SEO Killed the Headline Writer…Star

The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten is one of those grouchy, old-media-types who America loves, but not enough to actually start subscribing to a newspaper. Anyway, this past Sunday he wrote a funny, prototypical grumpy piece lamenting the slaughter of clever newspaper headlines to the altar of SEO.

My biggest beef with the New Newsroom, though, is what has happened to headlines. In old newsrooms, headline writing was considered an art. This might seem like a stretch to you, but not to copy editors, who graduated from college with a degree in English literature, did their master’s thesis on intimations of mortality in the early works of Moliere, and then spent the next 20 years making sure to change commas to semicolons in the absence of a conjunction.

Newspapers still have headlines, of course, but they don’t seem to strive for greatness or to risk flopping anymore, because editors know that when the stories arrive on the Web, even the best headlines will be changed to something dull but utilitarian. That’s because, on the Web, headlines aren’t designed to catch readers’ eyes. They are designed for “search engine optimization,” meaning that readers who are looking for information about something will find the story, giving the newspaper a coveted “eyeball.” Putting well-known names in headlines is considered shrewd, even if creativity suffers.
Early this year, the print edition of The Post had this great headline on a story about Conan O’Brien’s decision to quit rather than accept a later time slot: “Better never than late.” Online, it was changed to “Conan O’Brien won’t give up ‘Tonight Show’ time slot to make room for Jay Leno.”

H/T to Tom Christie