Expert Commentary

Readers of online news prefer simple headlines, research suggests. Journalists? Not so much.

New research in Science Advances suggests journalists don’t prefer simple headlines to complex ones, but readers do — and even if a story is complicated, reporters and editors may be able to boost readership with easy-to-read headlines.

simple headlines
(Clark Merrefield)

Competition for audience attention is fierce in this era of infinite scroll, with a seemingly endless array of information sources for readers to filter.

But new research in Science Advances suggests editors and reporters can get more readers to click their stories using this strategy: Write simple headlines.

Based on more than 30,000 experiments conducted by the Washington Post and Upworthy, the finding is an important reminder for news organizations. Past research suggests mainstream news outlets tend to use more complex wording than hyper-partisan outlets, which use shorter sentences and less formal language.

“Extreme news has already gotten the memo,” says Todd Rogers, one of the authors of the paper and a professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center, where The Journalist’s Resource is housed.

But headline preference can be in the eye of the beholder. In fact, the authors find in follow-up surveys that professional journalists do not favor simple headlines, “suggesting that those writing the news may read it differently from those consuming it,” the authors write. This in contrast to past research indicating that other professionals, such as lawyers, prefer simple writing.

Here’s how Rogers and co-authors — Hillary Shulman, an associate professor of communication at The Ohio State University and David Markowitz, an associate professor of communication at Michigan State University — assess headline complexity:

  • Whether the headline includes common words.
  • Use (or not) of a formal, complex, analytic style.
  • Readability, which accounts for words per sentence and syllables per word.
  • Overall character count.

To measure common words and analytic writing the authors used statistical software called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count. For readability and character count, they used text analysis packages in the statistical programming interface R.

The study doesn’t offer rules for headlines, such as writing at a particular reading grade level or staying below a certain character count.

But Rogers says the findings suggest a rule of thumb for journalists to consider: If you’re choosing between two headlines, where both make sense, are accurate and otherwise equal, choose the less complex one.

In the newsroom, gauging simplicity can be subjective. Rogers recommends journalists choose words that are shorter, more common and that they aim for simple grammatical construction when writing headlines.

Thousands of headline tests at the Washington Post and Upworthy

Readers may not be aware that the headlines they see on a news website could be different from what another reader sees. News outlets often test headlines to gauge which one audiences prefer. These are called A/B tests — a portion of site visitors get headline A, others get headline B.

The authors obtained all headline tests the Washington Post ran from March 3, 2021 to December 18, 2022. In total, they analyzed nearly 20,000 headlines, the popularity of which was determined by the click-through rate, or the percentage of people who clicked on that headline.

Some of the Washington Post headline tests included three or four headlines for a single story. Regardless of the content of the headline, the authors’ analysis links simpler headlines with higher click rates.

While Rogers notes that “the effect is not gigantic” he says crafting simpler headlines “will disproportionately help those who are not doing it, which is the non-extremist news.”

The authors note in the paper that because of the large size of the Washington Post’s readership, even a small percentage bump in click rates could mean tens of thousands more reads.

And simple headlines are not necessarily shorter, the research finds. While using common words, an informal style and better readability were associated with higher click rates, character count was not.

For example, this Washington Post headline, about Oprah Winfrey’s March 2021 interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, has 14 words:

“Meghan and Harry are talking to Oprah. Here’s why they shouldn’t say too much.”

The authors’ analysis finds it is less complex than this 13-word version:

“Are Meghan and Harry spilling royal tea to Oprah? Don’t bet on it.”

The authors did the same analysis with headline tests from Upworthy conducted January 2013 to April 2015 across more than 105,000 headlines.

The conclusion was the same.

“Thousands of field experiments across traditional (i.e., The Washington Post) and nontraditional news sites (i.e., Upworthy) showed that news readers are more likely to click on and engage with simple headlines than complex ones,” the authors write.

Audiences and journalists see headlines differently

In two follow-up surveys the authors aimed to explore whether the results of the headline tests held up in a controlled setting and whether professional news makers also prefer simple headlines.

In early May 2023, the authors recruited 524 people from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and assessed whether they more closely read simple or complex headlines. Participants were roughly equally split between men and women, with about 77% identifying as white, 11% Black, 7% Asian, 1% American Indian or Alaska Native and 3% multiracial.

They were shown 10 headlines and asked to pick one they’d click on a news site.

Within that set, participants saw four “target” and six “control” headlines. The target headlines were either simple or complex. All participants saw the same control headlines.

Participants were split into two treatment groups: either four simple or four complex headlines. Those who saw simple headlines picked one of them 34.8% of the time, compared with 15.3% for control headlines.

But when participants got the complex headlines, they picked one of them 22.2% of the time, compared with 27.7% for the controls.

Participants were also presented with a three-word phrase and asked to recall whether the phrase had appeared in the headlines. They were more likely to recognize the three-word phrase within simpler headlines.

“[T]he finding that readers engage less deeply with complex writing has important practical implications,” the authors write. “Specifically, writing simply can help news creators increase audience engagement even for stories that are themselves complicated.”

For the second survey, 249 participants were recruited from a September 2023 webinar about strategies for people writing for busy readers, which Rogers led and The Journalist’s Resource presented.

All participants identified as professional writers and most were current or former journalists with about 14 years of experience, on average. They were presented with the same headlines and asked the same questions as participants in the other survey.

The authors write that the findings of this survey represented a “notable departure” from the other findings. The writers and journalists surveyed did not prefer simpler headlines over complex ones, and they were much better at recalling whether the three-word phrase appeared in both simple and complex headlines.

“They’re not deterred by cognitive complexity,” Rogers says. “They don’t have the same intuitions or experiences reading as normal news readers.”

That, Rogers adds, is a main takeaway for journalists: Be aware that your experience and your audiences’ experience when interpreting headlines may be leagues apart — and lean into simplicity.

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