Saturday, June 06, 2009


My latest line of work is centered on trafficking in headlines. It is my job to be obsessed with them: to seek out the best ones, to write even better ones, to edit those written by others on my team, to track which ones get responses.

In school, putting a title on a paper was often the last, and most painful, task on any assignment for me. If I could have turned in title-free papers all day long, I would have been a very happy student. At my previous job, most radio reporters would turn in a script or text for the Web sans headline. More often they preferred, just as I would have in school, to hand over the text and let someone else figure out what to put at the top.

When asked in a job interview what I did in my other job, I used the word "copywriting." My interviewer shook his head. "Never say that," he said.

"What?" I said.

"Copywriting. It sounds like you're in advertising, not journalism."

"Well, we're advertising the news," I said, and gave a little half-smile. He was not amused. (Inexplicably, I got the job anyway.)

It's true, though. That's what a headline does: It advertises your story. A good headline will answer for the reader, in about 10 words or less, two questions: What is this story about, and why should I read it? Achieving that feat is harder than it might seem, which may be why headline-writing is an underappreciated and underdeveloped skill.

All headlines at my company are consumed online, and so the highest compliment that can be paid for one is the word "clicky." I never heard it before arriving at this job, but now I hear it every day: "That headline is clicky," or "I think it's clickier if you say..." or "That is NOT going to click."

Lately I've noticed some headlines that are not clicky, to me. Instead of making me want to click to find out more, they make me desire to know less about the topic at hand. What is the opposite of clicky? They are scrolly. They make me want to scroll away to other (presumably clickier) stories.

Lights, camera ... Poland
Johnny Depp Opens Up About Private Bahamian Getaway
The Coleman/Franken Show Drags On
Dave Matthews Band: Weighing Public Problems and Personal Pleasures
The Poop On Finding Penguins: Follow The Guano
Sleestak Became NBA Star

Of course, one person's scrolly may be another person's clicky. You may be excited to hear Depp "open up" about the understandably private topic of his Bahamian vacation spot. You may want to know about Dave Matthews' public problems or about a show that's dragging on. You may find the word "Poland" in the headline above to be a much better payoff than, say, "action" or "candy."

Which media outlet do you think has the best headlines?

(Headline credits, in order: CNN, Huffington Post, CBS News, New York Times, NPR, Yahoo)