March 8, 2004

Consider the headline. For newspapers it’s often the most important element on a page. For newscasts, the “coming up next” audio headline makes a viewer put down that clicker and pay attention.

So why are website headlines generally so uninteresting? That was the question I pondered while looking at our latest website snapshots from the 2004 primary season.

Actually, this story started as an exploration of how sites handled a news event that was important but less-than-compelling — Sen. John Kerry’s victories in nine of the 10 state primaries last Tuesday.

Super Tuesday didn’t feel very super as a news event. While election news dominated most of the sites we explored, I kept thinking about how subdued the headlines seemed.

A couple of decades ago, when I was a copy editor, I was challenged to write interesting and accurate headlines in limited space. Later, as the editor in charge of the Sunday paper, my focus was on writing compelling promotional headlines to capture single-copy readers, a call to action. Again, it was done with limited space.

The Web, with the promise of unlimited space and creative freedom, should be a haven for great headlines.

So, why are so many online headlines so, well, boring?

I believe that websites are missing an opportunity to attract and retain website visitors with better and more interesting headlines. I’ll admit there isn’t a large body of evidence to support such a contention. However, there are some important snippets that support my argument.

A couple of examples:

A 1997 study by Jakob Nielsen and John Morkes found that people rarely read Web pages word by word. According to this study, they “scan the page picking out individual words and sentences.” Nielsen/Morkes reported that 79 percent of their test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word.

A later study done by The Poynter Institute and Stanford University in 2000 makes the same point:

Where do eyes go initially after firing up the first screenful of online news? To text, most likely. Not to photos or graphics, as you might expect. Instead, briefs or captions get eye fixations first, by and large. The eyes of online news readers then come back to the photos and graphics, sometimes not until they have returned to the first page after clicking away to a full article.

How users read and process information on Web pages is of fundamental importance to journalists (and their business counterparts). That’s one of the reasons that Poynter, the Estlow Center for Journalism and New Media, and Eyetools Inc. are working together on the Eyetrack III study.

While results won’t be released until later this month, my Poynter colleague Steve Outing shared some of the unpublished data that promises to raise the discussion level around headlines as a communication device — getting readers to go deep into the story — and as a navigation device, getting readers to click for more.

Two interesting points that will be explored in detail:

  • The readers on the home page with larger headlines appeared to do more skimming or spot-checking, rather than “reading.” Larger headlines seem to implicitly allow permission to skip blurbs and easily scan down the page. This raises the key point as to the purpose of Web page headlines.

  • Small-headline viewers tended to “hover” over each headline/blurb combo on the page. The extra concentration it took to absorb the smaller headline type seemed to draw them more into reading the accompanying blurbs. And these readers tended to move further down the page.

This new research has some provocative points about the function of headlines within the design of a Web page and how that fits within the journalistic mission of news websites. I’m sure it will inspire some interesting discussions among site editors and designers as to the best approach.

Meanwhile, let’s get back to today’s issue of why so many Web headlines are not very compelling. I believe there are three reasons, although I would love to hear from you if there are other causes.

Reason #1. Technology. In an effort to manage the complexity of a 24-hour news cycle, many websites have template-driven publishing systems. Many of these templates, which are essential to timely publishing, have little flexibility in their design. For many systems it is impossible to do something special with an important headline. So, even if the words are terrific, the headline looks like all the other headlines on the page.

Many sites have also automated the process of taking in stories from the newspaper sibling, the Associated Press, and/or Reuters and parsing out the headlines. No fuss, no muss. But newspapers write headlines to appear in context with the page. Taken out of their print environment they seem strangely divorced from the story.

Wire services write headlines over stories for a different purpose. If you look at enough websites you see the same headline over and over. Generally, it’s the head AP sent to give editors a quick understanding of the news event. It’s serviceable, but shouldn’t we strive for something better?

Reason #2. Staffing. Let’s face it. There isn’t a lot of time to spend writing headlines. Few sites have the luxury of an editing staff that is thinking only about the content. In an effort to get sites profitable faster, staffing levels were reduced, or at best, maintained, even as content grew.

Reason #3. We haven’t thought about it. We haven’t spent much time thinking about these issues. Site managers have been worried about larger issues, like focus and profitability. I think we have now reached a time in the development of this new medium where we should think about these fundamental issues around readability.

Jay Small, director of product development for Belo Interactive and a former colleague at Central Newspapers, agrees that too many headlines are pulled out of context from their print origins.

“Just today, I saw a headline link on a major newspaper’s website that read, ‘Fun in Arizona’s sun.'” Small said in an e-mail interview. “Think that’s a travel piece? Nope. It’s about that site’s local big-league baseball team in spring training.

“Newspaper pages are full of headline puns, alliterations, and rhymes that happen to tie nicely to blocks of teaser text, photos, or illustrations,” he said. “Take out the other elements, and those phrases lose most of their meaning when you turn them into hyperlinks. How does a baseball fan know there’s an article worth considering behind the words ‘Fun in Arizona’s sun’?”

Jay Small: “How does a baseball fan know there’s an article worth considering behind the words ‘Fun in Arizona’s sun’?”Small also challenges websites to be less “cute” with their headlines and more functional. He thinks this is important because “every hyperlink on a content site’s index pages gets only a second or two of a viewer’s attention.

“So if you’re making headlines into links, some of the classic copy editors’ guidelines for headline writing apply. Use verbs and active voice. Avoid jargon. Get to the point. Don’t waste a single word.”

There were some headlines that caught my attention from our recent Super Tuesday website snapshots that are good examples of breaking out of the template mode:

  • MSNBC’s approach integrating the headline within the page’s main graphic element has always been effective. This is good example of how that treatment can be eye-catching.

  • The Providence Journal also used this kind of treatment to creating a striking visual element.

  • Both the San Francisco Chronicle and The Washington Post put a larger than usual headline at the top of the page that was very effective.

  • Finally, I liked the treatment the San Diego Union-Tribune gave its main headline. This site used a larger than usual headline with to-the-point wording: Kerry’s Tuesday is super.

Thinking about the use of headlines on news websites means thinking about journalism and the words we use to reach readers. That’s a super thing, any day.

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Howard has been in journalism for 40 years. His resume includes positions with the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and…
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