Choppable but not terribly clickable
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  • Choppable but not terribly clickable

My favorite recent headline is this:

“Why bitterly fight this eggplant, when it could save lives?”

It was written to tease, and it did. It ran at the top of the front page of the Sunday Review section of the New York Times. The story lay within.

The eggplant is an earnest clumsy ovoid that desperately wants to be liked. I’d favor burying the hatchet with it even if it weren’t my wife’s favorite vegetable. How did things ever go so wrong between us? I turned pages eagerly to find the story.

The article turned out not to be about misunderstood eggplants. It’s about misunderstood GMOs, or genetically modified organisms. The writer, Cornell researcher Mark Lynas, had a serious case to make about famine and science and so forth. But you know how it is with serious cases. The touch of whimsy was shrewdly deployed.

But online, whimsy doesn’t cut it. Online headlines need to consist of keywords that will make news apps sit up and take notice, not of flights of fancy. So the only headline at the Times‘s website was the head over the story proper on page five, the utilitarian “How I Got Converted to G.M.O. Food.”

The Times‘s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, addressed the subject in a recent column. “These days, if headlines sometimes read less like haiku and more like jumbles of keywords, so that articles are easier to find, that’s just practical necessity,” she wrote.

Less like haiku—and also less like Lewis Carroll. As I mentioned recently, nothing ever amused me more than Through the Looking Glass on the etiquette of eating foods you’ve been introduced to. Said the Red Queen: “Pudding—Alice: Alice—Pudding. Remove the pudding!”

Like Lewis Carroll, a newspaper head can profitably question our relationships with our vegetables. But online, don’t bother.