Behold the front page

13 Jun

Andrew Marr and guests wrestle with the Sundays. Photograph: BBC

Print sales are falling, digital audiences are booming and social media appears to be deciding the outcome of world events by algorithm, but every Sunday Andrew Marr, Sophy Ridge et al still spend 15 minutes shuffling double-page spreads and holding up torn sheets of newsprint to the camera.

The TV press review, even today, remains a staple of broadcast news, and not just on Sundays. Every evening and again every morning, on at least two television channels (not to mention radio), every newspaper is pored over and filleted by a panel of guests. As news websites have grown in influence, you now sometimes see a digital journalist invited to join in, and an occasional iPad lying among the broadsheets: but not all the time, and never at the expense of any of the print front pages.

Why is that? Is it because legacy media organisations look to other legacy media organisations, and are slow to recognise new trends? Perhaps: that’s certainly what Jim Waterson, BuzzFeed UK’s political editor, believes. Is it because newspapers, untrammelled by the fairness and balance rules that Ofcom enforce on British broadcasters, can say the things, or launch the campaigns, that Sky and the BBC cannot? Yes, partly: but digital news sites are as free to be partisan as Fleet Street. The biggest reason, I think,  for the continued pre-eminence of newspapers in public life is because print front pages have an advantage no other form of media has: rhetoric.

When you are writing headlines for the internet, you have to consider how your article will be disseminated. Newspapers are found in newsagents; to a large extent, digital news stories are found on Google. Only about 30% of readers of web news come through a new organisation’s homepage: all the rest come from search engines or social-media referral. This means that digital news has to show up well on Google, which in turn means that digital news headlines must undergo what’s called “search-engine optimisation” (SEO).

What does that mean? It means that the headline must be written bearing in mind the likely terms a reader might type into Google to find it. Most online readers are not looking on your homepage for the stories they want: they are searching blind, using obvious terms, in a competitive field of news sites who all want their clicks. So, if you have an interview with Barack Obama then somewhere, somehow, the headline has to say BARACK OBAMA. If you’re covering the north London derby, somewhere the headline has to say ARSENAL V TOTTENHAM. If you don’t do that, your piece will come far down on the list of results on Google, and Googlers are not noted for their habit of carefully reading pages of results before clicking.

The disadvantage of this, of course, is that it cramps your headline-writing style. Consider the current upheavals in Westminster. It is still possible to write SEO headlines in the distinctive voice of your organisation:  “I’m sick of the Left claiming that Jeremy Corbyn won the election” (Telegraph); “Queen’s speech is DELAYED as May tears up her manifesto to strike a deal with Ian Paisley’s DUP that will ditch new grammar schools and cuts for pensioners but KEEP the target to cut immigration” (Daily Mail); “It Looks Like No One Has Won The UK General Election. WTF Happens Now?” (BuzzFeed). But compare those digital headlines with what’s been appearing on the front pages in the past few days:

These are the kind of phrases – the kind of rhetoric – that cut through. Some of them are old jokes; some of them are new ones; some of them are idioms that may come to encapsulate the crisis (just as the Telegraph’s headline, “In office, but not in power”, resurrects the most memorable of the many assaults made on John Major by his own colleagues in the 1990s). All of them communicate with brief and shattering frankness. And all of them would be SEO disasters: none of those phrases would lead you to a list of search results about the election, and, conversely, nobody typing in “Theresa May hung parliament” or similar into Google would ever find them. Nonetheless, on display at the supermarket, or on the TV, they deliver an instant punch that a five-deck web headline can’t match.

But of course news websites have front pages – or homepages – too. Not all your readers go there, but the ones that do don’t need help from Google to find you. And because you’re free from SEO constraints, there’s more scope for rhetoric: you could almost treat them as though they were newsprint.

Which is exactly, it seems, what BuzzFeed has started doing:

These headlines are short, zingy, SEO-free and – unlike a search on a blank Google homepage – surrounded by photos and furniture that reinforce their message. Although digital, they’re an example of the old journalism, rather than the new. And they’re just the kind of thing that would look good on an iPad at the paper review.

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