3 GREAT STORIES: Starring the power of a good headline

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

In an advice column for journalists published more than a decade ago, Rick Reilly wrote about the importance of the lead. If you don’t grab your audience in your first paragraph, Reilly said, they will not stick around to appreciate all the content that follows.

One could easily extrapolate that concept to include the headline.

These days, headlines are huge. We are bombarded with them and make snap judgments about whether to click on articles based on them. Content providers across the globe are trying to figure out the ways to get their headlines noticed and search-able, let alone just plain interesting.

This week, I present “3 Great Stories” that captured me with their headlines — and then kept me with their content:

Inside the race to rescue a health site, and Obama (11/30/13, New York Times): This is a near-perfect headline.

It sets the stakes for the story — and what high stakes they are! It also sets the standard for the article’s content; a reader can expect right away to be treated to a look behind the tightly closed doors of the White House.

The article does not disappoint. Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Michael D. Shear begin the piece by delving into a critical October meeting in which President Barack Obama was fully alerted to the problems of the Affordable Care Act’s web site. Stolberg and Shear begin their article from a place of major tension, gripping the audience early and holding it for seven web pages worth of paragraphs.

Behind closed doors with the women of Saudi Arabia (11/30/13, Slate): This time the editors of Slate provide the perfect interest-piquing headline — and an image to match.

When I saw this headline on Slate’s web site, it actually appeared on the home page in a different form: “Saudi Women When No One’s Watching”. It was accompanied by a pair of exposed legs peeking out from behind a rocky wall. On a site full of eye-catching headlines, this was the most grabbing.

Again, the article follows through on the headline’s promise. Writer Jordan Teicher profiles an author sent to Saudi Arabia to teach photography; the author wound up taking many beautiful photos of Saudi women in both public and private states. The article provides the necessary backdrop, and the photos — courtesy of author Olivia Arthur — are physically gripping in their ability to capture vulnerability.

Chess championship results show powerful role of computers (11/22/13, Wall Street Journal): Of the three articles listed here, this one has the least sexy headline. But, much like the others, it promises insight.

Christopher Chabris and David Goodman pen a story about how computer intelligence has pushed forward human intelligence in the realm of chess. The world of chess, say the writers, was a generally rigid environment in which players played by an unwritten set of rules … until computers taught them more creative ways to play.

If you remember the famous Kasparov vs. Deep Blue match from more than a decade ago, you will appreciate the evolution in chess of the human-vs.-computer dynamic. Chabris and Goodman weave an interesting story and, in doing so, reveal unique insights into the human condition — the very insights promised in the headline.


Have a suggestion for “3 Great Stories of the Week”? E-mail me at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com.

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