Gawker's March Editorial Review Memo: Essentially 'Stop Writing Shitty Headlines.' Also "MOAR SEX CRIMES PLZKTHX"

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Why's it so much fun to read Gawker Media internal memos? Because (1) I don't work there any more so I don't have to sit here and project the fact that Nick Denton is talking about my shitty work *crawls under desk, cries in fetal position, frantically leaves five voice mails that get progressively more unintelligable for shrink, yoga instructor, shrink, guys at bodega, and Peace Corps recruitment officer, respectively* and (2) because they're minting money and have pageviews coming out of their asses. Or servers. Or coming into them. Whatever. Here's how you make money happen this month on the Internet: better headlines, underdog stories, and of course, sex crimes. Also, less insidery. Assuming you even know what that is.

Here, belatedly, is an editorial review for March. Most sites are on the up. And a particularly good month for Gawker, Kotaku, Jalopnik and Deadspin. But let's focus on the individual stories.

The stories that hit the Big Board in the office are usually pretty
well packaged; but there are still so many that could make it and
don't because the headline is too bloggy, too insidery, too clever,
too complicated or too opaque.

It's tragic: a few minutes of thought about the headline and a bit of
maturity could save that story you just sweated over.

Here are the Top 100 ranked by new visitors followed by some observations.

1. Scandal sells. Deadspin's outrageous Tiger texts and Gawker's
Peaches pics both hit the top ten. And Kotaku's knife attack story was
pretty dramatic. The staples of old yellow journalism are the staples
of the new yellow journalism: sex; crime; and, even better, sex crime.
Remember how Pulitzer got his start:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_journalism

2. The pseudo-exclusive. We can take ownership of a story even if it
isn't a strict exclusive. In case of both Tiger and Peaches, other
sites (the porn star's site and Reddit, respectively) carried the
original material. But we added context and packaged the stories up.
(See Choire Sicha's piece on The Gawker Exclusive: How the Internet
Works, but I can't find it on the web.)

3. Drama. Another in the obvious department: readers respond to drama.
New guy Sam Smith's story about the rally-winning $500 Craigslist car
is a perfect example. Triumph over adversity. No wonder Hollywood's
trying to buy the story.

4. Visuals. I know most of you are writers. But images can't be an
afterthought. Of the top ten stories, five were photo-driven and
another two were based on video clips. If you can get an image or a
document to support a story -- or even make the story support the
image -- the package has way more chance.

5. Explainers. When remotely possible turn news into explanation.
Straight how-to and why stories -- such as Kotaku's excellent
Farmville guide -- obviously resonate. But you can turn a news story
into an explainer, as Lux did with the sexting scandals. And sometimes
you can turn a mediocre news story into something that passes for
instant reference simply by removing a verb. e.g. Mark Zuckerberg,
Teen Hacker instead Mark Zuckerberg Accused of Hacking Accounts.
Imagine you're writing a headline for a magazine (one with tight
deadlines) rather than a newspaper.

6. Don't rubbish the story in the headline. Did that Prius really run
away? Does Facebook really promote syphilis? When examining a claim,
even a dubious claim, don't dismiss with a skeptical headline before
getting to your main argument. Because nobody will get to your main
argument. You might as well not bother. Questions-as-headlines are a
no-no in newspapers. On the web they work rather well. You set up the
mystery -- and explain it after the link. Some analysis shows a good
question brings twice the response of an emphatic exclamation mark at
the end of much the same headline. (More here: http://is.gd/aYKhn)

7. Parody. What's missing from the upper reaches of this list? Any
headlines laden with irony or parody. You might think it's funny to
mock the tentative style of the New York Times. XXX XXX Makes Us Sad,
Angry. For regular readers it's a worn-out cliche; the in-joke is
impenetrable to new readers; and, as Remy jokes, these are the
headlines that make me "angry, comma, angry." If you want to indulge
yourself with Onion-style headlines, work for the Onion.

8. Inside baseball. This note is for the geek sites in particular. We
write for consumers, not people in "the industry." So don't refer to
Zynga when you can talk about the makers of Farmville, for instance.
But, actually, this rule applies also to other sites such as Jezebel.
Great story today about how Good Housekeeping photoshopped Michelle
Obama's face. But leave out the magazine's name from the headline.
Michelle Obama Gets a Photoshop Facelift would have been better.
People actually know and care about Michelle Obama. Only media
insiders care that much which magazine it was.

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Now some of you are probably bridling. You think the best-performing
headlines on this chart are flat and boring., you can inject a bit of
attitude into even the most web-friendly of headlines. Ray Wert has a
few tips on that. But, yes, this exercise does take a lot of the fun
out of the headlines. I can only console you with this: the more
people that come through the headline, the more people will appreciate
your wit in the piece itself.

Anyone else with observations, pitch right in!

Nick

[fkamer@villagevoice.com | On Twitter]


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