Headlines: To inform and serve

Traditionally headline writing has been mainly the domain of the copy desk. But in these days when you are as likely to be reading a story on a cellphone as any other medium,  that headline could have been written by anyone involved in the news  process — the reporter, assigning editor, web producer or copy editor.

And those of us on copy desks that deal with both digital and print platforms also know that “that headline” might be one of two or more written for the story. In most cases, it’s just good practice to have a different headlines for different platforms.

New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan wrote about the changing headline scene April 18 in a column titled,  Hey, Google! Check Out This Column on Headlines.

A headline that works in print when paired with a photograph and placed in the context of a particular section of the paper may be a lot less successful when encountered on Facebook or read on a smartphone. So copy editors are writing different versions of headlines for different platforms, increasing their workload.

I thought the column did a good job of explaining the changes in headline writing brought about by digital delivery and also why some Times headlines change throughout the day.

I was a bit surprised, though — although I probably shouldn’t have been — by the Twitter chatter I saw criticizing the Times headline approach as explained in the column.

Take for instance this Twitter exchange:

Kudos to Patrick LaForge, New York Times editor for news presentation, for telling it like it is.

There’s no reason a headline with good SEO still can’t be a good headline. A headline that is clear and informative (and aren’t those two good reasons to use keywords?), accurate and arouses reader curiosity sounds like a good headline to me.

In fact, the worst click bait headlines fail in at least two of those areas (is it ever clear what you’re really going to be reading when you click on one?). A headline should sell the story, yes. But it should be clear about what it’s selling.

I can recall seeing some New York Times three-word lyrical headlines on Twitter several years ago and being unclear on what the story was about. Is it a bad thing that when I see a headline tweeted now I can figure the topic out?

Some of the critics of taking SEO into consideration when writing headlines really just want a return to the days when the news always came packaged in newsprint. Well, that’s not going to happen.

Skip the nostalgia for the past. I’d rather click on a headline that makes sense.

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