On Tuesday, the Columbia Journalism School hosted a panel aptly titled "Can J-Schools Teach Digital Journalism Instincts?” They brought in digital journalism heads of the Financial Times, Gawker, and Quartz. I highly recommend watching the full discussion below and will come back to some points they make in the future, but I wanted to highlight one point made at the end: headlines are fundamentally different online.
Kevin Delaney, co-founder of the online publication Quartz and Hearst Professional-in-Residence here at the journalism school, noted:
When you’re digital-only, a lot of stuff falls away that you realize is vestiges of the early 20-century manufacturing process that you’re not constrained by anymore. And to write successfully for people on the web and to do great journalism, you can just leave that behind.
Journalists traditionally did not write their own headlines. As part of the manufacturing process, the only person who could write the headline was literally the person putting the type on the metal plate and knew how many characters they had.
Turns out when you ask journalists to write their own headlines — the actual reporter themselves — they write great headlines and it’s a very focusing activity to be sure they understand what they’re writing.
Beyond that physical difference in how the news is produced, there’s also the physical difference in how it’s consumed. We click links instead of flipping open a paper newspaper. Today, the "moment of purchase" for news consumers comes at the headline. For the entire history of journalism though, that moment came with the name of the paper: you bought The New York Times because it was The New York Times. Now, we "buy" most of our stories by clicking on a headline that stands out in one of our many feeds.
Headlines were simply a way to organize a product the consumer had already purchased. That's why leaving it up to the typesetters made sense. Newspapers were big bundles of information and needed to be sorted.
Today, the headline is the product itself. Sorting information is what the internet's all about, so headlines become the both organizing tool and the sales pitch. That may lead to some unfortunate clickbait, but adding voice and attempting to sell a story through the headline is the new normal. There's no getting away from that.
And that can be a truly good thing, as the panel discusses. It means journalists now write their own headlines, organizing their stories around them as print reporters would nut grafs. It gets readers to the point faster amidst information overload. But most importantly: it makes journalism democratic. You don't need a masthead to find an audience anymore, so non-traditional journalists (myself among them) can get their reporting out in a meaningful way. Traditional institutions of journalism like the Times (and Columbia, frankly) need to approach headlines differently and embrace that they're simply different in a digital world.
Here's the video, highly recommend watching. The Kevin Delaney quote comes at 1:06:07.