The Science of Headlines
What makes a good headline?
According to Amanda Powell (right), editor of BBC News Online in Wales, there’s far more to it than you’d imagine, and it’s all about trying to feed you the bare bones of the story as quickly as possible.
At the moment, users of BBC News Online spend an average of 3.12minutes on the site every time they visit and Amanda says they’re trying to get you to view more stories in those 3.12mins.
How do they do this? By feeding you as much information as they can at the top of the story, and that means in the headline and the summary. As a result, a lot of work goes into getting these right.
Believe it or not, the BBC’s content production system makes you choose a headline of 31-33 characters, which is pretty precise. This is so it can work on Ceefax and mobile phones, as well as the web.
Check out this story from the Press Association:
“European Commission enters UK cheese row”
This headline seems to strike a delicate balance between describing what is essentially a dull, albeit amusing story, and grabbing the reader’s attention. The words “UK cheese row” offset the audience-killing “European Commission”.
But if the aim of the exercise is to help you read as little of the story as possible in order to understand it, is that necessarily a good thing? Aren’t journalists shooting themselves in the foot if they try and help you consume as little as possible of their work? It’s an interesting one and makes me feel reporting can sometimes be a little artless.