In a world that is moving to electronic media, one of the biggest strongholds of printed news is its credibility. Even in a media wary environment this is being confirmed again and again. Should a newspaper not rather bank on that trust than undermine it? If the online edition of a renowned newspaper changes their headlines to get more views, is this already clickbaiting?
In their study “All the Headlines that Are Fit to Change: Analysis of Headline Changes in the Media Industry” researchers at Wake Forest University found that The New York Times regularly changes the headlines of their online articles. During the period observed in 2021 about 14% of all headlines were changed relatively immediately after they were published. Another 6% were subject to A/B testing, in which different readers were shown differing headlines.
Of course, publishers should amend or alter their online articles for more recent news or corrections, however this is about accurate content. Changing headlines simply with the aim of getting more clicks is different. We all know clickbait – the attention grabbing snippets and headlines appearing alongside of websites, with the sole aim to get the reader to click
The authors of the study conclude: “Our initial results are suggestive that economic, rather than partisan, motives are the driving force behind the New York Times headline change strategy. This is an important contribution to our understanding of media industries, since almost all other papers exclusively look at one or the other motive.” The findings conclude that gaining more readers and revenue would be a positive step. Authors caution however that not alerting readers of headline changes can create “memory holes”. Also, headlines should reflect news as it is written at the moment they occur and not appease to what is getting most clicks.
If an online newspaper gets used to headline changes, I fear the next step might be to produce content that is purely designed to appeases to the readers, in which clicks count more than an unbiased, truthful view. Of course web-sites of this kind exist, however the online presence of a venerable newspaper should not be one of them.