“funny headlines are serious business”

I quote an article from the Atlantic where there’s some concern over what guides an audience to an article online. In early days of paper publishing, a pithy headline was a guaranteed eye-catcher. These days, though…

Despite the fact that Crowley has won ACES’ top award for headline writing, he regularly finds that his funny headlines for the Review-Journal have been re-written by the online desk to be more search-engine-friendly. For example, when Harrah’s casino announced plans to build a new entertainment center with an observation wheel, Crowley came up with the headline “Brave new whirl.” The online desk changed it to “Harrah’s plans retail, entertainment center.”

“I understand the shift toward search optimization,” he says. “But I think we’re losing something when we take the wordplay and surprise out of headline writing.”

In a widely circulated 2010 article criticizing SEO practices, Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten made the same point by citing a Post article about Conan O’Brien’s refusal to accept a later time slot on NBC. The print headline: “Better never than late.” Online: “Conan O’Brien won’t give up ‘Tonight Show’ time slot to make room for Jay Leno.”

Off, but near topic, I search specific keywords when I look for things to write about, (usually “God news” or “Jesus news”) and I’ve noticed a predilection for some of the results to highlight a religious connection to the story, even if the story itself could be about all kinds of topics. If it’s a celebrity interview, for example, the article headline might note some comment made about that celeb’s beliefs as if that’s more important than the train wreck their career is having. (Assuming that’s actually important. Sometimes I question what qualifies as “news”.) All the Lindsay Lohan stuff comes to mind as a prime example. Between her father’s religion, his crimes, dreams of God rehab, and now forays into Scientology, it seems like religiously inspired topics get used just to keep certain people in the news, not because what they’re up to is particularly newsworthy.

Getting back to the article:

Before the session wraps up, a young copy editor raises her hand to ask Crowley about the conflict between funny headlines and SEO guidelines.

“A lot of times I’ll write something, and the online desk will rewrite it because it doesn’t work.” He crosses his arms and leans against the dry-erase board. “And that’s because Google doesn’t laugh.”

If hilarious headlines are less desirable in respected online papers, at least there are blogs to pick up the sarcastic/ironic slack. Slate gets mentioned in the article as being a site that still makes room for humour while staying true to the story because they know what their core audience wants and appreciates. They appreciate being in on the joke, for one thing. Popular bloggers (and virtual unknowns like me) might have a better shot at catching the audience eye because they aren’t under any guidelines about what makes for an “acceptable” headline. I’d joke even more than I do already in order to snag the notice of readers who might not have clicked my links otherwise. There are still people who appreciate a play on words. It’s evidence of wit, but more than that, it’s evidence that we’re trusting the audience to understand it. It’d suck to reach a point where nobody can anymore.

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