Good Headlines provoke Readers

Today at BetaNews, Brian Fagioli stirs up a hornet’s nest with story “Sorry Netflix, but you should pay ‘tolls’ to ISPs“. As I write, there are over 300 comments, in about 14 hours, and fierce debate and strong reaction among them. Funny thing: My January story “Sign me up for ‘Sponsored Data’” takes similar position—that ISPs shouldn’t give bandwidth gluttons like Netflix a free ride. I got 13 comments before they closed two weeks later.

My post focuses on a specific situation, an ISP program where services like Netflix pay and are rewarded. Brian also responds to a news trigger—Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’ commentary “Internet Tolls And The Case For Strong Net Neutrality“. Headline is one of the primary reasons Brian’s story soars, while mine fell to earth. Keywords that matter to readers—we don’t care about Google—are “ISPs”, “Netflix”, and “tolls”, which punch with commanding verb “should”.

Be Affirmative
In my new book Responsible Reporting: Field Guide for Bloggers, Journalists, and Other News Gatherers, I advise: “Make headlines present and active. Use verbs!” My May 2009 post, on this blog, “Let Your Stories Teach You How to Write Headlines” offers specific—and still pertinent four years later—guidance for writing heds. Last month’s “You Live in the Present, Write That Way” is good primer, too.

Brian’s headline is true to principles “be provocative” and “be present”, and the story packs punch. He writes:

According to Netflix, even though its users can consume 30-percent of a provider’s bandwidth, it shouldn’t have to share the cost. The reason? The ISP doesn’t share its profits with Netflix. That could make sense, if you argue that Netflix is driving people to broadband internet. However, broadband existed before Netflix’s streaming service and it is doubtful that users would cancel the internet without it. In other words, Netflix relies on internet service providers—not the other way around.

Right. Netflix seeks a free ride. Plain, pure, and simple. Brian makes stronger case in the full commentary, which you can read for yourself.

The Accuser
Some readers react differently. Long-time BetaNews commenter psycros bristles:

It must take a special kind of dirtbag to write blatantly trollish opinion pieces solely to get clicks. Seriously,’ve went way beyond fake journalism with this one. You’re just fake, period.


Troll article? Brian responds to Hastings’ self-serving post. The writer doesn’t pull this topic out of his nose and offer up the booger for people to eat.  By the number of comments, Netflix, net neutrality and who pays matters to someone. The story is timely, presents a viewpoint readers can respond to (and they do), and lures them with assertive, provocative headline.

Not Clickbait
Click-baiting/link-bating accusations are unfounded. Good headlines lure readers. Emphasis readers. Not clickers. Audience engagement is the goal, not pageviews. At BetaNews, I encourage reporters to write for readers, not Google Search or News, something Responsible Reporting strongly advises, too.

From the book:

I don’t advocate linkbaiting, which seeks to maximize links among aggregators and some social hangouts online; it’s an advertising and attention-getting tactic. Snappy and provocative headlines predate the Internet by a century or so. Your goal is the same as print-era journalists—to get people to stop and read. Provocative headlines capture and engage audience. A solidly sourced and reported story behind a provocative hed is altogether different from linkbait. Your objective is audience, not quick clicks or links.

Brian certainly has readers’ attention today, and he will build audience because of it. Or rather, because in the past he effectively used provocative headlines to top solid stories his audience is larger and more responsive. Hence, today’s vocal, visceral response.

Yes, there are other factors drawing interest to his story, like social media shares. But growing audience cannot be overlooked. Brian observes that BetaNews has a “ton of new commenters”, and I see his stories and the headlines topping them as major reason. Same applies to Mark Wilson.

Both writers provoke people, who are engaged to read and to respond. Comments extend the storytelling and make stronger what the reporters post. Storytelling shouldn’t end when writers publish but begin. Headline is the lure, and tabloids, which predate the Internet by centuries, demonstrate the value. Be affirmative. Be provocative.