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Will this headline make you read the story?

A print caption needs to be made search-friendly to reach digital readership

In 2015, The Independent sported a front-page headline, Somebody’s Child, with a picture of a child washed onto a beach. The headline, along with the picture, transcended details. It had nothing to indicate what the story was about, yet told a poignant story of young Aylan Kurdi, who had drowned when trying to reach Greece from Turkey. The corresponding headline on the paper’s website spelt it out: “If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don’t change Europe’s attitude to refugees, what will?”

Why the stark difference in headline writing? Ask any editor and they will tell you the secret to catching a reader’s eye is the headline. A well-written headline can tell a powerful story, summarising the article while at the same time tugging at the heartstrings. For those of us who work in digital journalism, there are many aspects of print headline writing that we have had to forget. While my heart wants me to write a great literary and poignant headline, I am often constrained by the search engines that govern the ultimate reach and readership of the article.

Our conversations in the digital newsroom everyday invariably revolve around the search engine optimisation (SEO) title and headline of a story. This means that we must (re) write headlines with words that people are likely to search for. In a print story we can get away with a headline like ‘The road less travelled’ which will work for print because the eye captures the story on the page at a glance and all elements of the story, the headline, image, strap line and first few words, work in context and draw you in.

However, in an online story, the only thing that a reader sees is the headline. If you review the way in which you consume news, you will find that it reaches you on your smartphone either through a website or a notification onto your locked screen or on a news app or via social media on a Facebook or Twitter post. Because the news is coming to you on your personal device, which is often the size of your palm, space constraints ensure that you see only the headline. Another way in which you find news is by going to a search engine and keying in a few words. If the article’s headline has been written well, you are bound to find it in the search results.

There are of course other elements that ensure a good SEO: clear and concise introductory text, keywords at the beginning and throughout the story, and metadata such as keywords and tags that help categorise content, but the headline is key. It needs to be factual, informative and engaging, in order to draw the reader’s attention.

At The Hindu, we started adapting the headlines of the stories published in the paper to deal with this issue. A recent editorial titled ‘Casting out stigma’ could, by itself, refer to any number of issues. Online it has been retitled ‘Casting out stigma: On appalling images at quarantine centre,’ which makes for better SEO value. This ensures that the editorial reaches a larger number of people than those who subscribe to the printed paper.

A recent Sunday Magazine story was titled Many masks of a lockdown in print. Online it was changed to: Lockdown protects the well-off, but what about those who face hunger, homelessness or poor health?.

Key questions to ask

With the consumption of news becoming more personal and algorithm-led, our job as editors and writers is to get the news to where people are. While the story continues to be the focus, we present the news in different forms, such as videos and data stories, serving multiple audiences, while ensuring credibility, readability and engagement.

Does this mean that newspaper headline writing is a lost art? Do style, wit and wordplay have no place and function anymore? Having worked in both the print and digital medium, I believe that we can combine both style and substance while writing digital headlines, catering to both readers as well as search engines. While some of our top performing stories online have headlines such as ‘Top ten developments…’or ‘Live updates…’ to cater to diminishing attention spans and the overload of information, we also have many digital headlines that are written with flair while being factual.

Some questions we ask ourselves in the newsroom are: Does the headline make the reader curious to read more? Does it trigger an emotion in the reader while stating facts? Is it factual without being sensational? Does it hold back just enough information to entice the reader to click and open the story? If some of these elements are included, I believe we have the best of both the print and digital worlds.

Technology and the evolving nature of the medium too is on our side: we have display headlines for people visiting the site, while retaining the article headline for search engines. We often combine both print and digital headlines. Headline testing with active readers helps us decide how to rewrite headlines on the go. On social media sites, we rewrite the headlines and posts creatively to entice the reader, while ensuring the headline remains SEO-friendly.

One hopes that going forward the medium will evolve better designs, search engine cues, devices and the way data is processed, which will help us cater to both readers and search engines equally well.

For a fun lockdown exercise, try and adapt the headline of a print story to fit different screen sizes, from your desktop screen to a laptop, tablet and mobile phone, as well as for Facebook and Twitter, and see whether it could inspire you to read further.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

We have been keeping you up-to-date with information on the developments in India and the world that have a bearing on our health and wellbeing, our lives and livelihoods, during these difficult times. To enable wide dissemination of news that is in public interest, we have increased the number of articles that can be read free, and extended free trial periods. However, we have a request for those who can afford to subscribe: please do. As we fight disinformation and misinformation, and keep apace with the happenings, we need to commit greater resources to news gathering operations. We promise to deliver quality journalism that stays away from vested interest and political propaganda.

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Printable version | Jun 6, 2020 11:22:36 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/will-this-headline-make-you-read-the-story/article31529208.ece

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