“The Article Didn’t Live Up to the Headline”

By Jack Limpert

Here’s the end of an interesting piece, “Can the web save the press from oblivion?” in the Guardian:

What works on Blendle itself is somewhat counter-intuitive. Klöpping finds that in our attention-deficit times there is a growing market for reading things at length. “The stories that work well on Blendle are hardly ever the ones that crop up on the most-read lists of newspapers. It is opinion pieces that have special insight, great writing, big interviews, profiles, deeply researched reporting.”

It is Klöpping’s hope that if and when people start to pay for content in significant numbers it will show that it is quality journalism that actually makes the most money. “It can be a way to move away from this terrible yearning for clicks and the simplification of content,” he says. “You look at all the articles written each day [and] so much of it is crap, but there are a few articles each day that a journalist or an editor is really proud of. Those work well on our site.”

What proportion of people ask for their money back? I ask, inevitably.

“About 10%. When a new user signs up it is higher. But after we get to understand a bit more what they want, it is less.”

The refund button asks users to give a reason for their claim. Chief among them is this one: “the article didn’t live up to or agree with the headline.” Some things never change.
No surprise that readers don’t like it when the story doesn’t live up to the headline. It’s almost always the fault of the headline writer, pushing things too far in hopes of attracting attention. And if that was a problem in the age of print, it’s much worse on the traffic-hungry web.

My guess is another pet peeve for readers—it sure is for me—is too much cleverness. The headline writer gets bored with clarity and decides to be so creative most readers won’t take the time to try to figure out what the headline writer was being clever about. It’s the journalistic illusion that readers will go ahead and read the story and then appreciate the cleverness of the headline writer.

The most dangerous words an editor can hear from a designer or a headline writer is “They’ll figure it out.” No, readers will not figure it out, they’ll go on to something else.

And then there are the many question heads you now see on the web. I once wrote a note to Washingtonian readers saying that when they saw a question head, they’d never find the answer in the story. A journalism professor protested and I told him I didn’t really mean never. But the fact is that most question heads are a dodge by the headline writer.

I sweated over many a headline—What is this story saying?—and then sometimes made the headline a question. The reader will rarely find the answer to a question head in the story.  Question heads are mostly the headline writer saying: “Dear Reader, Maybe you can figure out what the writer is saying.”

Those question heads and stories also often deserve a refund.

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