What’s in a headline? Everything.
What’s in an online headline? Our fate.
These are two good examples of the kind of headlines we should never ever give. They are sensational, exaggerated and, of course, untrue — perfect specimens of what in today’s terminology is referred to as ‘click baiting’.
Oh and another thing, avoid questions in a headline: Their large point size makes them poke out, rather like Mahatma Gandhi’s ears – admittedly, never his best feature.
But we digress.
The beauty or the beast of a headline is it can either induce-seduce people to read the article or turn them off and away at the headline stage — in which case, not all the wisdom and eloquence in the article will get it read.
You must have realised by now that this Readers’ Editor article concerns ‘The Headline’. And the reason I have chosen it is that I had promised to do so in December 2021, as several readers in the past six months have written in with complaints about particular headlines. Some said a headline was misleading, others said it reflected a ‘bias’ for or against individuals/organisations.
And you thought a headline simply introduced an article to the reader.
Avid watchers of television news, however, would agree that headlines often betray a bias: News channels, desperate for eyeballs, almost invariably give slanted, click bait headlines – with question marks, too. Here are two abrasive, intentionally provocative headlines from January — ‘Ganna v/s Jinnah in Western UP?’(Times Now); ‘Hindu ke khilaf Mahagathbandhan?’ (News18 India).
On the other hand, the staid English language newspapers would never dream of publishing such headlines not merely because they offend sensibilities and design aesthetics—i.e., don’t look pleasing on the page—but also, the print media doesn’t require ‘clicks’ and ‘hits’ to sell newspapers, they have circulation figures to do that.
Their online editors might not be quite so stuffy and superior — they do need readers/viewers to click on a headline to attract traffic.
So, headlines are very important – they can be the difference between success and failure.
It’s really as simple as that.
Also read: We asked our readers why they like ThePrint. This is what they told us
How to write a headline
So let’s return to the original gimmicky opening line of this article: What’s in a (good) headline? Plenty, but simplicity would be at the top of the list.
Sounds simple enough doesn’t it? Well, yes but giving a good headline is one of the most difficult tasks for a journalist—ask me, I have given them and know how many hours have been spent racking the brain for that one perfect headline. And on the rare occasion you manage a decent one, it gives you as much satisfaction as writing an exclusive story.
That’s because it requires skill: A good online headline must ‘speak’ to a wide range of unknown readers with very different interests and sensibilities and get as many of them as possible to click the article.
And while there are some acknowledged methods on how to do this, there is no golden rule: A good headline, we say, ought to be simple and specific, sensitive and straightforward, but it can also have a chilli-lemon twist to give it a kick.
It can be witty, filmi but also serious, literary, alliterative, tearful, sensational… it can be hard or soft as a boiled egg; it can be as short as one word or lines long, it can be sad or happy.
But there is a fundamental difference between a print and online headline. In a newspaper, the headline is not everything — people scan the headlines, along with the accompanying photograph, perhaps read the story’s first paragraph, and then decide if they want to proceed.
Online, most readers use their mobile phone— that’s true of the majority of ThePrint’s readers — who have only the headline and photo to help them determine whether to read or not to read.
And often, unlike print readers, online ones actively search for the subject they want to read about — they already know what they want to read. So they’ll Google it and if your story doesn’t show up in the search, it’s out of reckoning.
In print, you can cajole the reader, with a sort of “‘Come into the parlour’, said the spider to the flea” approach. You can play with words, you can wax eloquent, you can be funny-punny — ‘Iceberg lettuce hit by titanic rise in price’ (Sunday Times, 2017) or ‘Dhoni takes the high way, Mahi way’ (The Times of India, 2014) combine many of these elements.
You can be clever, mysterious and dramatic — ‘Headline Awaited’ was the lead headline of The Indian Express, 16 May 2014, counting day in the Lok Sabha elections that would bring the Bharatiya Janata Party and Narendra Modi to power. This headline broke all standard rules of headline-giving but worked surprisingly well. It even got discussed in the international media.
That headline won’t work for an online news portal like ThePrint, as Y.P. Rajesh, Managing Editor, ThePrint, who gave that Express headline, would be the first to admit.
Online, there’s no time for polite invitations or titillations – you have to yank the reader into the story with a headline that can have the element of surprise but cannot be miserly with information.
One other reason such a unique newspaper headline wouldn’t work online is that it lacks that single most potent weapon in the online arsenal: Keywords. An online headline without the most popular keywords of the day, week, month, is like a door with a ‘No Entry’ sign. Yaane ki, dead end.
A successful online headline ought to have keywords, be direct and pointed but informal, conversational, engaging, and unique (if possible, please) as well as fresh and crisp. Above all, it must be true to the contents of the article it showcases. (Keywords are signals to search engines to pick up your article.)
Whatever you do, it must be lively, interesting — your article may show up in a Google search but it will be one amongst many on the same subject. If the reader doesn’t like the look of your headline, she’ll click on the one she does.
Also read: Humble headline? No, it’s a weapon for media, Facebook, Google, your WhatsApp group
Click worthy, not click bait
At ThePrint, editors do try to create headlines that fulfil all of the above, but many of us come from the print media and old habits die hard. Still, the effort is to honestly reflect the head and heart of an article, keywords intact.
This doesn’t always happen and a headline may often read better than the article or miss the point of it. That can annoy disappointed readers who feel the headline cheated them.
A reader objected to a headline that said ‘Construction of Ram temple a big deal, God chose me to take his legacy forward, says Yogi’, claiming the report carried no such comment by the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister. We were able to show him that the comment was very much in the story in question, although not highlighted in the top half as it ought to have been.
An article on Justice Akil Kureshi failing to be elevated to the Supreme Court saw ThePrint being accused of ‘click baiting’. The reader said the mention of Home Minister Amit Shah in the headline was not the story’s focus. Justice Kureshi’s ruling that sent Shah to jail in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh case was reported but towards the end of the article, which is probably why the reader complained; however, it was important to mention it in the headline since that is what singled his case and provoked a story.
Another problem is that if an editor accurately reflects the sense of an article in the headline, there is always the chance that readers who don’t agree with the thrust of an article, will object to it. We have had several such complaints, especially regarding opinion articles.
Accusations of sensationalism and bias in headlines are something we have to live with — as long as we are careful to not cross the line between information and misinformation. My colleague at ThePrint, Rama Lakshmi, Editor, Opinion and Features says, a headline must strive to be ‘click worthy’ not ‘click bait’.
And so say all of us.
Shailaja Bajpai is ThePrint’s Readers’ Editor. Please write in with your views, complaints to firstname.lastname@example.org