It was late on a Wednesday afternoon and in the newsroom we were putting the finishing touches to an article by Everyday Colonialism correspondent, Elliot Ross.
It was a thoughtful piece about what the descendants of colonists should do with the objects they brought back home and passed down to their children and grandchildren.
The copy was ready. So on to the headline. For a heavy topic like this, we thought to try a fun entry point: "The empire sends back: what should we do with our colonial objects?"
Hilarious, I thought. "Flippant," said the editor. Welcome to the process of writing headlines at The Correspondent.
Writing a headline isn’t as easy as it looks
The headline is so important. It’s how we get the reader’s attention, which is finite. The usual way to get someone to read an article is to shout loudly, but we actively resist clickbait. We don’t demand your attention because we believe you’ll give it to a good story.
Headline writing is a collaborative process. As engagement editor, I work with the copy editor and often the writer and other colleagues to come up with headlines that would work both on the site and across our social media channels.
So, what makes a good headline? It has to contain the message of the article without misleading the reader. Language is also important: avoid cliches and the passive voice. And it’s best to keep them short, ideally, a maximum of 15 words.
It’s so difficult that we often get it wrong before we get it right. Here are some examples of headlines that we didn’t end up using.
Good COP, bad COP ... naughty COP? What happens at COP25 and why you should still care
This headline was never really in contention. Puns are great, and what makes a pun bad is truly subjective, but sometimes it’s just overkill. Here, the message was lost in the humour. The winning headline was a good enough pun, just a little more cynical than usual: “The great COP-out? Why the UN climate summit still matters.”
The empire sends back: what should we do with our colonial objects?
"Another article on colonialism ... " Sigh.
This reaction is exactly what we’re trying to avoid. So, if we can find a fun entry point to a serious topic, we should. And if that’s a Star Wars reference, then even better.
However, equating the people who colonised half the earth with Darth Vader’s imperial fleet is more confusing than helpful. And, yes, it is a little flippant. So we dropped it.
In the end, we went with: “Reconciliation not decoration: we can’t keep sweeping the colonial past under the leopard skin rug”. We eventually changed the kicker – the introduction to the headline – to “Colonialism in the decor” after a tip on Twitter. Thanks Grégory!
Grandpa’s on Facebook: how governments learnt to use the internet, and now use it against you
The problem with some humour is that it’s not universally relatable. This headline comes from me being a teenager in the glory days of Facebook back in 2009, when the site was a place of freedom and self-expression. Right until your grandpa learnt how to use it, got an account, tried to add you as a friend, and crushed your freedom of expression.
Apparently I alone found the analogy funny, so we went with: “How governments use the internet to crush online dissent.”
Ironically, that one turned out to be very shareable on social media.
He who makes borders rules the world
It’s always interesting to write headlines and daily newsletters for Othering correspondent OluTimehin Adegbeye’s articles. Her ideas are just. So. Big. Sometimes, when you try to distil her message – beautifully argued over 2,000 thoughtfully written words – into fewer than 15 words, you get something like this, which is just too grandiose.
Still trying to convey one key insight from the piece, we published it as: “Borders don’t just keep people out. They determine their worth” .
People hate ads (and three other reasons advertising metrics are flawed)
We ended up with “The (non)sense of online advertising: when the numbers don’t add up” for this piece on the murky metrics of digital advertising. However, I will forever say we should have gone with the one above instead.
The final headline is nice, and the wordplay is funny, but it doesn’t tell you anything. Read it again. It’s incredibly vague, which does a disservice to a concise article.
This was a story by Maurits Martijn on four major reasons online advertising metrics are flawed. For me, number four – people hate ads – stood head and shoulders above the rest. The article listed three other well-supported reasons, but I couldn’t get past the message: people hate ads.
There’s a common misconception that all listicles are clickbait and reductive. But a well-written listicle is the dream. And a listicle headline? Amazing. The thing about listicle titles is that you can present the message and the process of getting that message into one thing. Beautiful. Expectations outlined and met.
TV advertising. Just don’t do it
Another great piece on advertising and it was so, so hard to not go with an advertising tagline for this article. The biggest thing stopping us was doubt about how recognisable slogans are.
This problem crops up a lot: when you’re writing headlines for an audience defined by geography, or even age, you can reference pop culture and assume that about 80% of readers will get that reference. Not so with a transnational audience.
We ran through a list of famous advertising taglines (really, we did). Between the Dutch writer, the Irish copy editor, and me, an Australian, we couldn’t find many that we all recognised. “Just do it”, Nike’s famous strapline, came closest, but even then we knew not everyone would get it.
Our final headline used an expression we hoped was more universal that still got the point across: "Coming right up after the break … why TV ads are a waste of money."
We know billions are spent to stop migration. We don’t know where it goes. We don’t know what it does. And we don’t know if what it does works
What do you get when you mix three journalists, five months of research, untraceable money, and a data infographic nicknamed spaghetti? One very complex headline (and a fantastic follow-the-money story).
Maite Vermeulen, Ajibola Amzat and Giacomo Zandonini did an incredible job researching and writing this piece, and the data team brought the figures to life with amazing visuals. But how do you fit all that into a headline?
Referring to the difficulty in trying to follow the thread of how EU migration money is spent across Africa, and specifically in Nigeria, another analogy was initially used in the headline: “When it comes to migration, European funding streams are as tangled as a plate of spaghetti.” But we ran into problems as we kept arguing about whether spaghetti was in fact tangled.
In trying to answer the question "what was the message of the article?" this became the headline next: "We tried to find out how the EU spends billions stopping migration in Nigeria. Chaos ensued." Accurate, but also a little hopeless.
It wasn’t enough to show that the money trails are chaotic; we needed to express the journalists’ frustration, convey a hands-raised-in-despair tone. And this was it: "Europe spends billions stopping migration. Good luck figuring out where the money actually goes".
Why is any of this important?
That’s a question we ask about every article as we write its headline. Similarly, one of our principles is transparency and continued self-improvement. Sharing the duds is a great way to reflect on a part of our journalism – the headline – but let’s be honest, it’s also funny. At last, some of my finest work sees the light of day!