WaPo Cover

Notable yet unnoticed, today’s Washington Post includes what may be the first appearance in a corporate newspaper of a headline written in Internet format.

Admittedly, “This man says he’s willing to die so he can post naked pictures without getting fired” ran in the paper’s Style Blog, not the staid opinion pages. Still, this Headline That Might Actually Make You Want to Read the Story marks a watershed moment in newspaperdom. By way of comparison, here is a selection of other headlines from today’s edition, all written in the longstanding dullsville style:

·      Inside the Obama team’s debate over Bergdahl

·      Obama pledges to protect Europe from ‘dark tactics’

·      Less than 1 percentage point separates Cochran, tea party challenger in Miss.

This man says he’s willing to die so he can post naked pictures without getting fired,” about a guy who — well, you really should go read for yourself, shouldn’t you? — breaks the mold of the Beltway daily’s usual, brain-crushingly dull headlines.

News dorks typically cite Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post as master and innovator, respectively, of the clickbait headline form — SEO-friendly, curiosity piquing, news you can use, “here’s something you haven’t seen before” — that has been adopted pretty much universally by online news media. Legacy media, however, still hasn’t caught on to what works online — and headlines are one example.

Today’s New York TimesIn Show of Support, Obama Meets With Ukraine Leader

The San Francisco ChronicleMuni service improving as sickout continues

My hometown paper, the Dayton (OH) Daily NewsHeroin overdose kills son, hospitalizes mother

Face it: you won’t die if you skip these gems.

It wouldn’t be hard to write 21st century headlines for these stories. Here are my attempts:

The TimesUkraine’s new billionaire president will use Obama $5M “aid” tip to renovate a pool at one of his lairs

ChronicleMuni riders barely notice slightly shittier sickout service

Dayton Daily NewsMom and son bridge generational divide with shared smack addiction

You could no doubt do better. (Another online media trick. Engage readers by inviting them to participate. More clicks!)

Boring headlines have always been a problem for newspapers and, to a lesser extent, magazines (hello, Cosmo’s 27 Techniques for Better Orgasms). Tough competition from the Internet has brought the issue to the attention of management since at least 2006. Yet nothing has changed. As Tom Chivers of the UK Daily Telegraph wrote in 2012, “If the Titanic sank today, you would not be surprised to see an American headline saying ‘On Well-Known Ship, Some Unexpected Wetness.”

Proving that British print editors can be just as dull as their American counterparts, Chivers’ piece ran under the headline: “In America, A Barrage of  Thunderingly Dull Headlines.”

Which is why today’s Post headline — which makes you maybe want to read the story — is noteworthy. We may look back years from now and say, this is when things turned around for print newspapers. Assuming, of course, that enough people click through — and, if they do, that newspaper executives notice.