February 2, 2007 10:00 AM PST
Newspapers search for Web headline magic
- Related Stories
Tribune Co. partners with video start-up for user contentJanuary 29, 2007
(continued from previous page)
"The headline itself doesn't necessarily have to be modified if you know how SEO works," Spencer said.
Inventive but direct
But consulting software and statistics to rewrite a headline may seem anathema to traditional journalistic standards of artistically stretching for the headline that will best lure readers' eyes to the article.
That can be accomplished by being pithy (Ford to City: Drop Dead), poetic (Headless Body in Topless Bar), witty (Super Caley Go Ballistic. Celtic Are Atrocious), rhyming (Sticks Nix Hick Pix) or shocking (Bastards!). And no computer can help with that.
"A lot of journalists spend a lot of time perfecting headlines and being clever, and now you've got to be more direct. It's going to be a different art, I think," said Sree Sreenivasan, a teacher in the new-media program at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a reporter for WNBC.com.
"How do you get eye-catching, interesting headlines that make people want to click but at the same time are relevant to search engines, which are nothing but dumb robots going around looking for keywords?" asked Howard Finberg, director of interactive learning at The Poynter Institute, a training organization for journalists.
"If the search engine is all about making information more accessible and making the online experience more pleasant, I wish they would work with the people designing the pages," Finberg said. "A lot of sites have gotten into this...content management trap."
With the news sites all striving for clarity to be search engine stars, there is the danger that sites covering the same news will have strikingly similar headlines. That just means headline writers have to work a little harder to make their headline stand out, experts said. But at least on the Web, there are no real space limitations like on a print page, said Neil Chase, editor of continuous news for The New York Times.
"The flip side is, if you look at a one-column lead story on page 1 of The New York Times, it's really hard to find a headline to fit that space. It's a real art," Chase said. "You expand that to the space available on the Web site, and you may come up with something more compelling with more words."
In a newspaper, the pictures and accompanying features, or sidebars around the article, can help give context to the story. For example, the infamous "Bastards!" headline that the San Francisco Examiner ran on September 12, 2001, was accompanied by a large photo of the World Trade Center towers engulfed in flames. With the Web, there may not be photos or other indicators of what is being referenced in an obscure headline like that.
But that's part of the evolution of mass communications in the Digital Age.
"There's nothing doom and gloom about it," Chase of The New York Times said. "It's just one of the many changes in the industry."
5 commentsJoin the conversation! Add your comment