Five Slate Editors Joined a Roundtable. You’ll Never Guess What Happened Next. (They Discussed Headlines.)

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June 16 2014 11:19 AM
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“We Get Really Nerdy About Why a Headline Works”

Slate’s editors in a roundtable about heds, deks, annoying clickbait, and more.

Illustratios by Nikolaichuk and plumbeer.

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Why did you click this article? Probably because of the headline. Headlines are important, and Slate’s editors have strong feelings about them. In this Slate Plus conversation, five Slate editors discuss the fine art of writing a headline, how to avoid creating annoying “clickbait,” and more.

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Allison Benedikt, senior editor: John, when I started at Slate, it was made clear to me (via you?) that you are Slate's Master of Headlines. You've been here awhile, and headline styles have changed. Has your personal style changed along with the times?

John Swansburg, editorial director: First off, I would never claim that I am the Master of Headlines; I prefer my vassals to describe me as such.

As to your question, yes, my headline writing has evolved considerably over my seven years at Slate, although certain things have remained consistent. Certainly on the home page, headline-writing strategy has changed a lot in recent years. For one thing, we have a new home page, with lots of different sized spaces for heds, which requires different styles of headline writing. For another, our metabolism has gotten much faster. I remember halcyon days when Julia and I would spend 10 minutes, maybe 15, carving in stone a beautifully crafted hed and dek that would last the entire next day on the home page. Now, Chad bounces a headline after an hour if it's not performing!

Chad Lorenz, news editor: Heds on the home page have definitely changed a lot. We are less focused on puns and cleverness—less of a print-magazine style, less focused on that classic hed and dek format. Home page heds are much more direct now—Plotz has pushed that. A hed should tell you exactly what a piece is about.

Julia Turner, deputy editor: I feel like our style has remained fairly consistent! For me, the keys to a great Slate headline are: 1) It should sound colloquial, like a smart, news-savvy friend is talking to you. 2) It should pithily pitch the heart of the piece, making a promise to you about what you will learn/see/experience if you click. 3) The piece has to deliver on that promise, otherwise the head is annoying clickbait.

Benedikt: Julia, have you ever written annoying clickbait?

Turner: Is that a gotcha question, Allison? We try really hard to write clicky lines for pieces that will deliver on what we promise. When we find a piece that can't deliver on the promise, we're much more likely to just not put it on the home page than write a juiced up line for it. It's a judgment call every time, and I'm sure we have produced clickbait that is annoying at times, rather than just virtuous clickbait, which is what we strive for.

Lorenz: Correct, Julia. The thing we want to avoid is a "bait and switch" problem.

David Haglund, senior editor: We definitely write headlines that some people consider clickbait. Whether that's a fair charge or not depends on the actual headline, but I have certainly seen hyperbole, e.g., on Slate, which undersells the complexity of an argument. And I know I've written headlines that some would consider clickbait –e.g., some people hate the whole "You're Doing It Wrong" series, simply because the headline seems to tell people that they're doing something wrong. I consider it a harmless bit of fun, but it's obviously meant to be provocative and draw people in.

Benedikt: In terms of evolving styles, the word You never used to appear in headlines, and now it's quite common, and of course there's the Upworthy influence. I'm curious how the team that writes our home page headlines (Chad, John, Julia) feels Slate has been influenced by headline trends.

Turner: I feel like we were at the vanguard of that trend, Allison! We were writing You Probably Shouldn't Eat Soup for Dinner headlines years ago, before it was cool. Slash uncool.

Lorenz: One of Julia's favorite headline tropes, for ages, has been "You Should Probably ..." But the more trendy, Upworthy style that we have consciously avoided is "You Won't Believe ...." etc. "You'll Die When You See ..."

Swansburg: We definitely catch ourselves using You when we shouldn't be. Like, What to Do When You're Exchanging Prisoners With the Taliban.

Turner: I like that headline!

Swansburg: Not a situation most Slate readers will find themselves in, hopefully.

Turner: I would not object to that.

Benedikt: Very useful!

Swansburg: Ha! I would quietly object to that headline.

Turner: (Excuse me, John and I need to go offline and battle to the death about that headline. Only one of us will be back.)

It takes the conventions of service journalism (tips for bettering your life) and applies them to international policy and strategy coverage. There is a magazine-y wink in there that is fun for readers.

Swansburg: You sold me on it! This is one of the fun parts of being on the heds team—we often talk each other into heds that we'd otherwise have thrown out thinking they were no good.

Lorenz: That's my favorite Swans technique! Yell out a hed that is a total jokey hed, but it turns out to actually work.

Turner: Totally. We get really nerdy about why a headline works or doesn't.

We had an interesting example last week with David Haglund’s Fresca, for example. The hed on the piece is “Why Isn't Delonte West in the NBA?” But we worried that question was a little narrow for the cover because it framed the article as a question about sports. (For reference, the cover is what we call the top area of our home page. We still think of that as a "cover," the old print magazine term.)

So we went with the more mysterious “Whatever Happened to Delonte West?,” which hopefully hints that the amazing story he reported around him, the stigma against mental illness in sports, and the odd particulars of his arc is bigger than a sports story.

One thing that has changed in the last few years is that we used to just make choices like that and have no data on whether they worked. Now we can see how "clicky" any headline is, and adjust accordingly. Chad, are there any headline approaches we used to love but have thrown out now that we have more data?

Lorenz: Yes—for one, we always firmly believed the writer's name was a pull. If Applebaum or Shafer wrote a piece, the headline needed to start with "Shafer:." Once we were seeing click-through rates on heds, we realized that wasn't true anymore.

Another change we’ve made in response to industry trends: We don’t do the “numbered list” heds as much, because Buzzfeed has absolutely murdered that trope. Even from 2007–2009 we were doing “11 Reasons to Be Outraged …. ” "17 Things You Must Know About ..." or “9 Lessons From …” (Always an interesting number, never a round one). Now everyone does those, so we don’t as much.

Benedikt: What about "Everything You Need to Know About ..."?

Lorenz: Also shopworn. And that one never works well for us anyway. Too vague. Just say one specific thing the reader needs to know.

Turner: Yeah, and I worry that Upworthy has besmirched my beloved colloquial second-person. They always add that heavy-handed second sentence: "When You Watch This Video of a 7th-Grade Gym Class, You Won't Believe Where the Tetherball Went."

Swansburg: Did you guys read Jack Shafer's column about this great Twitter account set up to ruin that kind of clickbait? The account would retweet that Upworthy headline, and append: The rabbit cage. (I.e., that's where the tetherball went).

Turner: Oh yes, there's one for HuffPo too—HuffPoSpoilers, I think it is. It's always very deadpan.

Lorenz: I find that a useful piece of satire. It reminds us of what sucks about question heds, which we do overuse even though we try not to. But I think when we do selectively use question heds, it's as a wider exploration of an idea, not to teasingly withhold the answer.

Benedikt: Slate sometimes gets dinged for being scoldy. I once wrote a story with the headline, "If You Send Your Kids to Private School, You Are a Bad Person," and there is, of course, "You're Doing It Wrong." What do you guys think about those types of heds? I tend to wish I could go back in time on some that I've written.

Swansburg: Those heds are tough, Allison. I think they are very, very effective. But used too frequently and your magazine starts to sound like an unhinged uncle. Our fondness for How and Why I think stemmed from Slate's love of explaining things, which has always been a strength, I think. But we definitely could overdo it!

Lorenz: I think our regular readers understand that we're not actually scolding them. But to use that slightly breathless admonishment tone is a way to signal to them that they're in on the joke.

Swansburg: Favorite headlines?

Lorenz: Mein Nuts is a classic I will never forget.

Turner: Ron Rosenbaum's piece about the theory Hitler had one testicle, right? One of my favorites was from an old Today's Papers writer, Eric Umansky. It was something like “Krgystn Prtstrs Rvlt.” We'd never do that these days, but I loved it. Also “Brainwash, Rinse, Repeat” for the Manchurian Candidate remake.

Swansburg: We used to have a really small box on the home page that only allowed for like 20 characters or so. We used it for newsy updates. I remember that Bush admin official Jay Bybee was leaving the office of legal counsel and we were just able to squeeze into that box “Say Byebye, Jay Bybee.”

Lorenz: Yes! Again, a joke Swans hed that became a real hed.

Swansburg: I know that Plotz's favorite used to be a line our old colleague Mike Agger wrote for a cover, the day that Michael Jackson's lawyers made their opening statement in his trail for child molestation: “He Never Laid a Glove On Them.” That's an example of a headline that's not super punny or outrageous, it's just off-kilter in exactly the right way to make you smile and want to click.