People often call out Business Insider for our “linkbait” headlines. The problem with this is that one man’s “linkbait” is another man’s “interesting.”
This image is a case in point. Contrast the tweet I clicked with the headline of the NYT story it linked to.
I’m sorry, but that tweet is inviting and fun and that NYT headline is BORING. (The NYT is great at boring headlines.)
I had to take that screenshot. It was a revealing moment for me because before I clicked on that link, I had seen a tweet that only had the NYT healdine: “Kenyan Sets World Record In Berlin Marathon.” When I saw that I was like “Huh” but I didn’t click. I didn’t think “Bo-ring!” but, I was on Twitter, so I just kept scrolling.
And then I saw that tweet: “Sub 4:45 minutes/mile”! “Mind-blowing”! I had to click.
Now, and this is crucial, did the guy who wrote that tweet think “Man, I gotta add some superlatives to that tweet so that more people will click”? Or did he just highlight the most salient facts in the story, in a conversational and interesting way? I can’t read his mind, but I think it’s the latter. (In fact, the author of the tweet, @peterlattman, is… a NYT reporter! Can’t accuse him of linkbait!)
In my view, there is NOTHING WRONG with headlines that are striking, inviting, interesting or even fun!
Thanks to that “linkbait” tweet I came away more informed (both because the headline conveys more information and because I ended up reading the story) and, yes, more entertained by that NYT article than I would have been if all I’d had was the boring headline.
Now, of course, it’s possible to have bait-and-switch headlines, and those are bad. BI and other outlets sometimes do that! And it’s bad! (And, internally, believe it or not, we fight bait-and-switch headlines. I’ve had editors “tone down” some of my headlines. Because bait-and-switch hurts you in the long run! And so we do our best not to do it!)
But that doesn’t mean that headlines shouldn’t be information-heavy, striking and inviting. Or fun! As a consumer of media, I enjoy these kinds of headlines! They are both more informative and more entertaining!
And boring old-media headlines are not just boring, they’re bad for readers. Take this WSJ story from a while ago about Apple’s CEO succession, back when Steve Jobs was still CEO and Apple’s succession plan was unclear: “Some Apple Directors Ponder CEO Succession.” The actual news in the story is that Apple directors had discussions with potential outside recruits and executive search firms about replacing Steve Jobs. THAT is news. That “some Apple directors” are “PONDERing” the succession of the CEO of the company is NOT news. It’s the antithesis of news. Oh really? Some directors of a company are pondering the most important long-term issue facing the company? I am le shocked!
Again, the problem with this headline is not just that it’s boring. It’s that it’s willfully not informing the reader. It’s a story that teaches you something new whose headline does the opposite. It’s, in a way, also bait-and-switch. As a reader of news, headlines like that make me feel swindled. Tell me what the news is!
A comically bad headline is a NYT story about overhyped startup Color and the early stage investing boom in Silicon Valley. The headline is “Investors Provide Millions to Risky Start-Ups” Oh yeah? Investors are putting millions into risky startups? No, really? AT WHICH POINT OF THE PAST TWENTY YEARS HAS THAT HEADLINE NOT BEEN CORRECT? Again, this is a case where the NYT is not just being willfully, mind-numbingly boring, but failing at its journalistic mission to inform readers.
I’ll take BI’s “linkbait” any day of the week.
Zooming back a bit, why are “new media” outlets better at headlines than “old media”? Not because we’re particularly craven or ethics-free, but simply because it’s a different medium. In a newspaper, all stories are bundled together. So a headline doesn’t have to “sell” the story. There is no cost to a bad headline. Headlines become a way not to inform the reader but to advertise how “serious” you are by being very boring.
On the internet, it’s individual stories that are discovered by social media and search. Even for visitors to our homepage, they’re not going to click all stories but (at best) a few. Or, of course, leave (every startup’s biggest competitor is, after all, the browser’s back button). Because every story needs to stand on its own, headlines have to be much richer and powerful and, yes, “sell” the story. But this isn’t a feature of being caven linkbaity assholes, it’s simply a feature of a different medium with different conventions. There’s nothing wrong with it.
In fact, I think it’s better.
(Disclosure/Disclaimer: I work for Business Insider; I’ve written a few “linkbait” headlines in my day and my livelihood depends on Business Insider’s linkbait headlines, but these views are my own and are not endorsed by Business Insider.)