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headlines and the web


I was in a store today, waiting in line, and I noticed all the headlines in the newspaper next to the counter very vividly, as if the only thing that was there were headlines, as if the papers had no real existence except to promote the headline, like "dog with one ear found whimperning in corner: police investigates!"

The idea that the headline was more important than the news hails from the turn of the nineteenth century, and it was probably W. R. Hearst (immortalized by proxy in Citizen Kane) who did the most to popularize this form of "infotainment." This has been avoided by a few newspapers, notably the Wall Street Journal and in lesser degree others like the New York Times or The Washington Post. It's sort of an inverse relationship: the less "respected" a newspaper is, the bigger the headlines. That goes all the way to the tabloids, where it's common to read "ALIENS FOUND IN POPE'S CLOSET!!! (more on page 2)" in 72-point type, colored in blood-red.

In a newstand, headlines obviously matter, as does color: you want to grab attention. On the web though, a headline is useless to get you to go to a particular website; if you see the headline you're already there. So one would think that headlines would become less pretentious or "explosive" on the web, but that hasn't really happened. At least we got rid of the huge type... for the most moment at least. Just wait until each journalist is paid "per impressions" instead of a flat-fee more or less, and then attention-grabbing headlines will be with us again. (I think this was tried on some sites at the height of the bubble... but there was a too much resistance from the writers and the sites backed away... I wonder if there is any website or information source that keeps track how journalists get paid... and by whom.)

Categories: personal
Posted by diego on July 14 2002 at 4:18 PM

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