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Google to Paul: Drop Dead

February 9, 2011 | 12:38 pm

"Dewey Defeats Truman"

"Headless Body in Topless Bar"

"Ford to City: Drop Dead"

Memorable headlines all. Once, they were used to sell papers as much as to impart the news.

But are clever headlines a dying breed?  In the Google era, what drives digital readers to stories are specific words or phrases. Clever? That's irrelevant.

Perhaps. But as someone who has spent almost 30 years writing headlines, I hate to think there's no place for wit or audacity. 

Tim Rutten's column Wednesday analyzing the AOL-Huffington Post deal reveals the stark reality of some of the new media's practices. He quotes a memo from AOL Chief Executive Officer Tim Armstrong to his company's editors, instructing them "to evaluate all future stories on the basis of 'traffic potential, revenue potential, edit quality and turnaround time.' All stories, it stressed, are to be evaluated according to their 'profitability consideration.'"

Nothing about clever. As Rutten points out, not even a mention of quality.

Stories, and headlines, are now about SEO -- search engine optimization. The more key "searchable" terms, as determined by Google's almighty arithmetic, the more traffic, and the more traffic, the more popular the site.

So say goodbye to "Ford to City: Drop Dead"; instead, you'd get "President Ford, New York City, budget crisis, federal bailout."

Which is catchy -- to an Intel processor tucked inside an HP laptop.

The microprocessors can't be fooled. Like "The Terminator," they can't be reasoned with, they don't feel joy, and they cannot be stopped.

Or can they? Tuesday night on latimes.com's most-viewed list was an editorial. It was a nice read, but nothing really controversial. So why so many eyes on it?

Perhaps, just perhaps, it was the headline:  "Death by rooster."

If, on the other hand, it was the SEO phrase "Cockfighting: California needs to get tougher" -- well, I wrote that too.

RELATED:

AOL ♥ HuffPo. The loser? Journalism

"Tough Room": How the editors at The Onion come up with headlines [via This American Life]

-- Paul Whitefield

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