Why So Many Articles Have Terrible Headlines Online

Headlines for online articles range from drab to vague to overly enthusiastic.

Gabe Rivera runs a website the tech world knows well called Techmeme. It’s a bootstrapped operation that aggregates top tech stories from around the web with a small staff and directly links out to the publications.

Since its founding in 2005, Techmeme has always used headlines written by the publications it pulls articles from. Yesterday, it decided to start writing its own headlines so the news will be as straight-forward as possible.

Rivera wrote an article about his decision to start writing his own headlines, and shared some thoughts on why many headlines are bad.

From Techmeme:

  • News organisations that cover more than just tech often favour headlines describing the story in the most general terms that the widest possible audience can appreciate at some level. So headlines will omit references to specific companies, people, and technologies unknown to most of their readers yet familiar to Techmeme readers. As our coverage increasingly relies on sources like The Guardian and Washington Post (for reports on government surveillance and other policy matters), this has become a significant issue for Techmeme.
  • In some news organisations, particularly the older ones, too often the editor tasked with writing the headline doesn’t appreciate the most newsworthy part of the story, “burying the lede” with a headline oblivious to the news.
  • With few exceptions, companies announcing bad news will omit specifics at the headline level. For example, a post disclosing the theft of a million user passwords will usually carry a headline such as “Important Security Update”.
  • Some publishers value clicks from Twitter or Facebook over readers’ time, writing (and tweeting) headlines that deliberately omit key details, requiring readers to click to get the most basic summary.
  • Even worse, some misleadingly inflate the importance of the news in the headline, goosing clickthroughs, but setting up discerning readers for disappointment.
  • Bloggers with a devoted readership who can count on readers consuming the bulk of their output often enjoy writing more cerebral, enigmatic titles with meanings that fully reveal themselves only after reading the story.
  • Some bloggers consider composing a headline a mere chore, dashing out a few words thoughtlessly, and moving on.

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