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Issue for January 2016

Why We Need Better Headlines, Decks, and Leads

Posted on Sunday, January 31, 2016 at 2:59 PM

Evaluating how effectively three magazines use headlines, decks, and teaser copy to attract readers.

By William Dunkerley

The strategic importance of headlines, decks, and leads is greater than ever before. That's because many readers will consider only these parts of an article before deciding whether or not to read it.

In the print era these elements were important, too. But readers had a greater view of the article. They had the gestalt of first page or spread, plus photos, subheads, diagrams, and interesting layout on subsequent pages. They all could be points that could sell readers on the article.

But here are a few examples of what confronts readers today:

Forbes: "Why Your Credit Score Matters Most in Your Twenties." Readers see only that headline before they decide whether to click. No photo, no additional text.

Time: "1 Escaped California Inmate Turns Himself In" is the bolded headline. A head-shot photo of the subject escapee is shown, as is a blurb that is a slightly tightened version of the lead: "One of three inmates who escaped from a Southern California jail a week ago is in custody, but the other two remain at large. Escaped inmate Bac Duong turned himself over to police, Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said."

IEEE Spectrum: "Lily's Flying Camera Is Flying Off of Virtual Shelves" is the head. It is accompanied by a photo of a Lily Robotics company co-founder and two children watching the drone in action beside a backyard swimming pool. Beneath the headline is teaser copy that is not repeated in the article's text. It says, "A drone for people who would never buy a drone. And the company is flying high."

Assuming an equal interest in all three article themes, which one would most motivate you to click?

Points to Ponder

The Forbes treatment targets a specific demographic: people in their twenties. And the headline is strong and direct on a very relevant topic. Would adding a photo and descriptive text motivate more readers to click? Or would those elements just create clutter that dilutes the headline's message? If clicking is an impulsive act, won't the headline-only approach best prompt a click before the impulse diminishes? What do you think?

Time's strategy is to present more of the story. Some in marketing circles subscribe to the adage "the more you tell, the more you sell." That would suggest that the added details in the Time piece would help to close the deal and prompt a click. Or might all that information sufficiently quench the thirst of readers, leading them to decide there's no need to click? What do you think?

Spectrum's title is kind of cryptic. It also uses a cutesy approach in its play on words. But the photo really spells it out and invites a lot of interest. Maybe we need to broaden our concept of a headline to include visual information as an integral part. Is a words-only notion of a headline passé? Spectrum's teaser copy really rounds out the picture. So what we have here is a head, photo, and teaser copy, neither of which could stand on its own. But they combine effectively to pack a real punch. What do you think?

My Analysis

I'll tell you what I think. I'd give the Forbes example an A. The headline alone seems powerful enough to compel a click. Time gets a D minus. The three elements -- i.e., the headline, the head-shot photo, and the replication of the article's lead -- don't seem to create much synergy. And Spectrum? I'd give an A minus there. But to get to that conclusion I had to redefine what a headline means to me. All three elements here are essential. And following the headline with teaser copy instead of just previewing the lead makes a lot of sense. The reason for my "minus" is because in the photo the drone can't be seen distinctly enough. It should be more in the foreground.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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Writing with Presence, Part II

Posted on Sunday, January 31, 2016 at 2:49 PM

Aiming for presence in facts, information, and headlines.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Part I covered writing with presence in your language and confidence, in your communication, and in your subject matter. Here's more:

Presence in Your Facts

In USA Today, reporter Traci Watson tells me: "Three trillion. That's the staggering number of trees on Earth, according to a new tally that astounds even the scientists who compiled it. Three trillion is three followed by 12 zeroes, which is more than the number of stars in the Milky Way and more than the number of cells in a human brain. If the new sum is accurate -- and other scientists say it is -- the planet boasts roughly 420 trees for every living person." The facts alone are enough to gain presence in my mind. Presence aimed for and achieved.

Presence in Your Information

New York Times writer David Karp sent a report from Rock Island, Washington, that opens: "Take one bite of a Cosmic Crisp -- dramatically dark, richly flavored and explosively crisp and juicy -- and it's easy to see why it is already being hailed as the most promising and important apple of the future.

"Americans," Karp continues, "have been falling hard for new apples. Of the top ten sellers in the 2014 crop, the only three to post sales gains were recently developed, premium-priced varieties: Ambrosia, Honeycrisp, and Jazz, according to Nielsen data. While sales of Red Delicious, a traditional variety, slumped 15 percent from the previous year, and McIntoshes 9 percent, Ambrosia (whose website calls it 'Food for the Gods') scored a 47 percent leap.

"But fruit breeders around the world have been busy creating an array of even newer varieties -- with flashy names like SweeTango, Juici, Opal and SnapDragon --that could knock Honeycrisp and its generation of fruit from their lucrative perch atop a national apple industry that reaps about $3 billion for farmers each year." I think fascinating information has been effectively verbalized. Presence aimed for and achieved.

Presence in Your Headlines

Sometimes it is the absurd that gains copy a presence, such as a reused set of headlines that are syntactically ambiguous, able to be read in more than one way, and nonsensical. Put them together and they make for a story: "Drunk gets nine months in violin case" and "Iraqi head seeks arms" and "British left waffles on Falkland Islands" and "Teacher strikes idle kids" and "Miners refuse to work after death" and "Kids make nutritious snacks" and "Local high school dropouts cut in half" and "Include your children when baking cookies."

There are more of the same. They're fun. In certain circumstances, they can provide a lesson light.

And here's a two-sentence opening paragraph: "I started keeping a diary twenty-five years ago. It's 800,000 words long."

Sarah Manguso wrote it for her book, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary.

Presence, indeed.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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The Fog Index

Posted on Sunday, January 31, 2016 at 2:47 PM

Assessing the readability of a Wired.com excerpt.

This month's Fog sample text comes from a January 29 Wired.com article ("RIP Political Lawn Signs, Digital Ads Killed Them" by Issie Lapowsky). Here's the excerpt:

"Kimmel, for one, is worried about the impact this could have on voter turnout. After all, while targeting may be effective, it requires having a central database of people who ought to be targeted to begin with. That means those people have either signed up with a campaign on their own, voted in the past, or taken some kind of political action to get them on a list. Then, campaign's algorithms go to town determining who's most persuadable on that list, and positively bombard them with ads, emails, phone calls, and door knocks."

--Word count: 93 words
--Average sentence length: 23 words (14, 23, 31, 25)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 9 percent (8/93 words)
--Fog Index: (23+9)*.4 = 12 (12.8, no rounding)

We're pretty close to the mark here. All we need to do is shave one point off our score to land in ideal range. Let's see if a few light edits do the trick:

"Kimmel, for one, is worried about the impact this could have on voter turnout. After all, while targeting may be effective, it entails having a central database of people who ought to be targeted to begin with. That means those people have either signed up with a campaign on their own, voted in the past, or taken some kind of political action to get them on a list. The campaign's algorithms go to town determining who's most persuadable on that list. Then they bombard them with ads, emails, phone calls, and door knocks."

--Word count: 93 words
--Average sentence length: 19 words (14, 23, 31, 13, 12)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 6 percent (6/93 words)
--Fog Index: (19+6)*.4 = 10 (10.0, no rounding)

For the first time, the word count of our edited sample mirrors that of the unedited version. The writing is quite succinct, so there wasn't much fat for us to cut. Instead, we focused our attention on the last sentence, which was easily split in two. This alone cut our average sentence length by four points. Eliminating two longer words slashed 3 percent from that part of the equation. These modest edits got the job done; our final Fog score is two points less than the original.

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Hearst Planning Print Title Launch?

Posted on Sunday, January 31, 2016 at 2:44 PM

In the news: Hearst is expected to launch a new print magazine in the new year.

Earlier this month, the New York Post reported that Hearst had plans to a new print magazine this year. Writes Keith J. Kelly, "The company will use the joint venture formula that it employed to produce O, the Oprah Magazine and, more recently, the Food Network Magazine and Dr. Oz the Good Life." Company president David Carey reports that 2015 was a good year for the publishing giant. Read more here.

Also Notable

Changing Magazine Job Roles

As magazine publishers continue to adapt, some job titles have gone by the wayside while others are emerging. In a January 8 Foliomag.com piece, Greg Dool discusses changing magazine job roles with executives from several publishers. The skill set for editorial in particular is changing, with hiring managers looking for a mix of editorial, coding, and design experience. Bob Cohn of The Atlantic dubs these multimedia editors "interdisciplinary journalists." On the flip side, Lewis DVorkin of Forbes Media opines that the role of the general assignment reporter has become obsolete. Read more here.

Content Marketing Strategy

How does a magazine maximize its reach when it's hit the point of saturation in the marketplace? This week, Mark Cripps of The Economist discussed his magazine's strategy when faced with just this circumstance. "We knew the younger demographic we wanted to attract were getting their news online," he writes. Picking up The Economist from the newsstand wasn't, and isn't, intuitive behaviour for them.... Instead of encouraging them to do so, we decided to place the content -- which really is relevant to them -- where they consume the news." Read more here.

Cover Finalists for 2016 ASME Awards

ASME has chosen the finalists for its annual magazine cover awards. The winners will be announced next week, on February 2. Find out who the finalists are here.

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