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.

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