Sexing Up Headlines

It's getting harder and harder to tell blogs from newspapers.

I’ve noted for years the extent to which blogs are becoming more like the mainstream media that we love to make fun of, catering to audience demand and otherwise chasing elusive advertising revenue.   But Howie Kurtz notes that online newspapers are becoming more like blogs, too.

Our mission — and we have no choice but to accept it — is to grab some of that traffic that could otherwise end up at hundreds of other places, even blogs riffing off the reporting that your own publication has done. If you appease the Google gods with the right keywords, you are blessed with more readers. So carried to a hypothetical extreme, an ideal headline would be, “Sarah Palin rips non-Muslim Obama over mosque while Lady Gaga remains silent.”

Every newsroom in the country grapples with these questions, and The Washington Post is no exception.


David Carr observed in his New York Times column that headlines, once clever or catchy, are now, in online form, “just there to get the search engines to notice…The need to attract attention from computer-generated algorithms sometimes makes the headlines seem like a machine thought them up.”


On a recent Wednesday morning, some Post editors were frustrated that the primary election results weren’t garnering many hits — despite the fact that John McCain had just won his party’s nomination and Lisa Murkowski was on the verge of losing hers. What was hot, the traffic directors said, was Elin Nordegren telling People that her life had been “hell” since her husband’s sex scandal, a photo of an alligator in the Chicago River, and a video posted on Gawker of a British woman throwing a feral cat into a dumpster.


Some sites make no bones about packaging policy pieces with NSFW photos. Female critics have taken particular aim at the Huffington Post, whose approach to blogging, headlines and aggregation have made it a huge success. In recent weeks, Arianna’s site has included such prominent headlines as “Elizabeth Hurley: My breasts are natural”; “Miley loses virginity, flashes Brazilian wax in new movie,” and “Heidi, Spencer & Former Playmate Exchange Profanities Over Sex Tape.” One recent day, the site’s second most-popular story was “Katy Perry Shows Off Her Curves, Wows on Letterman”; another, it was “When ‘Real Housewives’ Wear Bikinis.”

But no publication is exempt. On Friday, the second-most e-mailed Times story was headlined “For the A-Cup Crowd, Minimal Assets are a Plus”–a feature contending that these days “it’s not uncommon for women with modest busts to flaunt what little they’ve got.”

Naturally, those who grew up as analog reporters wonder: Is journalism becoming a popularity contest? Does this mean pieces about celebrity sex tapes will take precedence over corruption in Afghanistan? Why pay for expensive foreign bureaus if they’re not generating enough clicks? Doesn’t all this amount to pandering?

Potentially, sure. But news organizations such as The Post and the Times have brands to protect. They can’t simply abandon serious news in favor of the latest wardrobe malfunction without alienating some of their longtime readers. What they gain in short-term hits would cost them in long-term reputation.

None of this is particularly surprising.  From the standpoint of an average Internet user, a Web page is a Web page.  Being an established brand makes it easier to have an organic baseline readership but outside a handful of sites, the main variable in traffic is referrals from search and various social media sites like Facebook and Reddit.

HuffPo is a fascinating example because it has managed to sell itself as a serious political magazine while garnering 99% of its traffic from celebrity gossip and soft core pornography.  And, while the WaPos and NYTs of the world might sneer at that, they are competing for the same traffic and ad revenues.  So they’re inching ever closer to that model while trying to maintain a reputation as purveyors of Serious Journalism.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Brett says:

    I wouldn’t say that was the -perfect- headline. Ideally, it would be “Nude Sarah Palin rips non-muslim Obama over mosque while sexy slutty Lady Gaga remains silent.”

  2. Alan Kellogg says:

    And sometimes it’s the subject. My post on sharks didn’t have a sexy title, but it has, so far, garnered 63 views, far ahead of my usual traffic.