Digital Publishing: Making Headway With Headlines

By: Rob Tornoe

Digital Publishing: Making Headway With Headlines

Even as important as headlines have been in the newspaper business, they are even more important online, where users’ attention spans are easily diverted among multiple tags. In fact, when it comes to some websites and social media sites such as Twitter and Reddit, the headline is the sole difference between a reader clicking to read a story or navigating elsewhere. Unfortunately at many newspapers, online headlines are still an afterthought, often left unchanged from their print version.            

When will newspaper editors realize how vital headline strategy is to their online products? After all, UpWorthy doesn’t create at least 25 different headlines for its content and test them for the fun of it. It understands the value, reach and reward of crafting a great headline tailored to appealing content. Luckily, newspapers have the reach and original content, so by drilling down on headlines a bit more, they could make their content sing online and reach thousands of new readers in the process.            

Before we come up with specific ideas on how to write better web headlines, a quick dip in data might do us some good. Thanks to the folks at Ripenn, we have lots of hard data to look at in terms of what worked to help certain headlines go viral. Their team looked at 2,616 successful headlines from four different sites where headline writing is as much an art as it is a science: BuzzFeed, ViralNova, UpWorthy and Wimp.            

The most successful headlines mine the so-called “curiosity gap” while directly appealing to a segment of readers. Take for example one of BuzzFeed’s more viral headlines, “This Short Film Shows Just How Terrifying Life Is For LGBT People In Russia.” This one headline, a longish 14 words, generated more than 127,000 Facebook likes, more than 77,000 shares and a massive amount of page views for the viral site. And it’s basically just a headline and a YouTube clip embedded onto its site.            

According to BuzzFeed editorial director Jack Shepherd, it’s important for online editors to understand one thing: “Your readers are your publishers—they are the people who decide which of your articles or lists or quizzes or infographics to share with their friends.” It obviously follows that they’re more inclined to interact and share your content if it also makes a strong statement about who they are.            

That’s something the team at Independent Journal Review ( has learned. Viewed by many as a conservative version of UpWorthy, the site is quickly becoming more popular than the viral site, and is even beginning to challenge popular conservative sites such as Breitbart and The Daily Caller. At the time this was written, Quantcast had the site listed as the 45th most popular in the U.S. at over 21 million unique visitors, beating out sites like, and even            
And where has their focus been? Headlines.            

“We try and walk the fine line between setting up the story enough to be interesting, but not enough to give it all away,” said Bert “Bubba” Atkinson, Independent Journal Review’s editor-in-chief. “We really approach headlines like we’re sitting at a bar and telling stories to one another.”            

One of Independent Journal Review’s most successful headlines showcases its strategy at its most effective: “This Teen Thought He Could Knockout(sic) an Innocent Victim. Then He Learned About the 2nd Amendment.” It understands its reader’s interest in gun rights while teasing at an informative story that illustrates a larger meaning.            

According to Atkinson, the key to writing good headlines is understanding your audience well enough to artfully create headlines they know they can trust. “We don’t want to screw the audience by dishing out clickbait solely to create traffic,” Atkinson said. “We have our audience in mind from the start of the process, and craft the headlines to inspire sharing about a topic (politics) that really doesn’t lend itself to sharing.”            

Based on the data, and assuming things all editors already know about headlines (be concise and informative, remain socially relevant, etc.) here are five things online editors at media companies should keep in mind when it comes to writing appealing headlines.            

1. Curiosity. As Carnegie Mellon University professor George Loewenstein notes, when we notice a gap between what we know and what we want to know, we go looking for that missing piece of information. In order to be successful, you have to give away some of the story, but just enough to hook the reader. For media companies, that link is right there, waiting to be clicked. You just need to make it enticing enough for a reader to do so (without devolving to clickbait, which could undermine your credibility).            


“Internet Calls Fat Girl ‚Fat’ And Her Response Is … Perfect”            

“She Has a Horrifying Story to Tell. Except It Isn’t Actually True. Except It Actually Is True.”            

2. You and Your. The social media site Buffer took Ripenn’s study of viral headlines and added 3,016 more headlines from 24 top content sites, and found that combined, these too pronouns appeared in 16 percent of all viral headlines in their study. As Forbes technology reporter Jeff Bercovici writes, “Don’t write for your audience, write for their friends.” It’s important for editors to understand how strong self-interest is to social sharing. As Courtney Seiter at Buffer notes, “When you speak to the desires, needs and emotions of your reader, you answer their main question: ‘What’s in it for me?’”            


“What Would You Buy With an Extra $12,000?”            

“Facts That Will Change Your Mind About New Jersey”            

3. Negatives. If you just read UpWorthy headlines, you’d think that every superlative used needs to be laved with positive vibes and uplifting messages. However, according to an Outbrain study of 65,000 links, negative superlatives in titles have a 63 percent higher click-through rate than their positive counterparts. This should come as no surprise at newspapers, where the phrase, “If it bleeds, it leads,” originated. Just don’t become the Debbie Downer of your coverage area.            


“This Is How Marketing Works, And It’s Devastating”            

“Stop making these mistakes when you take family photos”            

4. Sound human. One thing that is clear by looking at successful viral headlines is editors shouldn’t be afraid of using first personal titles. As Atkinson explained, this helps make stories more shareable and conversational by understanding a key facet of human behavior – people like to interact with other people. Newspapers have a habit of speaking with a disembodied voice. Try humanizing your voice a bit to see if it helps attracting readers to your content.            


“This School Totally Understands The Difference Between Learning And Education”            

“Student Comes Out To Teacher In Writing Assignment. Her Response Will Make You Cry.”            

5. Emotion. Most newspaper reporters are so focused on telling a story with no bias, words such as “heartbreaking” or “hilarious” wouldn’t be considered good form in a headline. But online, showcasing a bit of emotion could mean the difference in thousands of people either reading your story or avoiding to all together.            


“This Guy’s Wife Got Cancer, So He Did Something Unforgettable. The Last 3 Photos Destroyed Me.”            

“Learn How to Stand Up to Your Boss (and Force Him to See What You’re Really Worth)”. 

Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor & Publisher. Reach him at

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Published: July 14, 2014

One thought on “Digital Publishing: Making Headway With Headlines

  • July 14, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    This is a great idea for a story, but your writer is so bad that the story loses all credibility within 30 seconds. How can E&P publish something that misspells Carnegie Mellon University, describes a 14-word headline as 75 words long, and has a redundancy right up front in the lead (“Even as important as headlines have been … they are even more important online”)? Has E&P given up on quality entirely? This is kindergarten stuff — why should I take advice from someone who obviously doesn’t care enough to get it right?



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