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Has Digital changed the art of headline writing forever?

The well-crafted newspaper headline was a key sales hook, and sub-editors fully understood its importance. Does the rise of the digital world spell the end for the classic headline, asks Peter Sands.

By Peter Sands

For the last half-century, headlines, particularly tabloid headlines, have been part of British culture. It isn't just journalists who remember classics such as 'Paddy Pantsdown', 'Super Caley Go Ballistic Celtic Are Atrocious', 'Zip Me Up Before You Go Go' and 'Exit Left Pursued By Blair' (after New Labour purged the extremists in 1995).

What those headlines have in common is they are clever, make people smile – and are probably totally ineffective online. 

So does the march towards online publishing mean the classic newspaper headline will soon be extinct? Is the sub-editor's art about to be replaced by the science and strategy of SEO?

Pete Picton, deputy publisher of MailOnline, certainly doesn't believe it is: "My own view is that the role of a headline hasn’t changed. A headline’s job is to draw you into a publication. So, as you’ll pick up the newspaper or magazine from the newsagent’s shelves, you'll click on a particular article online when a search may throw up many more on the same subject."

Picton recognises, though, that there are subtle differences in execution. It is all to do with context. In print, headlines can be more indulgent. They don't always need to tell the full story. They are next to images and often appear under a label. On the internet, there is no such context. The headline is competing with others on the same topic so there is a need to spell things out for readers and search engines. Headlines that work in print often fail the stand-alone test that online headlines need.

So here are five key differences between a print and online headline.

1. The detail

I am not convinced this really is a difference. Online journalists say their headlines need to include more detail. But I have long encouraged print subs to tell the story, be specific and use names. To do it online, isn't too great a leap. One clear difference is that ‘Roo’ becomes ‘Wayne Rooney’ and ‘top chef’ becomes ‘Nigella Lawson’. Nobody searches for ‘Roo’. Using words that build pictures in the readers' minds is critical online – but then it always was in print.

2. The pun

The puns, song titles and rhyming headlines are a key ingredient of tabloid journalism. There may be more bad puns than good ones but an original play on words can be newspaper gold. So is there a role for the pun online? Veteran sub Simon Ricketts, now a backbencher on the Guardian night team, has doubts. "Us inky-fingered dinosaurs love a pun or a snappy phrase but they don't really work online, particularly with news. They can be fun in feature-type stories and some captions but they don't work when boiled down to snaps. I work with many bright young things who are digitally-alert and they find puns an almost antiquated curiosity."

Media consultant Andy Drinkwater agrees: "Google doesn't really have a sense of humour, so clever, pun-ridden headlines leave it baffled and confused. If you're serious about SEO then puns are generally a no-no, unless supported by enough details for Google to make sense of it."

But what about the Sun, where funny headlines are an integral part of the paper's appeal? Can we really have a pun-free digital Sun? Online duty editor Victoria Watson doesn't think so. "We have tried to keep the humour of the headline and the story to meet digital needs. Our readers want the Sun to be just as funny online as it is in the paper, so we work to keep that DNA the same."

Watson points to a splash headline from June which says 'N-CUFFZ' and is accompanied by a subhead, 'Star Tulisa nicked over The Sun on Sunday coke deal exposé.'

The paper likes the pun, thinks its readers will too and wants to keep it online. So it uses ‘N-CUFFZ - X Factor Star Tulisa nicked over The Sun on Sunday coke deal exposé’.

The pun is retained and, with extra space available, the words ‘X Factor’ (popular with searchers) are added. The Sun regularly keeps the pun online although, inevitably, there are times when it doesn't make it.

3. SEO

If there was ever a phrase meant to irritate a sub, it's ‘search engine optimisation’. But, unless you are behind a paywall, SEO is important. Unique visitors are the Holy Grail and SEO delivers them. Drinkwater explains: "Google matches up search terms with the content on the web and tries to find a close match. Google also 'looks to the left'. 

"This means first words in headlines and intros are important. Successful SEO strategies involve getting keywords at the start."

The Guardian and the Sun have dedicated SEO teams optimising each story's potential. If there are lots of different angles, each one will be SEO'd differently. Ricketts says: "Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Well, making sure your stories get eyeballs on them is obviously a good thing. There are times when it can be arcane and somewhat forced, but there is no doubt SEO is an incredibly powerful part of driving online news."

Ricketts adds: "I know some people who would love a 'best SEO headline' competition. I'm not one of them. Yet."

Martin King, digital operations editor at the Independent, also understand SEO's power: "Those who bemoan the inelegance of wordier headlines must remember our aim is to reach the biggest audience with what interests them most. Who can argue against key words in the face of that?"

But SEO can get in the way of a great headline and not all online journalists are slaves to it. Nobody can doubt the success of MailOnline, the world's biggest newspaper website. Publisher Martin Clarke believes a newsy headline with story-telling disciplines is just as important. It's a point emphasised by Picton: "The best way to improve search ranking is by getting an article read – a good headline will do that far better than a robotic headline crafted purely for keyword bots. There are plenty of ways to improve your key word search without sacrificing a 'read-me' headline."

4. Geography

In print, geography is rarely used in a headline unless it has real merit. But it's different online. Ricketts says: "A foreign news page in the Guardian will have a location kicker, perhaps even a map. So, immediately, a headline that says 'Protests against Erdogan' will put the reader exactly where they need to be. Online, that's not the case, so 'Turkey' would be added. We have location 'tags' that mean you can search all stories about Turkey - the country, not the bird - easily."

Here's an exercise that Drinkwater showed his students. A few years ago, a headline on the Manchester Evening News website said: 'Airport secures the title of best in Europe'. On the same story the Independent put, 'Barcelona and Manchester named among best airports in Europe'. The Independent started its intro with 'Barcelona, Manchester, Lyon and Malta airports have been recognised …' The MEN began with 'Security innovations at Manchester airport …' Drinkwater then told the students to search for 'best airport' and the Independent was top. Another search for 'Manchester Airport' and the Independent won again. Geography, often dull in print headlines, clearly matters online.

5. Space

The biggest headache for newspaper headline writers is space. Tight counts are responsible for the 'raps', 'slams', 'boosts' and the abbreviations of names. Roo, Fergie, Mrs T and Sam Cam are all necessary tabloid inventions. But on the web, it is full names that are searched and indexed.

More space also means longer, chattier headlines which tell the story better. Watson points to the Sun's print headline 'MP naked in house' which becomes the online 'Tory MP, accused of groping lesbian housekeeper, walked naked round house’.

MailOnline is a master of this. It uses the space to build vivid pictures. The website is littered with compelling headlines such as: 'Crazed neighbour stabbed line dancer and wife with Rambo knife because they tidied up his flat while feeding the cat'. As if that was not enough, it is followed by six subdecks which include the ages, the sentence and the line, 'He went berserk after he found they had emptied cat litter and vacuumed'.

But Picton warns that while extra space is a benefit, it needs to be disciplined. "It shouldn’t mean you get lazy or indulgent – every word still has to justify its use."

So, back to the question: Does digital publishing mean the classic newspaper headline will be extinct? Well, perhaps not. King points out: "We are only just beginning to understand the new editorial art of what works best where. It is a developing editorial skill."

In fact, newspapers can use the lessons learned online to improve their offerings. Both Drinkwater and Picton point to Buzzfeed which has created a genre of internet lists with compelling headlines such as: '15 moments when Mariah Carey thought a shirt was a dress', 'The 31 best photos of presidents with their pets', 'The definitive ranking of crisps from worst to best' and '15 of the most optimistic things ever'.

And, as the world shifts from search-based activity to social media, creating shareable headlines becomes an art form in itself. 

What is clear amid all the changes is that newspapers such as the Sun, Mail and Guardian are striving to retain their personality, partly through their headlines, online.

And perhaps most importantly, the understanding of SEO and analytics brings it home to headline writers that bland and non-specific words don't work. They don't work in print either. So if the digital changes finally mean the end of headlines such as 'Major plans get green light', 'Plans promise jobs bonanza' and 'Youth crime blitz boost', it can only be a good thing.