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Column: Is this headline doing its job?
Shannon Casas high res
Shannon Casas

Headline writing is an art form.

Someone recently texted me to ask how journalists write headlines. 

Whew. Where to even start, I wondered. There are a lot of considerations, and I’ve studied headline writing in college, have done countless headline training sessions since and have practiced the art almost daily.

Let’s start with one simple question: Is this a headline for print or online? 

If it’s for print, are we talking about the lead headline in 60-point type across the top of the page or a headline on a story along the rail — the spot where an article runs down one column of the page, like the one above this column, for example?

If it’s for online, there are slightly different considerations for what’s posted on the website vs. what’s posted on social media vs. what we use in an email newsletter.

And no, the print headlines and online headlines are not the same. They have similar jobs — get people interested in the story — but there are quite a few differences in how they accomplish that. 

Let’s start with print. In just four or five words, a copy editor must summarize a story fairly and accurately. Sometimes a photo can help convey the message, and a secondary headline — or drophed, as we call it in the business — is used to add context. Note, I referenced a copy editor writing the headline. Reporters may make a suggestion, but it’s up to the copy editors to write the headline to fit the space they have available. 

In college I learned about the old count system in which each letter gets a number depending on how much space it takes up. For example, W is 2 points and a l is half a point. That system isn’t so crucial in today’s page design, which uses advanced computer software, but a W still takes up the same amount of space. A good copy editor can deftly swap a longer word for a shorter word as they write and rewrite headlines. 

Writing a headline in a rail is typically the trickiest. Try fitting the word “immigration” in one column in a newspaper — it doesn’t work. 

Then there’s your hammer head — no, not the shark — in which you put just a couple of words above a drophed. This is often used over the page’s centerpiece, the story with the largest photo on the page. Copy editors can sometimes get clever with these, use some alliteration or a pun, depending on the content of the story.

In any case, headlines on the front page — at least those above the fold, or the top half of the paper that can be seen in a traditional newspaper box — help sell the newspaper. See something you want to read, throw in a few quarters and buy the paper. 

Online, the headline is working to sell the story, too. See something you want to read, click, and depending on your subscription status, be asked to pay 99 cents a week to try a subscription.

But the newspaper box of the internet is more complicated. You may scroll across the headline on Facebook or on a list of search results on Google. The headline is competing for your attention with all the other things in that space, whether other media outlets’ articles or photos of your friends’ kid’s birthday.

On top of that, Facebook and Google’s algorithms are working to figure out whether that story and its headline will be something you want to read. Google is looking at key words and a host of other data to decide what should pop up first when you search something like “Gainesville Christmas parade.” And Facebook is looking at how much reaction content is getting, whether likes or angry faces and how many shares and comments. 

You may be able to write a headline a bit longer than one for print, but the algorithms may prefer one that’s less than 50 characters long. And there are 36 or so other rules to throw on top of that one — like using numerals. They stand out more when people scroll: “5 reasons why headline writing is hard” is better than “Many factors make headline writing hard.”

Write a headline to please the Google algorithm and you may get something like “2021 Gainesville Christmas parade is Dec. 5.” Write a headline to please the Facebook algorithm and — well, you might need to find some controversy happening at the parade.

The algorithms are somewhat of a mystery, though. There are experts who do what they can to learn how they work, but only Google and Facebook truly know the inner workings.

In the meantime, there are actual humans reading the headlines and deciding to click. And editors want to give them a reason to click. But also they want the headline to be accurate. And convey the story fairly. And still please the algorithms. And again, they want the reader to click. Because part of our job is to help you be an informed citizen, and even the best 5-word or 55-character headline can’t provide all the information that’s in the article. 

Shannon Casas is editor in chief of The Times and a North Hall resident.

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