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January 18, 2018

Freddie Starr ate my hamster.

This is one of the most notorious newspaper headlines of all time. From the days when headline writers had the freedom to be creative (1986).

‘”Comic put live pet in sandwich,” says beauty.’

What an intro!

But these days it probably wouldn’t see the light of day. Not online anyway. Neither would these other Sun classics:

Paddy Pantsdown (Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown’s affair with secretary in 1992)

Super Caley Go Ballistic Celtic are Atrocious (Inverness Caledonian Thistle beats Celtic in 2000)

Bin Bagged (death of Bin Laden in 2011)

They’re not click baity enough and don’t include obvious ‘key words’.

Now headlines have to compete 24-hour rolling newsfeeds. There’s no room for intrigue. The headline writer has to convince their reader the article is going to be worth their precious time.

It’s all so scientific

It’s not just that I admire the art of a good headline, it’s that that’s how I’m used to writing them, and it’s hard to break the habit.

My second job after university was sub-editor for an architecture trade mag – which included headline writing. I could be as creative as I liked.

My approach – beyond having to sum up the essence of the story in as short and pithy way as possible – was to make sure there was a double meaning. For me it was a triumph if I could also sneak in an 80s reference or film or music title. Some of my greatest hits, from memory:

Living on a dePaor (A day-in-the-life piece on a new architect with a name no one knows how to pronounce)

Danger Mouse (The legal complications of sending an architect’s intellectual property via email)

We could be heroes (Article introducing the latest crop of architecture graduates, who discuss their inspiration)

These days the headline has to appeal to our self interest, and if you Google this you’ll find there’s a formula to follow:

  • How to… do something
  • Numbers – (usually 7) reasons why something
  • Time frame – do these (7) things right now
  • Questions
  • The word ‘secrets’
  • Two halves – If you do x, you can do x
  • Bossy –  use ‘stop’, ‘never’, ‘always’
  • Short and snappy

If you’re blogging weekly then this gives you plenty of options, but my current challenge is to blog 5 times a week and I already feel my headlines are in danger of repetition. There’s only so many times I can use ‘How to…’ and ‘Why…’  before I’m itching to come up with something more imaginative.

But things may be about to change. Facebook recently announced it’s altering our news feeds in favour of more deep and meaningful posts – those by friends and family as opposed to professional click bait by brands.

So will more imaginative headlines get read? If we start changing our scrolling habits as a result –  in terms of slowing down and thinking more carefully before mindlessly clicking or liking; and if every other social media platform follows suit, then may be.

But I can’t see it somehow, but at least I’ll be able to try both and see how it goes. I’ll let you know!

January 18, 2018

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