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How Gawker has made me a better headline writer

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I’ve heard people guffaw upon hearing the website Gawker and the word “journalism” mentioned in the same sentence, but I love the site and I think journalists could stand to learn from it.

One of my biggest takeaways has been how Gawker writes its headlines. They regularly range from helpfully straightforward, to funny, to borderline disturbingly blunt. The one thing almost all of them — or at least a healthy heap of them — have in common, though, is that they’re interesting and they make you want to click. Gawker’s staff achieves this by being ridiculously good at finding odd stories and by churning the oddest parts of run-of-the-mill stories up to the surface.

That’s something I’ve tried to emulate.

For instance, take this headline in the Yakima Herald-Republic that ran today:

Bank robbery suspect arrested on DNA sample 

Be honest — do you have very much interest in clicking it? You might be more interested — even if you’re not a Yakima resident — if what was contained in the 10th paragraph had made its way into the headline, like it did when I wrote the headline for kirotv.com:

Fake beard helps Yakima police solve bank robbery

(Note: We knew about this story on our own, without consulting the Yakima Herald-Republic, but I found the Herald’s story anyway and linked to it on our site because it contained details that weren’t in our TV script.)

Arguably, the story here isn’t fake beard! so much as it is cutting-edge-science-meets-dogged-police-work, but just like a newspaper needs big, bold headlines to distill stories down to their most rudimentary forms, the web needs compelling headlines that show up in searches and make people want to click them. That’s maybe the only thing print and web headlines have in common: their purpose is to make people want to read the story they’re attached to. If a headline can’t do that, the person who wrote it failed.

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