The power of good headline writing and how it gets your stories read more. Macleay lecturer Martin Newman explores the evolution of the headline.
In the age of digital news, the art of headline writing at times feels a bit irrelevant.
Wit and clever idioms have mostly been replaced with search engine optimised key words. But both from a practical point of view and a creative one, good headline writing is more important than ever in the modern media. A nod to the intelligence and knowledge of the reader, and despite having evolved to be more direct, clever headlines remain an important part of the overall tone of a story.
From a distribution perspective, writing a headline containing the most likely search terms for the attached article is the key component of a digital article today. And any content management system worth its salt allows both an SEO headline and one that can more creatively reflect a story.
Furthermore, the ability to tease a headline without making it look like clickbait is a skill in high demand in digital newsrooms and among social media editors. For budding journalists, it is an essential element in their tool kit.
A good headline rings bells in readers' heads
The Walkley Foundation’s annual awards for journalism have for the past couple of years recognised not just headlines but captions and hooks, to accommodate the many forms digital storytelling takes, from the splash to a tweet.
That the winners have remained, invariably, big production headlines from the front pages reflecting significant events, underlines the professional import of headlines in journalism and the impact of traditional media, even whilst in decline.
A good headline rings bells in readers' heads. It forms synapsistic links with topics that give them a warm fuzzy feeling or tickle their funny bone because they get the reference and are in on it. Great headlines can support a great story and great design or elevate a mundane yarn to a loftier place than it may otherwise have deserved.
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I learnt this lesson early as a cadet reporter on Sydney's Daily Telegraph-Mirror. Sent to Taronga Zoo with a photographer to capture the moment a newborn chimpanzee was presented to the world, I'd spent most of the day labouring over the writing of it; trying, too hard, to wring out a funny line. Instead all I could manage was a mediocre intro that the sub editor scoffed at loudly as I retreated to my VT100 (with its green screen and Geiger counter staccato, the staple of office computers at the time).
The next day when I opened the paper I was stoked to see above my re-written lead and a picture of the baby monkey and its mother, the title: 'A chimp off the old block'. That headline saved my terrible copy from being pushed to the back of the news section. It remains one of my favourite headlines and an example of how the wit of an organisation's wordsmiths can capture a reader's attention, bring a story alive and bolster the quality of the product.
Like that example, great headlines are remembered and sometimes come to epitomise an event. When rower Sally Robbins quit mid-race at the 2004 Olympics as her seven teammates continued to plunge their oars into the water, Melbourne’s Herald Sun bellowed, ‘It’s eight, mate, pull your weight’. Sometimes it controversially reflects the cultural zeitgeist, as when The Sun in Britain, full of nationalistic fervour for the Falklands War, blasted ‘Gotcha’ across its front page, crassly reducing the sinking of Argentina’s General Belgrano to a comic book moment. Writing active, not passive, headlines draws in the reader, and is a discipline any journalist needs to understand if they want their stories read.
Journalism students pitch story ideas in the Newsroom and bounce ideas off their peers.
The contracting industry has been particularly harsh on sub editors, often cut from the business in large numbers and their roles subsumed into other areas or outsourced to time-poor, brand agnostic production staff in distant hubs.
So, the optimum environment for writing engaging, funny or clever headlines, has suffered and the media overall has been victim to a witticism bracket creep as words and their use have become plainer.
At the Australian Financial Review where subbing has been embraced again and a full team employed to bolster the paper’s standards, journalists write their own headlines and desk editors then tweak and tailor them individually to both print and web.
Understanding your readership and how it consumes news is at the forefront of the effort to engage with readers, to retain them and to grow a digital audience further afield and across demographics.
Martin teaches newsroom, social media journalism and news research. He also manages Macleay's Hatch news site.
Finding the right headline for a subject requires a good general knowledge, an eye for associations and either a very sharp brain or some fast work on your keyboard comparing idioms and chasing thoughts down rabbit holes of words and rhymes, of assonance and alliteration.
Often it can require trying different lines, seeing what the words look like on the page or the preview, and changing tack if they just will not fit into the space.
Headlines can be effusive, or they can be spare, but above all else they must entice the reader to go on that ride with you, into the story.
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