The utility of headlined news

How important is it to use headlines to organize a community/news website?

It’s hard to think of a world without news headlines as we know them today, but that existed before 1889, when Joseph Pulitzer stretched headlines beyond a single column and thus made them a more prominent part of the front page. Consider a major news event a few years before that, like the largest suspension bridge in the world opens and connects the first- and third-largest cities in the country. By the end of the century, the smaller city would become a borough of the integrated New York City, and its name would endure as part of the famous span, the Brooklyn Bridge. Here’s how the New-York Times reported it that day:

(You’ll get a greater appreciation for the puniness of the headlines when you click the image to see the an 8.5×11″ section of the broadsheet. Pulitzer’s paper, the World, had a four-column line drawing of the new bridge the previous day).

Remind you of anything you’ve seen on the Internet? Yes, you may have seen it in bloggus bloviatus, the common weblog format. This weblog format is the layout of a continuous series of posts– though to be strict, nothing in the regular definitions of blogs demands this presentation style. (Example of the usage of the term, by Dan Gillmor in his blog yesteday: “I think I prefer reading some New York Times political coverage in the paper’s new weblog format to its regular news column style.”)

Andrew Sullivan has written that blogs are “somewhere between writing a column and talk radio”, but he did not explain what it meant. (He went on to say that blogs were “harnessing the web’s real genius” and then that they “[harness] the true democratic nature of the web”– and then concluded his essay). The comparison to talk radio is apt if you ever turn on the radio in the middle of a program, and are stuck listening to the program. (for further on this point, read “Why are they not called weblongs?”)

Actually, if there is a “real genius” or “true nature” of the web, it is the architecture of hyperlinks. When the web was created, hyperlinks quickly became the headlines of the new format, reflecting a respected tradition in news presentation. A newspaper has prominent headlines; ontemporary magazine has a table of contents; even news programs on television and radio provide headlines and teasers at the start of the the broadcast. With hyperlinks, the publisher can afford to show more stories to the readers and allow them to pick and choose what they wanted to read (I don’t want to belabor this, but I seem to remember in the first few years of the web there were reams of papers explaining the mechanics hyperlinks, which is now second nature to anybody with an index finger).

For the web, let’s consider the proportion of space devoted to headlines of stories. The Drudge Report, a generally content-free website, is all headlines (generally links to other websites). On the other end are blogs like Talking Points Memo, and Andrew Sullivan, which have no headlines at all. If weblogs are true to their definition, then they are journal entries– which can live without headlines. But now that many people treat blogs as jounralism, they should expect to see a happy medium of the presentation format.

The blog-like CampaignDesk keeps its posts relatively short– with small font, very few posts are more than a screenpage– and has healthy padding around the headlines. The Drupal software (which this site uses) limits the teaser to 600 characters: if you go the main Drupal site, the constraint enables the front page to show a good number of headlines to information about the software. In practice, I usually set the teaser manually on my articles here.

In developing the headlines for this site, I took a cue from most of the mainstream news sites, which mix up their front page presentation. Typically they show full teasers for the top/latest stories, while leaving just links for older stories. (see the Times.)

My strategy is that I show a teaser based on the story type. I tend to publish “lighter” fare more rapidly, and thus post it at the top of the page. Since it’s at the top I don’t want to weigh down the blocks with a teaser. Instead, I try to come up with a catchier headline to draw the reader in. In contrast, the “heavier” article types need straight headlines to avoid confusion.

Of course, I’m interested in feedback from readers, whether you agree that this makes good design sense.