Techmeme is probably rewriting your clickbait headlines

So far this month, editors at Techmeme and its sister site Mediagazer have rewritten more than half of the headlines that appear on the influential news aggregators, Techmeme CEO Gabe Rivera tells Poynter. In the month of March, Techmeme's cadre of 13 editors (most of them part-timers) have written 61 percent of the headlines for stories that appeared on the sites.

This is mostly done to ensure that headlines on the front page of Techmeme and Mediagazer "relate enough news details that readers only interested in the most basic facts underlying the story," Rivera said in an email. Earlier this month, Rivera invited publishers to save Techmeme staffers the trouble of rewriting their vague and unspecific headlines by composing "the kind of headline we would use" and emailing them in.

Clickbait headlines are definitely a problem, Rivera said.

"The issue is they're not better for readers, they're better for publishers, as they encourage more clicks," he said. "Readers are forced to endure page loads just to collect the most basic facts about a story, or worse: waste time just to discover the piece was not even close to what they expected it to be."

Techmeme editors have been writing tailored headlines since September 2013; before that, they just used the ones publishers wrote. When the sites made the switch, Rivera explained the change in a post on Techmeme, calling out headline writers for missing "the most newsworthy part of the story."

Who writes the most straightforward headlines? Industry publications like 9to5Mac, TechCrunch, and VentureBeat load their headlines with jargon and details that the site's editors crave, whereas "older, bigger publications" like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal often write headlines "that can pique the interest of a broad audience" but fail to capture the attention of Techmeme's more insider-y readers, Rivera said. The most insightful news commentators almost never write descriptive headlines, "instead opting for something obscure or enigmatic."

"Perhaps they imagine a straightforward headline is the mark of someone lower in the media foodchain," Rivera said. "In any case, we're always forced to produce our own headlines for these writers, and it's never easy."

Rivera acknowledges, however, that clickbait headlines are a relatively minor problem compared to the rest of the ills plaguing the media industry.

"So while I snark a bit about these sorts of headlines on Twitter, you won't see me on my high horse too often," Rivera said. "At Techmeme and Mediagazer, we don't gain anything when readers click headlines, so we're free to pack all the details on our front page, making the reader-friendly choice also entirely pain-free for us. For me to gripe too much would be unseemly, especially since we're not the ones bearing the cost for reporters."

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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