Last week, former City Weekly editor and current author of online column SmartBomb, Christopher Smart, wrote about clickbait headlines and how they sucker us into those dark corners of the internet crowded with teaser ads and traps to pry your personal information from you. He was spot on. Clickbait is not only the starting point for a community of suckers to commiserate about topics they don't need to, but clickbait has also changed the nature of how newspapers, especially, write and construct their own headlines.
In the days of yore, daily newspapers staffed their editorial office with persons who could craft concise, bullseye headlines predicated on available space and font size. A headline writer in those days counted characters and was limited by that character count. Thus, he or she might write an award-winning headline only to have to it discarded because it wouldn't fit in the column width. Also, in those bygone times, alternative newspapers like this one, and less constrained to the nuances of precise character counts, hired people like Bill Frost who could craft pithy, smartass or clever headlines because that's who we are. The better the headline, the more readers. That simple.
Today, though, as newspapers embrace their boundary-less space available in online formats, headline writing is less a craft and more a filler position. I used to like a great headline, such as the cliched-to-death Man Bytes Blog variety. And while it's certain that writing columns about headlines is nothing new—and that clickbait is not new, either—it does occur to me that headlines just get crappier and crappier. When I read headlines these days in our daily papers, I both shudder and laugh.
Here's one from the Sunday Deseret News: "He can't remember breakfast, but he remembers D-Day." Hmmm. Is that a story about Alzheimer's—and a slap in the face of persons who suffer from it? Is it about kitchen cabinets filled with unmemorable cereals? What is D-Day? No need to go on, but that headline wouldn't fly in the olden days. It would have gotten to the point that a Utah WWII veteran of the Normandy landing has a memorable story to tell. I tried reading the story, but all throughout, I kept wondering what the man had for breakfast. I guess it was a cheap way to drag me in, but if the story was meant to solemnize Memorial Day, it failed.
Also, back in those old days, newspapers were known to create subheads beneath a main headline. The reason—besides filling space—was to add a bit more insight about the nature of the story and give readers more reason to read it.
However, today, you have headlines like this one in The Salt Lake Tribune: "Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder not worried about Clippers' defensive schemes, saying they've seen it all before." Talk about a Full Monty reveal.
So, you tell me—why should I read the story if everything I need to know about it is in the headline? That's actually the opposite of clickbaiting, and you'd think a news enterprise so engaged in getting readers compelled enough to donate and subscribe to them would actually want their pages read. As if to pile on, though, the headline carries the subhead, "Mike Conley will miss Game 1 vs. Clippers due to hamstring injury. 'Hopefully we can get him back soon,' Snyder says." I have it all. No need to read. Perfect in this day and age of society educated by Tweet and headline, that newspapers fail in their basic duty—not just to report, but to be read as well. CW
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