How To Write a Hit Article
The New York Times "Shamu" essay shows the way.
On June 25, the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times published a "Modern Love" column on how to use animal training techniques to fix your man. Titled "What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage," it almost immediately reached No. 1 on NYTimes.com's list of most frequently e-mailed articles.
No big deal. Columns about men, women, and relationships are perennial favorites. But almost three weeks later, the piece remains near the top of the NYTimes.com's constantly churning list of most-e-mailed articles and shows no sign of sinking. "Shamu's" run makes it the newspaper equivalent of Dark Side of the Moon, the Pink Floyd disc that has owned a spot on the Billboard Top 200 chart for all but a couple of weeks since 1973.
In addition to having been e-mailed a gazillion times, the piece has been mined by the Times' own Maureen Dowd for a column ($). Early on, Salon interviewed author Amy Sutherland about the extraordinary response her piece was eliciting. And Technorati reports that hundreds have blogged about it.
When Rachel Sklar of the Huffington Post asked me last week for a comment on the "Shamu" storm, I said (pardon the self-quotation), "The Shamu story establishes once and for all that men are the new women. You can now use the New York Times to write the most dehumanizing and insulting shit about them and everybody will laugh in recognition." I still hold that position, but that doesn't explain the piece's grip on the popular imagination any more than Dark Side of the Moon's trippy cover art explains its durability.
Then what does? TheSlate staff donned its collective thinking cap to help me ponder this issue and here's what we came up with.
Never underestimate the power of a terrific headline, especially a misleading terrific headline. For all the brilliance contained in Sutherland's "What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage," the famed killer whale never appears in it. The closest we get to Shamu is a visit to Sea World, where she observes the behavior-mod tricks Sea World's professional trainers use on dolphins. Shamu's name in isolation carries an undeniable cultural resonance, let alone when it's paired with the concept of a happy marriage. Imagine the same article titled, "What Generic Dolphins at Sea World Taught Me About a Happy Marriage." It doesn't even work if you substitute Flipper for Shamu.
So, Lesson No. 1: Editors in search of page views should emulate the Times (and Slate) and pimp their headlines to attract attention. As long as the headline is half-honest, it's OK.
Lesson No. 2: The most-e-mailable stories amalgamate the mundane to create something novel. Columns about relationships and columns about iconic animals are mundane. Columns about relationships that cite iconic animals are novel. A certain class of people love e-mailing links to such articles. The only effective way of discouraging them is to send the mail back marked with the subject head "Unsubscribe."
Lesson No. 3: "Shamu" reads like amateur night at the Kalamazoo Komedy Klub, but bad standup has moved people to send e-mail ever since e-mail was invented. Shake it like Shecky, my fellow journalists, and watch your hit count climb.
Lesson No. 4: The closer a column resembles the structure of a sitcom, the greater its appeal. Sitcoms first reflected life, then life started reflecting sitcoms. Today, journalism mimics the sitcom structure to reflect reality. "Shamu" shrewdly provides both sexes with room to grumble. I reckon that for every wife who forwarded the column with the annotation, "This column describes all the things my husband does that bug me!" an equal number of husbands sent an e-mail proclaiming, "My wife nags me with animal-training techniques like this!" See also any episode of According to Jim.