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How We Define Clickbait (Which We Do Our Best to Avoid)

The Reader Center is a newsroom initiative that is helping The New York Times build deeper ties with our audience.

We’ve asked Mark Bulik, our senior editor for digital headlines, to respond to reader concerns about “clickbait.”

Being honest with the reader is one of our core values.

One reader recently wrote in to criticize these two headlines, which he characterized as clickbait:

This Beautiful Parasitic Bird Could Soon Turn Up in Your Yard

What Cookies and Meth Have in Common

This reader is not the first to accuse us of this cardinal sin; plenty of readers take issue with our headlines.

In this case, the reader argued that a headline should summarize the content of an article, so that the reader can judge for herself if she wants to read the story and convey the main information to someone else without reading the article.

I think it’s a misconception that a headline, whether print or digital, must summarize a story. That wasn’t true when I wrote my first print headline for pay, way back in 1981. It’s not true now. The job of a headline is to get people to read the article in a manner that is true to the story.

While it often turns out that summarizing a story is the best way to accomplish that, the summary approach has never been a rule in the 20 years I’ve been at The Times, or at any of the other newspapers I worked for. The top stories that you see on our home page and mobile feed have brief summaries to accomplish that task.

For The Times to succeed in a digital age, The Times has to write headlines for a digital age. That means making sure we’re giving people a compelling reason to stop and read the articles. While that has always been the point of a headline, what’s different now is that we can measure just how compelling a digital headline is, and can test it against alternatives. So we run a lot of tests (you can read more about our process here), but both alternatives have to be true to the story. Reasonable people can disagree, but I think both of the examples the reader cited pass that test.

One cardinal rule is that we don’t want headlines that leave readers feeling cheated when they’ve finished the article. That’s our definition of clickbait. The challenge in a competitive news environment is writing headlines that grab the reader’s attention while maintaining our standards. So, for example, you might see more headlines for explanatory pieces that begin with How, Why or What. But you’re not going to see “You Won’t Believe What Happened Next!”

Lastly, writing headlines in a manner that allows the reader to glance at the home page or the mobile feed and think they’ve gotten a comprehensive summary of the news without actually reading the articles doesn’t really serve anyone’s purposes. I think anyone would agree that readers are far more knowledgeable if they are enticed to actually read the articles.

That, after all, is why we go to considerable trouble to gather and disseminate the news.

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