The headline for this blog is an amalgam of trending internet search terms (at least they were trending on Sunday). It was prompted by an opinion piece in the New York Times’s Sunday Review, in which staff editor Margaret Sullivan wrote about how internet search results have changed the way journalists craft headlines for their stories.
“A venerable art adapts to meet digital demands,” reads the pull quote, although it would have been more precise to say “surrenders” or “caves” instead of “adapts.” Sullivan describes how determining an accurate and still engaging headline, an art that originally evolved to entice readers, is now subject to digital influences such as updated news reports and viewership. Since information for stories—such as police shootings—continues to come in, it often changes known facts, and therefore the headlines must be changed to match.
But more important to the Times as an organization, is the number of people who actually read the article. Readership drives advertising, which drives revenue, which drives everything else in our culture. Times researchers discovered that “search engines—particularly Google—were not serving up Times journalism prominently because however clever the headlines may have been, a lot of them lacked keywords.”
The Times’s strategy for coping with lower ranking search returns was, according to Sullivan, to include more identifiable keywords in headlines. That’s the wrong response if you ask me.
Keyword popularity is a function of current search trends. Take a look at what’s trending on Google as we speak, and you’ll see that the vast majority of it is about celebrities and sports, cocktails, cars, DJs and similar trivia. Even the in most popular searches for books, three of the top five terms were Dr. Seuss, Patch Adams, and L. Ron Hubbard. Seriously?
Journalism may not be the pinnacle of literary creativity, but when it starts to kowtow to the dregs of popular culture, you know its end as an unbiased and useful resource of knowledge is imminent. Just look at USA Today.
Can literature be far behind? One of the things I tell writers who wish to submit stories to our literary journal is the importance to me of language. But if language becomes a function of mass culture search inquiries, the entire field may decline.
A good example of this regards a woman I met several months ago at a writers’ group. She said she had written dozens of novels and had sold more than a half million copies of them on Amazon. Of course we all wanted to know how. And of course it had little to do with the quality of the writing (as verified by me when I perused some of her titles) and everything to do with the trending topics, as well as the ability of her computer guy to parse the algorithms Amazon’s uses to rank, and therefore promote, titles. In other words she made up stuff about whatever was popular, just to increase sales. She admitted that she wrote whatever came into her head and never revised her work. It’s a free country and she can do that, but maybe we should reclassify what she does from “writing” to “typing” or even “brain diarrhea,” I might sleep better at night knowing she was no longer considered a writer.
But who am I to buck successful trends? Let me close by saying Lilly for Target may have Ebola but will still compete in NBA Playoffs. That ought to bring in the readers.