at a rate which would have been unthinkable in the age of print. Getting news from headlines is entirely legitimate, and journalists can no longer hide behind the age-old “I didn’t write the headline” excuse.

In practice, this is going to mean that the purview of headlines needs to be wrested back from social-optimization teams. Instead, the people who know the story best — including the people who actually wrote the thing — have to be empowered to veto all headlines which are in any way misleading. Which, yes, would include using “populist” as a euphemism for racist.

More generally, journalists are going to start accepting a few more degrees of humility when it comes to understanding how their meticulously reported and fact-checked stories are consumed in the real world. Because most of the time, it turns out, they aren’t read at all. Instead, it’s just the headline which gets shared and shared again, by people who never bothered to click on the story. Which means that in 2017, more than ever, it’s going to be the headline which really matters.

Felix Salmon is a senior editor at Fusion.

David Skok   What lies beyond paywalls

Bill Adair   The year of the fact-checking bot

Alberto Cairo   Communicating uncertainty to our readers

Peter Sterne   A dangerous anti-press mix

Laura E. Davis   Show your work

Mira Lowe   News literacy, bias, and “Hamilton”

Matt Karolian   AI improves publishing

Joanne Lipman   The year of the drone, really

Lam Thuy Vo   The primary source in the age of mechanical multiplication

Caitlin Thompson   High touch, high value

Margarita Noriega   From pinning tweets to tweeting pins

Christopher Meighan   Unlocking a deeper mobile experience

Corey Ford   The year of the rebelpreneur

Gabriel Snyder   The aberration of 20th-century journalism

Ståle Grut   The battle for high-quality VR

Renée Kaplan   Pure reach has reached its limit

Ken Schwencke   Disaggregation and collection

Nathalie Malinarich   Making it easy

Jonathan Stray   A boom in responsible conservative media

Elizabeth Jensen   Trust depends on the details

Richard J. Tofel   The country doesn’t trust us — but they do believe us

Javaun Moradi   What can we own?

Julia Beizer   Building a coherent core identity

Ariane Bernard   Better data about your users

Libby Bawcombe   Kids board the podcast train

Nicholas Quah   Podcasting’s coming class war

Dhiya Kuriakose   The year of digital detoxing

David Chavern   Fake news gets solved

Rachel Sklar   Women are going to get loud

Maria Bustillos   “It’s true — I saw it on Facebook”

Annemarie Dooling   UGC as a path out of the bubble

Eric Nuzum   Podcasting stratifies into hard layers

Sam Ford   The year we talk about our awful metrics

Bill Keller   A healthy skepticism about data

Mary Walter-Brown   Getting comfortable asking for money

Geetika Rudra   Journalism is community

Francesco Marconi   The year of augmented writing

An Xiao Mina   2017 is for the attention innovators

Moreno Cruz Osório   The year of transparency in Brazilian journalism

Olivia Ma   The year collaboration beats competition

Jonathan Hunt   Measurement companies get with the times

Sue Schardt   Objectivity, fairness, balance, and love

P. Kim Bui   The year journalism teaches again

Rubina Madan Fillion   Snapchat grows up

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon   Truthiness in private spaces

Felix Salmon   Headlines matter

Erin Millar   The bottom falls out of Canadian media

Dan Colarusso   Let’s make live video we can love

Asma Khalid   The year of the newsy podcast

Rachel Schallom   Stop flying over the flyover states

Amy O'Leary   Not just covering communities, reaching them

M. Scott Havens   Quality advertising to pair with quality content

Mathew Ingram   The Faustian Facebook dance continues

Andrea Silenzi   Podcasts dive into breaking news analysis

Mike Ragsdale   A smarter information diet

Ray Soto   VR moves from experiments to immersion

Megan H. Chan   Cultural reporting goes mainstream

Tim Herrera   The safe space of service journalism

Sydette Harry   Facing journalism’s history

Vivian Schiller   Tested like never before

Tim Griggs   The year we stop taking sides

Mario Garcia   Virtual reality on mobile leaps forward

Andrew Haeg   The year of listening

Jeremy Barr   A terrible year for Tiers B through D

Juliette De Maeyer and Dominique Trudel   A rebirth of populist journalism

Priya Ganapati   Mobile websites are ready for reinvention

Samantha Barry   Messaging apps go mainstream

Emi Kolawole   From empathy to community

Sarah Wolozin   Virtual reality on the open web

Sara M. Watson   There is no neutral interface

Emily Goligoski   Incorporating audience feedback at scale

Trushar Barot   API or die

Mark Armstrong   Time to pay up

Scott Dodd   Nonprofits team up for impact

Aja Bogdanoff   Comments start pulling their weight

Ryan McCarthy   Platforms grow up or grow more toxic

Steve Henn   The next revolution is voice

Nushin Rashidian   A rise in high-price, high-value subscriptions

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   News after advertising may look like news before advertising

Tracie Powell   Building reader relationships

Dannagal G. Young   The return of the gatekeepers

Errin Haines Whack   Chaos or community?

Almar Latour   Thanks, #fakenews

Laura Walker   Authentic voices, not fake news

Jim Friedlich   A banner year for venture philanthropy

Andrew Ramsammy   Rise of the rebel journalist

Swati Sharma   Failing diversity is failing journalism

Coleen O'Lear   Back to basics

Carrie Brown-Smith   We won’t do enough

Carla Zanoni   Prioritizing emotional health

Melody Kramer   Radically rethinking design

Burt Herman   Local news gets interesting

Cory Haik   Navigating power in Trump’s America

Katie Zhu   The year of minority media

Millie Tran   International expansion without colonial overtones

Molly de Aguiar   Philanthropists galvanize around news

Amie Ferris-Rotman   Вслед за Россией

Jon Slade   Trusted news, at a premium

Alice Antheaume   A new test for French media

Andrew Losowsky   Building our own communities

Zizi Papacharissi   Distracted journalism looks in the mirror

Tressie McMillan Cottom   A path through the media’s coming legitimacy crisis

Claire Wardle   Verification takes center stage

Matt Waite   The people running the media are the problem

Amy Webb   Journalism as a service

Michael Oreskes   Reversing the erosion of democracy

Taylor Lorenz   “Selfie journalism” becomes a thing

Liz McMillen   The year of deep insights

Helen Havlak   Chasing mobile search results

David Weigel   A test for online speech

Kawandeep Virdee   Moving deeper than the machine of clicks

Kathleen Kingsbury   Print as a premium offering

Ashley C. Woods   Local journalism will fight a new fight

Keren Goldshlager   Defining a focus, and then saying no

Tanya Cordrey   The resurgence of reach

Mary Meehan   Feeling blue in a red state

Alexis Lloyd   Public trust for private realities

Anita Zielina   The sales funnel reaches (and changes) the newsroom

Erin Pettigrew   A year of reflection in tech

Andy Rossback   The year of the user

Juan Luis Sánchez   Your predictions are our present

Umbreen Bhatti   A sense of journalists’ humanity

Reyhan Harmanci   Bear witness — but then what?

Adam Thomas   The coming collaboration across Europe

Dan Gillmor   Fix the demand side of news too

S.P. Sullivan   Baking transparency into our routines

Mandy Velez   The audience is the source and the story

Robert Hernandez   History will exclude you, again

Michael Kuntz   Trust is the new click

Ole Reißmann   Un-faking the news

Hillary Frey   Forests need to burn to regrow

Liz Danzico   The triumph of the small

Sarah Marshall   Focusing on the why of the click

Guy Raz   Inspiration and hope will matter more than ever

Pablo Boczkowski   Fake news and the future of journalism

Doris Truong   Connecting with diverse perspectives

Lee Glendinning   A call for great editing

Rebekah Monson   Journalism is community-as-a-service

Cindy Royal   Preparing the digital educator-scholar hybrid

Ernst-Jan Pfauth   Earn trust by working for (and with) readers