When I took my college journalism classes many moons ago, I remember my professors hammering away at the importance of writing a good headline to support the “Five W’s.”
That always stuck with me: Make a headline compelling, get attention, and tell the story in one line. You don’t have to be a journalist to know the “Made you look!” approach. Exploitative teaser headlines have been a staple throughout the history of journalism.
Look at yellow journalism, the staying power of the National Enquirer
-style pubs, or newspapers screaming one-word heads like “WAR!” The difference now? The Internet has spawned a new breed of headlines relying on a formula that has spread like wildfire.
Fueled by online publishers salivating over viral shares, falling revenues, and “brand journalism” butting up against news items, Upworthy
, and other news aggregators have blazed a path that is unstoppable and touches every headline on the Internet. Up next: news articles.
You, too, can be baited
We’re all guilty of clicking headlines that tell us we “won’t believe” what we see. Who can resist “Three Things All Successful Entrepreneurs Do” or “A Huge Corporation Just Got Away With Murder—And It Sets a Scary Precedent”?
There’s a reason it’s second nature to click—these headlines rely on our primitive curiosity triggers. Science lesson for the day: Humans are wired to be attracted to surprises and what is termed the “information gap.”
Headlines that prey on those triggers tap into this urge, poking and prodding at any of our five curiosity reflexes—questions and riddles, unknown answers, expectations that violate norms, access to info we don’t have, and reminders of something forgotten.
Another science-y way to explain this is termed the “inverted-U”—that mental point between ignorance and wisdom, which is also fed by these types of headlines. There is even a website that generates Upworthy headlines
is no slouch in this department; it’s famous for its listicles, quizzes, and sugar-coated pop culture articles drawing readers in with this reliable formula. It’s so popular that it has become an online pastime to make fun
of this headline style.
Fuzzy article lines merging
When you pair Upworthy
headlines with the recent proliferation of brand journalism, it’s a double whammy for our brains. How do we know what is news and what is marketing content “sponsored” by companies when we scan a page? Often, we don’t.
For instance, just as a few examples, The Wall Street Journal
, The New York Times
, and San Jose Mercury News
are now in the sponsored content business, but many other respected veteran publications are joining up, too.
Sure, there have always been ads and news stories co-existing side by side, but we could readily distinguish between reporting and commercial content. Now it’s a complete crapshoot, even with the “Sponsored Content” label plastered near these articles, courtesy of the new FCC guidelines. The lines have been blurred already, so why not nudge it a bit closer with titillating headlines?
News through the click-bait grinder
One of the most notable examples of news outlets’ sticking their hands in the proverbial Upworthy
headline cookie jar is CNN. On the first time out, it didn’t go so well. Its series of tweets
on the serious topics of rape and murder this year prompted readers and news pundits alike to pounce. It clearly illustrates the hunger to retain its established audience while attracting new readers.
I strongly suspect other news outlets will try this headline style and may gain acceptance as readers become accustomed—and, dare I say, immune—to them at some point.
Does it help or hurt journalism?
In the not-too-distant future, the homogenous nature of Upworthy
headlines, sponsored content, and crushing online competition for attention may blend so there is little differentiation for readers.
In the end, seducing people to read your news article—whether through click-bait strategy
or the 5 W’s—may not matter as long as it gets eyeballs and shares. The comfort level with this new age (or new low) of journalism practices will depend on whom you ask: Publishers will embrace it as they count the cash. Reporters will continue to despise news and fluff inextricably bundled.
As for readers? The jury is still out. But we do know a new way of digesting the headlines we consume is here to stay—and soon they may all taste alike.
Janice Cuban is principal of Janice Cuban Creative, specializing in content marketing for B2B, B2C, and small businesses. She is also a blogger, freelance writer, and lover of all things marketing and technology.