A few years back I remember pondering how the web was killing tabloidese (with inspiration from a piece in The Times by Carol Midgley).
Since then there’s been an even bigger change in online headlines.
Once upon a time, if a man had bitten a dog, the headline would have been, “Man bites dog” – leave out all those auxiliary verbs and other troublesome bits and pieces, and just use the words you need to get the point across.
These days, on the internet, that headline would be, “This guy totally bit a dog”. Or it might be, “10 amazing videos of nutjobs attacking animals”. Or, “This little yappy dog won’t stop bugging this guy. What happens next will make your jaw drop”. Or, “The only dog video you need to see today”.
Partly, it’s the same factors that have been drawing writers away from using traditional tabloidese online for a while: the web lifting the space restrictions of print, so that brevity isn’t as big a deal as it was, and the web encouraging writers to speak to their readers as equals.
But there’s a lot more going on behind this revolution in headline style.
One thing is shareability. Social media is huge as a way of driving traffic to online articles, so headlines have to promote sharing. That means they can’t just be brief, informative and direct, they have to be shocking, awe-inspiring, or funny enough that someone will endorse them and share them with their mates.
The next factor is the dynamics of clicks, which has given rise to the irritating yet irresistible “clickbait” phenomenon.
In print, by the time someone sees your headline, they’ve kind of invested in the article already. They’re half way to reading it. So you can afford to go for a cryptic pun or something a bit abstract, and use the standfirst on the same page to tell the reader what the hell your article is actually about.
On the web you don’t have that luxury. Your headline probably appears amid a list of several others, without a standfirst, your reader could close the page at any time and look at any of millions of other sites, so you have to grab them sufficiently that they feel like they won’t be complete as a person if they don’t click through and read your article.
Very often, clickbait headlines will exploit the “curiosity gap”, giving you just enough detail to make you curious, but forcing you to click through to have your curiosity sated.
All these factors together give us the likes of…
Notice, also, that the grammar of headlines is now much closer to the way people actually speak (and, in the context of social media, type). No longer do we feel the need to leave out all the unimportant grammatical words, as in “Man bites dog”. We’re not limited by space, so we don’t have to – we just write the story the way any other human being would write it.
Good headline writing is a super-important skill, and also a good test of how well a writer has understood a story. That hasn’t changed. But the style in which headlines are written, most definitely has.