FOR THE WEEK OF FEB. 26, 2007
New tactics for old tool: Headlines get Web-savvy rewrites
Turn class members into newspaper critics by letting them point out examples of Web headlines that work because they’re clear and ones that search engines are likely to miss.
Students can learn to think like online editors by rewriting vague print heads so that they work better on the Web. Ask them to point out useful “keywords” and explain why they're important.
Have pupils suggest an online alternative for a section title, column name or feature label that doesn’t describe its subject directly.
What works in ink can stink online. Newspapers are starting to heed that lesson by giving print edition headlines a Web-friendly makeover. The idea is to let search engines recognize the topic of an article that had a bright, breezy head in print -- but which backfires on the Internet precisely because it’s too clever.
Online readers use logical, obvious topic keywords to find relevant articles via Google, MSN, Ask or other search engines. If a pithy or witty head omits the subject, place or newsmaker’s name, that article won’t rank high in search results – if it’s included at all. Limited exposure means potentially lower revenue from advertising rates based on average online readership. In addition, some researchers pay archive-access fees for articles from past months or years.
In response, online editors and designers use coding techniques and rewrite cute headlines to be as clear and literal as possible. The science behind it is called SEO, or search engine optimization. It addition to informative heads, this approach also uses technical strategies involving what are called keywords and tags. Papers also change headers and tabs on Web pages to straightforward terms such as Entertainment or Lifestyle, instead of print edition section names such as Pulse, Twist, Breeze, Beat or Pace.
News executive says: “Search is driving much of the behavior on the Web. Newspapers that don't understand that at the highest level, all the way up to the editors, simply won't exist." – Zach Leonard, British newspaper publisher
Teacher says: "A lot of journalists spend a lot of time perfecting headlines and being clever, and now you've got to be more direct. It's going to be a different art." -- Sree Sreenivasan, new-media instructor at Columbia University School of Journalism
Famous print headlines: ’Ford to City: Drop Dead’ (President Ford opposed 1975 bailout for New York), “Headless Body in Topless Bar” (1983 murder) and “Wall St. Lays an Egg” (1929 stock market crash coverage in Variety, a Hollywood paper).
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