Techmeme is now writing its own headlines

Friday, September 6, 2013 1:41PM ET
by Gabe Rivera (@gaberivera)     Permalink

Right now there's a headline on Techmeme written by our news editors. Our more familiar readers know why this is noteworthy: from the time we launched in 2005 until yesterday, our content consisted entirely of quotes. That is, all headlines and summaries were excerpted from publishers' sites, a style of aggregation Google News made familiar in 2002.

This "quotes only" approach was the only way to go when we had no editors, and stories were selected automatically. But since 2008, as we've blended in human curation with our automation, and our editorial staff has grown (Techmeme has 6 editors now, Mediagazer has 3), this approach changed from a necessity to choice. And over time, we became convinced only quoting was the wrong choice.

Why will writing some headlines in-house make Techmeme better?

The headline styles for many of the stories you find on the web don't work very well on Techmeme. Our home page is a dense list of news links functioning as an executive summary of the latest in tech. Readers want to spend five minutes (or one minute) scanning the site to catch up. They only want to click on the few headlines they're sure they want to read in more detail. So clicking on stories merely to discover what they're about is a frustrating chore. Unlike most other news sites, we'd rather save our readers clicks than force them through a maze of pages to catch up on news. Techmeme therefore values headlines rich on specifics: headlines with names, numbers, and active verbs. Headlines that function as abstracts.

Unfortunately for us, publishers understandably write headlines suiting their own needs, and not necessarily ours. The reasons for this are numerous, and varied:

- News organizations that cover more than just tech often favor headlines describing the story in the most general terms that the widest possible audience can appreciate at some level. So headlines will omit references to specific companies, people, and technologies unknown to most of their readers yet familiar to Techmeme readers. As our coverage increasingly relies on sources like The Guardian and Washington Post (for reports on government surveillance and other policy matters), this has become a significant issue for Techmeme.
- In some news organizations, particularly the older ones, too often the editor tasked with writing the headline doesn't appreciate the most newsworthy part of the story, "burying the lede" with a headline oblivious to the news.
- With few exceptions, companies announcing bad news will omit specifics at the headline level. For example, a post disclosing the theft of a million user passwords will usually carry a headline such as "Important Security Update".
- Some publishers value clicks from Twitter or Facebook over readers' time, writing (and tweeting) headlines that deliberately omit key details, requiring readers to click to get the most basic summary.
- Even worse, some misleadingly inflate the importance of the news in the headline, goosing clickthroughs, but setting up discerning readers for disappointment.
- Bloggers with a devoted readership who can count on readers consuming the bulk of their output often enjoy writing more cerebral, enigmatic titles with meanings that fully reveal themselves only after reading the story.
- Some bloggers consider composing a headline a mere chore, dashing out a few words thoughtlessly, and moving on.

As a result, Techmeme is often forced either to post a story with a nebulous headline, wait for a publication that rewrites the news with a clear headline (leading many publishers to wonder why) or pass on stories altogether. Since all of these choices are far from ideal, we've now resolved to produce Techmeme-optimized titles "in-house".

How will this work?

The process is simple. Our editors will compose headlines for some (but not most) of the stories posted to Techmeme. In most cases, our headline will appear when the link first hits Techmeme, although at times it will make its first appearance minutes or hours later. While our headline will be hyperlinked and in bold, the headline the publisher used will still appear for the stories in our "Top News" area with body excerpts, following the headline we compose. (Internally, we've called this feature pretitling, because it's effectively "retitling" by prepending the headline we want.)

For the stories we do headline, ours will be the headline that tweets out at @Techmeme. With fewer vague teasers and more descriptive summaries, our Twitter account will come closer to providing the technology industry's most detail-rich news wire. (By the way, follow us now by clicking this button: Hey, thank you!)

Isn't this a bad thing for readers? Or bad for Techmeme?

No, it's good for both. But since we expect some may be wary, the following concerns are addressed preemptively here:

- You're changing the words that publishers use, and that's wrong. It's adding to the words publishers use, and it's long been an accepted practice on aggregation sites like Drudge Report, Arts & Letters Daily, and many more. And it's essentially what everyone does when linking to stories with their own commentary on Twitter and Facebook. Moreover, as Google has discovered, the legal environment in certain places (e.g. Germany, France, and Belgium) is in fact hostile to news sites composed solely of snippets. In those countries, people are arguing that only quoting is wrong, and for now, winning in court.
- This makes Techmeme biased and that's bad. Though it's fine to demand a basic level of accuracy and fairness from news organizations, it's hopeless, and even meaningless, to demand news coverage without bias, without a slant. All news is laden with opinion. The very act of publishing a story conveys the bold assertion: this is noteworthy. Numerous other beliefs and assumptions underpin the ideas that flow through any news story. That's why even when Techmeme selected headlines solely on algorithms, I claimed it was biased. And the introduction of human editors since that time has only increased the ways our perspective on events shapes our coverage. While most of the headlines we write will elevate details present in the story, we may on occasion even use a headline we write to challenge, correct, refute, or even undermine what we're linking to, if we feel that gets our readers closer to the truth as we see it.
- Techmeme will screw up and get something wrong in these headlines. This is true. Errors or oversights will creep into the headlines we add (hopefully only rarely), but this isn't enough of a reason not to write them.
- This will complicate how readers perceive Techmeme. This is somewhat true, more so for publishers, but only to a very limited extent for readers. The basic reader behavior of scanning headlines and clicking on the interesting ones remains unchanged. And to the extent that enigmatic headlines will become rarer, the reduction in unnecessary clicking will in fact simplify reading.

What's next? Will Techmeme start reporting stories?

The next step is to extend this practice to Mediagazer, Techmeme's sister site covering media industry news, which we expect to happen shortly.

What else is planned? One reaction to the above news we expect to hear is: "If you're writing headlines now, why not write entire stories?" But we have no plans to publish original news stories. Assembling a good team of tech reporters is especially difficult in 2013, and would be too much of a distraction for us. Moreover, we like what we are, and don't want to complicate this for readers. The overabundance of technology news presents a problem, and Techmeme strives to be the solution. We're about showing the best in technology news from all around the web, not showing "some of their stuff, some of our stuff".

Instead, we just plan to improve the way we uncover newsworthy content. Recently, for instance, our methods for surfacing interesting news commentary on Twitter have improved markedly. Good tweets now appear on Techmeme at a high enough volume that we even started notifying Twitter users of their inclusion by programmatically favoriting tweets appearing on Techmeme from our Twitter account. And we hope to accomplish a whole lot more in this area in the months ahead. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy the new and improved Techmeme (Now With Original Headlines!), and thank you for reading Techmeme, and (wow!) for reaching to the end of this 1,400 word post.

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