Community Spotlight: Is your story hiding its beauty under a drab headline?

Community Spotlight: Is your story hiding its beauty under a drab headline?

Isn’t it time to stop sabotaging your excellent story with a crappy headline? You write because you have something to say to readers, and it’s discouraging when a thoughtful story sinks without enough interaction. While no magic formula can ensure your story is noticed among the thousands published every month on Daily Kos, you can improve the odds of attracting readers by practicing some basic headline-crafting principles.

Community Spotlight rescues well-written but overlooked stories so they can gain more attention, such as the eleven presented below. We don’t exclude those with uninformative or bland headlines, although we notice that even the best story can struggle to overcome a dud headline because readers don’t know what is under that inauspicious cover. One year ago, I wrote about the value of a compelling headline and asked, “What if you could rescue your own story before it dropped from the top of the front page?”

It’s time to revisit this idea. Week after week, we still see original, thoughtful stories buried under ho-hum headlines. Here are the not-so-secret tips Trending News Managing Editor Jen Hayden shared in the first-ever Community Writing Workshop a few weeks ago to help authors grab readers’ attention and motivate them to click through and read more.

A compelling headline has an “engagement hook” that signals the story’s topic without giving away the entire story. Using headlines from Daily Kos, Hayden described what constitutes a powerful headline and how this differs from clickbait that over-promises or misrepresents your story. She gave an example from a 2015 story of hers that set up the story’s premise without revealing the details, thus enticing readers to click through to share in the schadenfreude: “GOP congresswoman gets surprise on Facebook after asking constituents for Obamacare horror stories.” Compare that to MSNBC’s headline for the same story: “McMorris Rogers gets an earful on ACA.

Don’t be in a hurry, Hayden advises. Take time to think about what the story’s core message is to readers, then write several headline variations for each story without trying to craft a perfect headline the first time. Perhaps you can rope in friends and family for their opinions. DK headlines often come from group brainstorming sessions where people bounce ideas off each other and refine the headline.

DK staff writers prepare five to 10 headlines for each story before settling on one that grabs the most engagement. “You’ll know when you hit the right one,” Hayden asserts. “It’s not always pretty, but each headline idea leads to another until we get that slam dunk idea that stands out.”

A few weeks ago, I realized after publication that the headline for my rescue roundup edition misrepresented the core message. Here is my initial headline: “Community Spotlight: Through Daily Kos’ many metamorphoses, Rescue Rangers have seen it all.” That story primarily discussed the different front pages over the years and the Community’s heated response to each change, although I also mentioned that we’ve been rescuing stories since DK’s early years. So, I changed the headline’s emphasis: “Community Spotlight: Tuning in to Daily Kos’ many metamorphoses.” The improved headline also complemented the lead image to snag readers’ attention, another topic covered in the workshop.

Hayden offered several additional guidelines and examples.

  • Don’t always name names. Readers may not recognize the person’s name but will know their role. For example, don’t name Tate Reeves, instead use his title, Mississippi governor. Compare the headline used initially—“What happens when you ask Gov. Reeves his plan to combat COVID-19? You get a legislative calendar”—to the final choice—“Watch Mississippi governor give the oddest defense for his COVID-19 incompetency.”

  • Write as if readers are new to the community and website. Don’t use inside jokes or nicknames—assuming people know them is a turn-off for new readers and makes people hesitant to jump in and get involved.

  • Avoid ableist language (crazy, stupid, lame, idiot, etc). They don’t belong in the headline or in the story.

  • Be playful yet accurate, have some fun with the headline. Daily Kos isn’t the stuffy traditional media; it’s okay to break the rules, but don’t include profanity in the title as that gets DK blocked by search engines. Here’s how DK introduced one topic: “Fox News’ Lou Dobbs tries to rally Trump support with online poll—FAILS hilariously.” In contrast, here’s The Hill’s headline for the same story: “Lou Dobbs Twitter poll backfires after most vote against Trump firing Mueller.”

Here’s some bonus info that wasn’t covered in the workshop, call it lagniappe—the official Daily Kos headline style. For the blurbs, I edit the headlines of all rescued stories to bring them into alignment with DK style.

  • Capitalize only the first letter of the first word, proper nouns, and, after a colon, the first letter of the first word

  • For quotations in headlines, use single ‘quote’ marks not “double.”

  • No period at the end of headlines. If it is a two-sentence headline, put a period only at the end of the first.

You can find more tips and guidelines in the story writing workshop video: storytelling basics, finding your topic, and structuring the story by Managing Editor of Community Content Jessica Sutherland; the impact of publishing on DK along with examples from Content Strategist Cara Zelaya; and Hayden’s section on better engagement through strong headlines and images. And Publisher Faith Gardner moderated the workshop, kicking it off with data about the stories DK publishes—56,511 stories from Jan. 2020 through August 2021—and comments—5,864,404.

It can be daunting to launch your story into a stream of others that includes professional staff writers. But metrics prove that some of the most popular and widely shared stories have come from the Community, and they aren’t all one sentence plus a viral tweet hastily tossed together and popular because of a blue-check personality’s zinger.

Take time to shape your story, devise an engaging headline—AND HAVE FUN.

11 STORIES rescued FROM 1 PM PDT FRIDAY, Sept. 24 to 1 PM PDT Friday, October 1, 2021

Our rescued stories this week include one Rescued to Recommended, two by the same author, and a first rescue for another author.

Community Spotlight’s mission is to ensure that the best stories from the Daily Kos Community aren’t overlooked. We encourage members who write excellent stories with original views to keep writing by promoting work that isn’t receiving enough attention. We further support a healthy Community by not rescuing topics and specific stories designed to provoke bitter comment battles, although we relish strong arguments presented fairly and backed up by credible sources.

Good news: You don’t have to search to find our rescued stories! The nightly News Roundup, an Open Thread published six days a week at 7:30 PM PDT, includes links to each day’s rescued stories.

Reminder: The numbers in parentheses after each author’s name indicate the year they joined Daily Kos, how many stories they’ve published, and how many we’ve rescued.

Insidious bothsiderism of ‘The Social Dilemma’ by greenandblue (2011-91-14)

Greenandblue praises The Social Dilemma documentary while detailing how it falls short by failing to place social networking in historical context. While the movie also fails to question capitalism, even worse is the both-sidesing. “They talk about truth and facts like they are wispy fogs of indecipherable symbology that are interpreted equally well across our political spectrum.” By failing to recognize that one side is trying to heal the country and the other is actively trying to stop that healing, the movie plays into and even exacerbates the current divisions in our society.

Oregon Republicans rescue Democrats from themselves in redistricting fight by AdmiralNaismith (2004-332-37)

The author offers an in-depth look at the dynamic between Democrats and Republicans in Oregon, where Democrats control the redistricting process. Despite this advantage, however, the Republicans have stonewalled repeatedly, denying Democrats the quorum needed to move forward. Recently, when the Republicans refused to negotiate, the speaker removed them from the committee. The Democrats drew up a map offering a 4-2 split, and the Republicans rejected it! “Assuming they don’t come back by the end of the day Monday, they will have ended their ability to participate, and cost themselves a Congressional seat and some legislative seats, JUST for the benefit of crying crocodile tears and shouting the fiction that Oregon Democrats are too partisan.”

Pennsylvania Supreme Court and other judicial elections by deadpan (2014-52-?)

Supreme, commonwealth, and superior courts all have elections this year. Deadpan explains the open positions, candidates, and voter demographics for each election. “We saw last fall the importance of having pro-democracy judges. … In PA, a Trumpy judge on our second-most-powerful court, Patricia McCullough, agreed with the fascistic lawsuits that mail-in voting is unconstitutional and attempted to block certification of the election. But because the PA Supreme Court is run by pro-democracy judges, she was swiftly overruled and the election certified.”

365 Days of Climate Awareness 45: El Nino-Southern Oscillation by agramante (2009-62-7)

El Niño and La Niña occur due to “large-scale wind circulation” in the Pacific Ocean “called the Walker circulation.” Agramante explains how this “cycle of wind and ocean temperatures” affects seasonal temperatures and rainfall, particularly in the western U.S.

365 Days of Climate Awareness 47: Physical properties of ocean water by agramante (2009-62-7) Second story rescued this week

“Water is … just so important. The basics never stop mattering.” In this story, the author explains how salinity relates to conductivity and how that differs across Earth’s oceans. “One of the most basic tools for oceanographers is the CTD, short for Conductivity-Temperature-Depth. In research, the CTD is used to infer density. In applied science it is used more often to determine the speed of sound in water, for use in acoustical applications. Electrical conductivity is measured as a proxy for salinity.”

Some dissent on the WaPo op-ed, ‘Solar Energy’s Luster Dims in Rural Ohio’ by Gary Abernathy by Rory PNG (2021-3-2) Rescued to Recommended

Using an argument/dissent format, Rory PNG dissects a pro-fossil fuel essay to identify the fallacies and straw man logic failures in 10 rah-rah coal and oil arguments. “Argument #7: what if solar PV decreases property values? What if they make the land toxic for future crops? Dissent: [grits teeth and resolves to play nice] Here we really start to get into the weeds of truly bad faith arguments. This is almost as absurd as if the author asked ‘what if the solar makes people turn communist?’ Sigh.”

Friday Night Beer Blog: Sampling the brews, food, and scenery of the European Alps by pines of rome (2016-5-1) First rescue

Part travelogue and part beer blog, pines of rome shares a trip to the Alps of Germany, Austria, Italy, and Switzerland and local beers encountered in the wild. “I’m primarily an outdoors person, with particular interest in mountain and lake country. The majority of this diary will show outdoors scenery and small towns along the way, with their culinary and beverage samplings.”

DistrictBuilder is a free and open-source redistricting tool by Alonso del Arte (2015-927-45)

Since last year was a census year, 2021 is a redistricting year. Populations move around, changing the composition of legislative districts, which means reconfiguring boundaries. Alonso del Arte describes the process of using DistrictBuilder to draw a map that meets the legal requirement for equal population and contiguity, plus four optional metrics. After going through the redesign process with readers, he concludes that it “is a pretty good tool for giving ordinary citizens an idea of what sort of considerations go into redistricting.”

RIP Cleveland Indians, I knew ye well by Mitch D (2018-6-2)

A personal story about how identifying with the Cleveland Indians helped Mitch D survive a rough childhood. “I grew up on a farm in Missouri with family, friends and neighbors being diehard St. Louis Cardinal baseball fans … I worshiped a team that, back in the 1950s, were almost always in the gutter. I still remember a classmate chiding me for choosing a ‘losing team named after a loser race.’ I told him I wanted to support the underdogs but nothing could be further from the truth. The Cleveland Indians were my heroes, because unbeknownst to them (or anyone else for that matter), I belonged to their tribe.”

Charles Johnson’s 1990 novel, ‘Middle Passage,’ still speaks volumes on race & white nationalism by theaccidentalrabbi (2015-4-1) First rescue

The author begins by noting he wishes this book were required reading in high school, and continues with a synopsis of the novel and characters and praise for the writing. “This book is packed with lavishly written sentences that include all kinds of period language, as well as nautical terms and slang from many different sub-cultures.” Theaccidentalrabbi also finds parallels with what’s happening in the U.S. right now. “I was nearly knocked out of my chair by a passage in which the captain of the Republic, the ‘ruthless and comically bigoted’ Ebenezer Falcon, describes his fear of what might become of America if white supremacy and institutionalized racism lose control of the country.”

Fighting dragons by vjr7121 (2017-198-26)

Using the novel and movie Big Fish, whose subtitle, “a ‘novel of mythic proportions, did not oversell,” vjr7121 imagines the story as “an allegory for the American journey—who we really are and what got us to this point.” Outlandish stories told by a father in the novel remind vjr7121 of “the story of America from its founding … outlandish promises that are so hard to keep because they are so valued and beyond our current understandings. Ours is a history made up of such promises that have yet to be kept. Much of what has been written about us has been massaged and elaborated while our shortcomings are trivialized or deferred. It is what we do with unkept promises.”

COMMUNITY SPOTLIGHT is dedicated to finding great writing by community members that isn’t getting the visibility it deserves.

  • Each day’s collection of rescues is reported in the News Roundup published on the front page at 7:30 PM PDT.
  • To add our rescued stories to your Stream, click on the word FOLLOW in the left panel at our main page or click on Reblogs and read them directly on the group page.
  • You can also find a list of our rescued stories by clicking HERE.

An edition of our rescue roundup publishes every Saturday at 6 p.m. ET (3 p.m. PT) to the Recent Community Stories section and to the front page at 9:30 p.m. ET (7:30 p.m. PT).

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