Headlines are the only things that matter …

… because you won’t get a second chance, your attempts at context will be missed by many, and you’ll lose any notion of control over your content as well as any chance to guide the conversation. This is a fear and opportunity much discussed in social media, but it applies to the content your social media efforts are directing readers to.

Two recent examples:
Slate, from the e-mail and online editions of “The Slatest Evening Edition”:

 OK, obviously, it’s clear that Obama didn’t heal her with the power of his presence (or his voice) — nor did he give her a spiritual or philosophical awakening.
Still, the headline can easily be troublesome — it implies not only that Obama visited her in the hospital (he did), but also that his visit had some effect on when her eyes opened.

And the biggest problem is that, at least in the comments (a representation of the more rabid Slate readers, if nothing else), the actual story — Giffords’ step toward recovery — was lost in a partisan back-and-forth over nonsense. The headline has grabbed readers, but not for the content, and for a site like Slate, content really matters.
Slate’s a great, smart, ambitious website, so this isn’t an indictment. But it should scare any lesser content producer — if Slate can lose control of its own story this way, so can we.

Example No. 2: Crain’s New York Business:

This was technically one day before the shooting in Arizona, but I don’t think that exonerates this headline.

This is a classic case of exaggerating the headline to make up for what’s a relatively run-of-the-mill story: 7-Eleven is found almost everywhere, is looking to expand, notices Manhattan is a rare place it’s not, and decides, let’s go there. Makes sense. But the headline, whether you want to cite common sense, good taste, 9/11 or simply accuracy, is atrocious. It’s surely offensive to some, and while it will have little or no effect on most readers, it will greatly affect others.

They’ll remember Crain’s New York, but not in a good way. And again, there’s no second chance to regain those readers after a headline that — especially if the story isn’t anything special.

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