Category Archives: Media

What’s in a Headline?

Here’s some fun year-end reading . The Seattle Times released its list of the top most-read stories on its website last Thursday—and notably it’s far from a list of the top stories of the year in terms of what any sane person would consider news value (locally that would probably be something like the Amanda Knox acquittal or the Seahawks making the playoffs as a 7-9 team). Instead, it’s a case study in what makes a great headline. After all, in the world of online news, the almighty click is king—if you can’t get your attention’s audience from the get-go, you won’t get a chance to tell your story.

Here’s the top 10 list (again, these are most read—or if you prefer, most clicked on—stories):

  1. Woman dies in fall at high school reunion at a Shelton casino (July 31, 2011)
  2. Seattle murder conviction tossed out over ‘racist’ comments (June 9, 2011)
  3. Sign him up! Fan catches bat, saves beer (March 6, 2011)
  4. OK for suspect to view child porn in Tacoma jail (July 13, 2011)
  5. 40 kittens later, ‘Harry Potter’ movie franchise calls it a wrap (July 9, 2011)
  6. Educating Gabriel, 13, an off-the-charts prodigy (Oct. 8, 2011)
  7. Wis. Democrats say AWOL lawmakers will return (March 9, 2011)
  8. 12 wounded as gunfire erupts at Kent car show (July 23, 2011)
  9. 96-year-old woman confesses to 1946 murder (June 8, 2011)
  10. Together 74 years, Kirkland couple die less than a day apart (Aug. 7, 2011)

What stands out in these headlines to you? To me, it can be narrowed down to a few things:

  • What’s more detailed than 40 kittens?: While I’m married to a Harry Potter fanatic (and kindergarten teacher), I have very limited interest in the Harry Potter movies. But I recall clicking on this article when it ran back in July—it had me at “40 kittens later.” With an image like that I had to learn more.
  • Tell me a story: Very few things can provoke the imagination like “96-year-old woman confesses to 1946 murder.” This headline immediately had me envisioning the story like it was a movie trailer. Talk about hooking your audience from the get-go. Same thing with the couple from Kirkland.
  • Action and the unexpected: Headline #3—about a baseball fan who caught a bat flying into the stands while grasping a beer in his other hand—is probably my favorite, and not only because I have horrible eye-hand coordination (you don’t want to sit next to me in foul ball territory). The “sign him up!” introduces an element of a voice into the story, giving you a conclusion before you read more, and the unexpected detail of saving a beer adds a new layer too. It’s like a good joke with one punchline after another.Image
  • Provoke a response: Some of these headlines were clearly designed to upset a reader before clicking through. Case in point: “OK for suspect to view child porn in Tacoma jail.” Entirely upsetting, and yet you have to know more. Click.
  • Keep it local: The Times’ accompanying blog post notes that readership of individual articles can spike when a story appears on Google News or gets national attention, but I was struck by how local these stories are. With the exception of the baseball story (which happened at spring training in Florida) and the Harry Potter wrap-up, these stories were very local in nature. Two takeaways: 1) We have access to all the world’s news, but what’s happening in our backyard really turns us on. 2) There’s an “oh, them” element here. Dying in a fall at your high school reunion? Only in Shelton. Viewing child porn in jail? I knew it smelled bad in Tacoma, but that too? Gross.
  • It helps when your audience is, well, bored: I was struck that 7 of these 10 stories hit in summer (June-August). Aren’t people supposed to be on vacation and not online then? My best guess is that in many desk jobs things are often slower in the summer and people are looking to procrastinate. Minor detail—but always worth thinking about what it takes for your audience to engage with you and what variables are at play.

Overall, it’s a good reminder that storytelling is more art than science, and when it’s done right, there’s rarely a better model for good storytelling than looking at headlines. Which is why people love America’s finest news source The Onion so much.


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Cigarette Warning Labels: Will They Work?

As you may have seen in this week’s news, the federal government unveiled new warning labels for cigarette packaging, set to debut early next year, that depict gruesome imagery evoking the health impacts of smoking, from a person blowing smoke through a neck tracheotomy to damaged lungs. The images are fairly gross,  but the campaign got me thinking about whether a campaign like this will be successful or whether it will backfire.

The situation is this: After years of decline, the smoking rate has finally leveled off. The text-based warning labels on cigarette packaging, unchanged since 1985, have increasingly become background noise. Smokers are seemingly aware of the health risks associated with smoking but continue to light up. It turns out that roughly 30 countries use graphic imagery to discourage tobacco usage, so there is a wealth of data demonstrating that it has worked in those countries. In Thailand, the percentage of people who thought about the health risks of smoking went from 35 percent to 55 percent. When Canada became the first country in the world to adopt image-based labels 11 years ago, a full 85 percent of survey respondents reported using tobacco packages as a source of health information.

So the data shows it should work. But will it? It seems to me that there are three important issues that will determine whether this campaign will achieve its desired results—the messenger, the audience and the message.

The Messenger

Do consumers believe that the messenger—the federal government—has the credibility to change their behavior? A blog post from economist Robin Hanson put it this way: “We decide it’s not a good idea to let the government ban this product, or to require a doctor’s prescription to consume, then that means that everyone should be allowed to consume it if they choose.” But we can probably agree as well that it’s not a good idea to let the government be decider-in-chief about which products are “cool,” even though that’s exactly what this campaign tries to do. To get consumers to take a desired action, the message has to be believable coming from the messenger. If the messenger can’t do this without fear of striking the wrong cultural chord, it’s possible that they should take a different approach entirely.


The Audience

It seems that the missing link in this campaign is pinpointing who the target audience is. Is it aimed at preventing new smokers (i.e., teenagers and young adults) from picking up the habit or at encouraging existing smokers to quit? It reminds me of a campaign from the 1980s aimed at reducing roadside littering in Texas. An early PSA campaign that focused on littering as a moral issue and “doing the right thing” was a dismal failure. But a second campaign focused on the core audience, which was tough guy males, ages 18 to 35, who didn’t think twice of throwing trash out the window. They unveiled a campaign with the slogan “Don’t Mess With Texas” (now celebrating 25 years) and enlisted celebrity spokespeople such as Texas Rangers baseball players and musician Stevie Ray Vaughan. Roadside littering decreased by 72% over the next four years. To get a change in behavior, you have to know whose behavior you’re trying to change and where their pressure points are. Finding the right messenger to reach that audience is nice too.

The Message

And that leads us to the message itself. Does visually depicting smoking as a death wish discourage smoking? Or are these images so beyond the pale that they have the opposite effect by tapping into the bravado (think Marlboro Man) associated with smoking in early advertising campaigns? For young males, a key target audience for cigarette companies, depictions of smoking as dangerous, gruesome and unhealthy may add to cigarettes’ appeal simply due to an increased appetite for risk-taking. Some of the images on these labels evoke the t-shirts for the brand of heavy metal bands that I grew up with—and those shirts are typically worn as a badge of honor among teens and young adult males.

Which leads me to a final thought. At least one of the image-based ads from Canada took a different approach that would resonate with young males—humor and fear of sexual impotence. Now ask yourself a question—which campaign is more effective?

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As Media Goes Online, Keeping a Foothold in Print

I don’t keep many subscriptions in print these days. Like many people, the availability of free online content from the best publications (save the Wall Street Journal) makes it a no brainer. But also like many people, I still think that there’s something about reading from the page. I have yet to buy a Kindle or iPad, and I read dozens of books each year (such as this one) in print, largely attracted by the costs of borrowing (that is to say, free) from the Seattle Public Library. The only publications that I subscribe to these days are Cook’s Illustrated (which charges for online access, more on that here) and The Atlantic; my subscription to The Economist recently lapsed after a few years. But online, I read from a wide array of outlets–The New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, The Atlantic, Slate and when I follow a link there and have a spare hour The New Yorker.

This brings me to my main point. Of all that I read–and I read far more than I listed here–the only one that I both pay for and read online for free is The Atlantic. It’s an old publication, founded in 1857, with one Ralph Waldo Emerson publishing a poem in the first issue.

In print it does much of what it’s done for the past 153 years. Top-notch long-form journalism, incisive opinion, thought-provoking arguments and a letter to the editor section in which authors respond to their critics. I read every single article in the July/August issue.

Online it’s an equally strong publication. First, all of the content from the magazine is online for free, but because I’ve been convinced to subscribe, I prefer to read the magazine content in the print edition. The website doesn’t attempt to merely replicate the print product online–after all, it could never do the page layout and glossy photos justice. Instead, it creates an entirely separate class of content that fits online better. The magazine’s columnists and regular correspondents (Megan McArdle, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Megan McArdle, James Fallows and Michael Kinsley) all regularly blog on the website, frequently providing additional commentary on their articles in the print edition and beginning a discussion with readers. The website hosts the blog of Andrew Sullivan, arguably one of the most influential voices in the national dialogue. In addition to the blogs, all of which are an ongoing dialogues updated hourly, the website contains a number of channels that correspond to the magazine’s main sections, ranging from Politics and Culture to Food. These include posts in blog form from a range of Atlantic writers, regular columnists and guests. And finally, in recent months The Atlantic Wire was launched, acting as a high-brow aggregator (like the Huffington Post or Daily Beast’s Cheat Sheet) for opinion columns and blogs.

I can easily spend hours a day on The Atlantic, usually on Andrew Sullivan but frequently clicking on links to other online-based coverage across the website. The web operation is an extension of the print publication. It reinforces what the print edition does well but does it in a manner native to the Internet.

With The New York Times preparing itself for a move toward a metered system–with irregular visitors reading online for free but regular readers paying a subscription once they read a certain number of articles each month–it’s clear that online isn’t working for most print publications. They’ve followed an approach of giving all their content away for free, while only recently beginning to experiment with content that truly works online. That gives readers no reason to subscribe to the print edition and no (or at least very limited) online content that reinforces why the print version is valuable in the first place. And with consumers still not trained to pay for online access, it’s likely that the Times will see a significant drop among regular readers as they go elsewhere for their content.

The Times’ influence isn’t found in walled gardens but in cross-linking and being at the center of the national conversation. Its most valuable asset isn’t their content; it’s the brand. The Atlantic realized that and took steps to shore it up both online and in print. The New York Times and its counterparts should hope that they can find the sweet spot for daily reporting that The Atlantic has discovered for monthly opinion–and give us a reason to believe that it truly is all the news that’s fit to print, to blog and for some (but not all) of us to subscribe to.

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Iceland To Become “Journalism Haven”

From The Daily Beast, summarizing a report in Iceland’s English language Ice News:

Iceland’s parliament has passed a sweeping press freedom bill pushed by Julian Assange, the controversial founder of WikiLeaks, in a marathon all-night session. Assange has said that the goal was to make Iceland a “journalism haven” that would be an attractive home base for investigative reporters from around the world. The law sought to combine pro-press laws from around the world into a single piece of legislation, such as ending “libel tourism” (filing libel suits in the most favorable jurisdiction regardless of where the parties are based) and protecting intermediaries that publish reporting (internet hosts, for example). WikiLeaks joyfully tweeted the victory.

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The First Rule of Communications Is…

Be honest. And if you can’t be honest (though you should be), for the love of all that is holy don’t put out information that will be refuted a month later.

Via the New York Times, a government panel called the Flow Rate Technical Group just doubled its estimate for how much oil is spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, from 12,000 to 19,000 barrels per day (the original BP estimate) to 25,000 to 30,000 barrels per day. That’s a lot of oil, close to one Exxon Valdez every eight to ten days. According to the article:

The assessment was conducted by the Flow Rate Technical Group, which was created federal government to accurately gauge the oil being released into the Gulf after questions were raised about BP’s own estimates.

Italics are mine. That’s now how to build public trust if you’re BP. If you’re the government, however, it’s not a bad start to emerging as the good guy.

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Are Indian-Americans the New “It Ethnicity”?

Via Slate: Coming on the heels of Aziz Ansari hosting the MTV Movie Awards, a great article by Nina Shen Rastogi looking at the recent prominence of Indian-American actors on the small screen.

The short version: The emergence of Indian-Americans in Hollywood probably has more to do with the fact that, with Indian immigration not really beginning until the late 1960s, there is now a critical mass of American-born Indians to begin making inroads into Hollywood. She writes that there may be a little Bollywood envy as well. Kal Penn, of Harold and Kumar fame, is probably one of the better known, but the trend also includes Ansari of NBC’s Parks and Recreation and Mindy Kaling of The Office, among many others. Later this fall, NBC is set to debut Outsourced, the first show with a largely Indian cast to appear on American television.

Of course, the Canadians beat us there a few years ago. One of the chief perks of living in Seattle is that we receive the Vancouver CBC station on limited cable. In 2007, the CBC debuted Little Mosque on the Prairie, which follows the Muslim community in a small Saskatchewan town.

What do you think? Little Mosque on the Prairie in Kansas?

Based on my limited experience of watching it once or twice, the show doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its title, though it’s still a great concept that shows how comfortable Canada often is with its multiculturalism.

This is what the salad bowl looks like.

On a similar note, the CBC also simulcasts Hockey Night in Canada in Punjabi, the country’s fourth most spoken language after English, French and Chinese, and characters of Indian descent regularly figure in Canadian television commercials. Canada has often been described as a “salad bowl” compared to the “melting pot” of the United States, allowing people to maintain their heritage while simultaneously embracing a Canadian identity.

I’m not certain if we’re there yet here in the States, or if that’s even an endpoint we want to reach. Either way, it’s refreshing to see the mainstream media bring an increasingly diverse picture of America into the American living room, and it’s instructive to see how our neighbors to the North are already beginning to achieve it.

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