BY NICK ZARZYCKI

In the autumn of 1605, a German book dealer and print shop owner named Johann Carolus decided to start typesetting the weekly newsletters he’d been tediously copying by hand on his new printing press. Historians consider this the birth of the modern newspaper, which sounds exciting and ground-breaking, but what Carolus was doing was actually very simple.

Carolus’ job was to collect important official military and political reports from abroad and copy them—verbatim—into a book-sized publication that looked like this on the inside:

page

These often extremely dry and serious dispatches were never touched or made more digestible by an intermediary, save for one addition.

Above each one, Carolus would write the following:

[Place where the report was written], [Date written]

And that was it.

These were the first newspaper headlines: functional, convenient ways of demarcating where one news report ended and another began. It’s hard to imagine headlines that are more different from the ones that assault us in our news feeds today.

So how did we get from:

Holland, July 23

to:

You won’t believe which other European power Holland invaded today

And have we really gotten any better at writing headlines?

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A brief history of headlines

In a nutshell, headlines changed because newspapers slowly transformed from something that merely contained reproduced information into something that had a voice of its own.

Eighty-two years after Carolus printed the first newspaper, a similar publication in Hamburg titled the Relation aus dem Parnassobegan inserting lines of commentary and “reasoning” into the reports they published. Though this practice wouldn’t catch on among publishers until the French Revolution, it marked the emergence of journalistic “voice,” first through summaries inserted before reports, then through the emergence of modern reporting.

This shift was reflected in headlines, which were increasingly seen by publishers not just as a way to organize content, but also as a way to frame an article and capture reader attention.

In addition to growing personalities and voices, newspapers also began to look a lot less like books and a lot more like modern broadsheets. One way to see this is to look at the number of columns they sprouted:

Oudste_krant_Nederland_1618
Courante uyt Italien, Duytslandt, &c., founded in 1618
1711
The Spectator, founded in 1711
Norrköpings Tidningar, founded in 1758
Norrköpings Tidningar, founded in 1758
1794
Finns Leinster Journal, founded in 1794
1881
The Evening News, founded in 1881

Newspapers got bigger, and the number of stories on each page increased. More descriptive headlines—containing peoples’ names, article categories, and even descriptions of what each article was about—made scanning easier. While the readers of Johann Carolus’ newsletters might have slogged through the entire publication front to back, headlines in more modern papers gave readers the ability to pick and choose information that was relevant to them.

Larger and busier pages also made way for headlines that weren’t just more descriptive, but also a lot pushier.

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In some cases, headlines like the one leading the November 11, 1918 edition of the New York Times (above) were printed larger than the name of the publication. Publishers were realizing that they could use individual stories to sell papers, and began to see headlines not just as a part of the newspaper’s architecture, but also as a marketing tool.

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Facebook as the new front page

Today, few of us scan the front pages of printed newspapers. For many of us, our first point of contact with news headlines is the Facebook news feed.

Indeed, if what the New York Times’ Innovation Report (pdf) says about the front page of nytimes.com is true—that it’s dying, and that Facebook is becoming the new front page of journalism—then the fact that this new front page is smack dab in the middle of the world’s most active social networking site should give all of us pause.

The fact that our news comes to us today not just from publications, but also from our friends, often appended with comments, often surrounded by content that is completely out of the publishers’ control, often at the mercy of news feed algorithms that change like the weather, must have enormous implications for the way we consume the news.

And it certainly has implications for the way we write headlines.

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(Not) learning from Upworthy

One organization that understands this is Upworthy, a media startup that writes Internet headlines for a living.

Here’s all you need to know about Upworthy: one day, future co-founders Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley, then running MoveOn.org, noticed that reposting this video:

Zach Wahls speaks about family

with a new title:

Two Lesbians Raised A Baby And This Is What They Got

caused it to go viral (the original received one million views, the reposted version received twenty-three million).

Since then, the employees at Upworthy have worked like many Johan Caroluses, diligently assembling stuff created by other people, adding only a headline, and casting it into the Facebook ether.

Many of us are tempted to dismiss Upworthy as something annoying or parasitic, but let’s suspend judgment for a moment. Maybe actual, real media organizations have something to learn from a group of people that spends 100 percent of their time thinking about headlines. Maybe it’s worth looking at their notes, which they’ve conveniently made into a slideshow for us:

There is certainly a lot of bad advice here. Upworthy’s first “headline rule” on slide 24—”Don’t give it all away in the headline”—basically instructs us to create clickbait, which you should only do if you want to develop an Upworthy-like reputation for constant over-promising.

Their claim that shareable content must stimulate and create an “emotional connection” (slide 10) also suggests that the promise Upworthy headlines make is an emotional one. This makes sense in light of recent research about online sharing by Jonah Berger, which finds that viral content often evokes “high-arousal positive (awe) or negative (anger or anxiety) emotions,” while “low-arousal, or deactivating, emotions (e.g., sadness)” are decidedly non-viral.

What Upworthy’s emotional button-pressing results in is (as the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson calls it) a “movie-trailer mawkishness” that annoys and drains us in the same way that chain emails once did.

But there is some less bad advice, like on slide 19, where we’re told to think about the importance of framing. But we already know about this from the history of newspapers. Yes, things like headlines and images are a good way to frame and sell stories to readers, and yes, you can game them for more traffic.

Maybe the one good, solid piece of advice Upworthy gives, on slide 26, is to rewrite headlines no fewer than twenty-five times, and to then choose the best version.

But even this idea isn’t really satisfying, because it says nothing about the content of a well-written headline, or what happens when you stumble upon a particularly good one. Plus it immediately makes me think of a publication that is even better at writing headlines than Upworthy.

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The Onion

We can find a better version of Upworthy’s headline-writing method at the Onion, a popular satirical newspaper where Upworthy co-founder Peter Koechley used to work, and whose staff convenes every Monday morning to discuss headline ideas.

Onion writers must come to each meeting prepared with headlines for fifteen story ideas, which they then read out loud to their dozen or so peers. To move on to the next round, a pitch must be endorsed by two other writers. In most cases, the quality of a pitch is determined simply by whether or not it elicits laughter from the room.

A lot of why this headline writing method works, and why the Onion is maybe the most dependably funny publication in America, might be particular to news satire writing. The strongest joke in an Onion story is usually in the headline, so you can quickly tell whether it will be good simply by hearing it read out loud. The fact that the Onion‘s goal is to elicit laughter also means that the writing room has an involuntary, reliable testing system ready to go in their bellies. Also, because the Onion is satirical, they can write anything they want.

theonionmeeting

In a way, this is exactly the opposite of what the first newspapers were doing. At the Onion, the headline has gone from being the least important, most boring part of an article to being the most important part.

But I think there’s a useful lesson here even for publications that deal with facts.

The Onion goes through eight hundred story ideas every week. When an idea doesn’t work, they usually don’t dwell on it. They move on to the next one. Dwelling on a bad idea is a waste of time, because there are so many other good ideas out there.

This represents one advantage that content creators like the Onionhave over content takers like Upworthy, who, no matter how manipulative or dishonest their framing is, must deal with the limitations of the content they’re reposting. Content creators can develop any idea they want, while content takers must make do with whatever they find.

It also reminds us that journalists and writers have the most control over their headlines at the conception stage, when they’re deciding what to write about in the first place. A pitch meeting is not just a place for testing story ideas; it’s also the first time you get to test out whether your idea will hook people in.

This is where the best headline writing happens: when neither the audience, nor the editor, nor even you, have any idea what your story will look like yet. 

Photo by Brett Roseman, USA Today

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