So how do we decide what the headline for a story is going to be?
Almost always, that decision comes down to me.
My reporters suggest headlines for the stories they write in the computer system we use, but I’ll tweak or re-write them for any number of reasons (though sometimes their suggested headlines are awesome and way better than what my tired brain could come up with at 4:45 p.m.).
A new wrinkle is writing headlines for the internet. These are often different than the ones you’ll see in the newspaper, though there are certainly commonalities.
A good headline is designed to catch the attention of the reader at a glance. It should make the reader want to take the time to read, ideally, the full story. Because of space and attention span it must be short and pithy, or at least informational. Sometimes it can be funny. I enjoy a good bit of alliteration where possible. And yes, there are certain words I know will get people to do a double take: naked, cannabis, marijuana, pot, arrested, smashed, destroyed, murder (to list a few). Of course not every story lends itself to a headline rife with eye-catchers, so at least we’ll try to tell you if your taxes are being hiked or that a new show is heading to the theatre stage.
Online, we have to think about other things as well, such as getting the name of a community into the headline, since this is something people would type into their search engine if they were looking to find something. And we definitely want as many people to find our stories as possible. I always get a kick out of it when I get a letter or a response to a story from someone in Australia, or the U.S. After all, that’s why we write them, so people will read them.
Lately we’ve had some critics accuse us of writing a headline just as “clickbait”, which implies it’s intended to mislead the reader into clicking through to the story. That’s not how we work, since it’s a losing long-term strategy. Sure, we might get you to click on a misleading headline once, but chances are you’re not going to do it again, and you’re going to lose trust in us as a news source.
So if you see a headline that makes you pause, it’s not because we’re trying to trick you, it’s more likely we just made a mistake, not seeing that it could be read in more than one way. For example, last week I wrote a headline online for a story about a little girl being left in tears by vandalism to a toy car she liked in Duncan. I used the word “crushed”, not realizing that people would literally think I meant the girl had been physically injured. Needless to say, I changed it after getting some feedback both from you guys out there and colleagues in the office.
I definitely want you to read on, but our ultimate goal is to communicate the truth, not give you the wrong impression.