The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, May 07, 2007

Breaking News: Death of the Headline

By Tamara Lee

One of my favourite ways to jumpstart a story or kick-start stalled creativity is to get a bit of gas, or inspiration, from headlines. And one of my favourite places to start is the Diversions section on the CBC website.

Just the other day, these three beauts were stacked all in a row:

"Monkey see, monkey sue: Austrian activists want chimpanzee declared a 'person'"

"Calf born with 6 legs, other physical oddities, romps happily at Nebraska farm"

"Rare brain surgery at Long Island hospital helps end toddler's laughing seizures".

How can a person not be inspired to write something from one of those? Now, I’m not partial to recycling a whole story (we’ll leave that to TV-writers), but prefer to get ideas for a great character trait, which is where many of my stories and scripts start.

Unfortunately, this favourite pastime of mine is likely to fall victim to this nuisance called progress.

Search-engine-optimization is here to stay, it seems. And for those of you who have no idea what that is (and I love that you don’t), it’s the new manner in which headlines are written, utilizing search engines’ key words, so that when you Google you supposedly get more of what you Googled for, because the headline will have the words you searched.

What does this mean to people like us? Oh, nothing, except headlines are beginning to be SEO’d into less-clever, more deadweight synopses, lacking the lustre of olde, as SEO writers nip and tuck the natural beauty right out of leads.

And it seems even the CBC has fallen victim to what I wish were just a trend. Perhaps the Diversions section is the last hurrah of the old-school headline writers.

A rather mundane headline like this recent one on CBC’s website: "Eating peanuts during pregnancy could be linked to children's allergies,” could inspire some kind of story, I guess—maybe a neurotic mother-to-be character—but half the fun of a clever headline is imagining what’s inside, and these new headlines are just not as enticing. As writers we are naturally readers. But why read further than that header; it pretty much says it all. Headlines, merely, have become the news.

At the risk of sounding fuddy-duddy, this new approach to web news does not inspire readers, but scanners, people browsing headlines or making search-specific queries. There’s no idle curiosity involved, nothing tantalising or mysterious or even clever about the new SEO headlines. And it’s just not how I want to get my news. Or how I want to steal my ideas, for that matter.

As one of the respondents to the article, Guillaime, lamented: “Why not simply tag everything with the phrase "Pam Anderson" so everything is returned with every search?”

So, I think I’ll rename this post to “Pamela Anderson and Girls Girls Girls.” That ought to bring in the kind of reader I’m looking for. If you can’t beat ‘em, mock ‘em, though that story's a bit old, I guess.

(photo by jakesville)


Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

I'm sad about the death of the crazy headline, too. There's always be supermarket tabloids though! And they'll never go on-line. Until we can download groceries.

Mon May 07, 08:11:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Anne C. said...

I had no idea this was an issue.

Mon May 07, 09:36:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

This is so interesting, Tamara, I never thought about it before. I'm always trying to figure out how to find those artices with smart headlines but using creative google key words. This spoon feeding won't take any creativity at all.

Mon May 07, 11:45:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Thanks for reading, guys.

I'm sure it's not really an "issue" issue. There'll be no rallies in the streets for headlines (there's hardly any rallies in the streets to protest anything these days). I'm just sorry to see them fade away.

Mon May 07, 01:59:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Fascinating, Tamara. The links are edifying. Must we do everything for the almighty dollar? (Hmm, should I retitle my blog posts to attract agents and publishers?)

Mon May 07, 04:47:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

Not too mention the death of the paper in general. Great post.

Tue May 08, 03:11:00 pm GMT-4  

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