“You want the dumbest headline possible!”
|April 21, 2011|
From The Atlantic:
As for the science of Web-site headlines: “I’m against verbs,” Denton told me, even though that day’s greatest-hits list included several exceptions (“Rat Crawls …”). “It’s almost as if you’ve got to get the whole story into the headline,” Brian Moylan said, “but leave out enough that people will want to click.” “You can kill a story by using a too-clever headline,” Maureen O’Connor said. “The public is not very forgiving of wit in headlines,” Denton added. “Or irony. You can get away with one opinionated word, if the rest is literal and clear.” O’Connor said she had a further rule: “It can’t be more than two lines on the home page. Your eyes can’t take it in. You want the dumbest headline possible!” That said, one of the most popular headlines of the previous year had been anything but obvious. It was “Эй, вы можете прочитать запрещенную статью GQ про Путина здесь,” or, “Hey, You Can Read the Banned GQ Story About Putin Here,” for an item on a story about Vladimir Putin not included in GQ magazine’s Russian edition. John Cook, the Gawker writer who showed it to me, was emphasizing that headline writing was still as much guesswork as science.
Denton said that other journalists would compliment him on snarky items, but those didn’t bring in enough new readers. Neither did print-industry gossip, which had been Gawker’s original staple. “We put scoop ahead of satire,” by which he meant things like the O’Donnell story, photos they had just acquired that day of Mark Zuckerberg’s new house in California, and “Favregate.”
“If I were running The New York Times,” Denton said, “the first thing I would do is put numbers next to every story,” as Gawker does on its home page—not just include a most-e-mailed list but fully embrace the concept of giving readers more of what they want. If he felt compelled to do “good” for the world, Denton said, he would set up “offshore Gawkers” serving capitals where speech is limited, like Riyadh, Beijing, Tehran. “Zero political content—you don’t want to be seen as a ‘democracy advocate’ at all,” he said. “Just good, juicy, scurrilous gossip stories about nepotism and corruption and mistresses and Swiss bank accounts. Pictures of their houses! You would want to be seen as having wicked fun. And if you did that for 20 years …”
Of course, Denton was omitting good-for-you, public-service-style stories for outrageous effect. In my first “interview” with him for this story, conducted over the course of nearly an hour through an instant-message exchange, he said that a market-minded approach like his would solve the business problem of journalism—but only for “a certain kind of journalism.” It worked perfectly, he said, for topics like those his sites covered: gossip, technology, sex talk, and so on. And then, as an aside: “But not the worthy topics. Nobody wants to eat the boring vegetables. Nor does anyone want to pay [via advertising] to encourage people to eat their vegetables.” He continued:
Nick: But, anyway, look at me. I used to cover political reform in post-communist Eastern Europe, which had been my subject at Oxford.
And now I tell writers that the numbers (i.e. the audience) won’t support any worthiness. We can’t even write stories about moguls like Rupert Murdoch or Barry Diller unless it involves photographs of them cavorting with young flesh.
(I used to enjoy [doing] those stories in the old days, before web metrics.)
But naturally even he admits that the “worthy topics” have their necessary place, and when pressed, he had a surprisingly earnest list of ways to make sure they were covered, from local volunteer efforts to donations by philanthropists.
“I know this is scary for the high-end American journalist,” he said when I was about to leave, with as little condescension as he could manage. “If you come from the U.K., it doesn’t seem alien.”
Scary or not, is this in fact worse than journalism as we have previously known it?
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