How Good Pictures and Captions Get More Readers and Revenue

By Jack Limpert


Sports Illustrated readers get lots of great pictures but not always great captions.

NPR posted some helpful advice on how to write good picture captions. Written by Stephanie Federico, NPR’s home page editor, it says: “Captions are journalism, too. They should be fact-checked and typo-checked. They should be complete sentences that present the who, what, where, when and (sometimes) why without necessarily stating the obvious (i.e., he sits, she waves, they clap). Captions give photos context, telling viewers what’s going on in a photo so they don’t have to guess or jump to conclusions.”

Federico goes on to cover the when and where, keeping it brief, don’t repeat, and so on.

Writing web captions is easier than writing print captions. On the web, space is rarely a problem, and a web caption usually goes under the picture and can be most any length.

In print, art directors are the roadblock in coming up with good picture captions. Almost every magazine I look at does a lousy job with picture captions. Too often editors take the easy way out and let designers decide the placement and length of captions. The result is captions that are too short, and one caption (called a gang caption) often is asked to tell readers about three or four pictures. Too many art directors see picture captions as a design nuisance—let’s make them as inconspicuous as possible.

Doing that misses one of the editor’s great opportunities to get readers to read a story. As readers scan a magazine or newspaper, they often can be stopped by a good picture. What’s in the picture? The challenge for the editor is to not only tell the reader what’s in the picture—see Federico’s advice— but also make the reader think, gee, that’s interesting, I think I’ll read the story.

Try to do that if design tells editorial: Here’s space for 40 words, write a caption that tells the reader what’s in these four pictures (upper left, upper right, etc.).

The job of the editor is to make it easy for the reader to look at headlines, pictures, and captions and then decide whether it seems interesting enough to read on. That’s how you get readers to spend real reading time with a publication, and that pays off in added circulation and ad revenue.

Letting designers dictate the placement and size of picture captions is the most common editorial malpractice in all the magazines I read or look at in journalism contests. One of my favorite magazines is Sports Illustrated and it has improved its picture captions. But it still has clunkers: In this week’s issue here’s one caption, for three pictures, in a story about the Boston Celtics: “DEEP THOUGHTS: Stevens (opposite page) has a roster filled with two-way threats such as Smart (below) and Bradley (right).” Nothing there to pull you into the story.

That goes for website captions, too. It’s not just telling readers the who, when, and where. Make it so interesting that the reader wants to keep on reading.

Here’s more on the power of good pictures and captions from a post in January 2015.

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