Why online headlines are at times different from the printed version

Wednesday March 18 2020

Kenyan newspapers carry distinct headlines on the death of former President Daniel arap Moi, on February 4, 2020. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NATION MEDIA GROUP


One of the best-known quotes by John Caples is: “The purpose of the headlines must be to convey a message to people who read headlines then decide whether or not they will look at the copy.”

The legendary American advertising copywriter understood well the purpose and function of headlines.

He said they are critically important as the majority of the public reads little else when deciding whether or not they are interested in reading the rest of the story.

Caples quickly came to mind when a reader asked me why headlines in the print edition of the Nation are different from those in the online edition.

The reader, who prefers to go by the initials IP, cited the example of the headline “Witness to history: How Moi saved the nation from Mt Kenya oligarchs” and its online counterpart, “Jomo’s death: How Moi astutely managed power transition”.


The two different headlines cover the same story by Salim Lone, published in the Daily Nation on February 9, 2020. So, why are they different, IP asked.

It’s a question of what works best in print or in the web. In fact, most of the time, the headlines are the same.

However, the print and online are different mediums with different reader demographics and experiences.

Studies show that those who read the print version are more willing to spend time reading the articles while online readers tend to be looking for specific information and scan more than read.

Still, in both mediums, headlines have to be attractive enough to grab the attention of the reader. However, the way this works is different in each.


There are key differences in how headlines function on print and on screen. Headlines on print are viewed in context with other elements including page layout and presentation, accompanying images and text.

So the reader can immediately decide whether to read the story or not. Headlines in the online version stand alone. One needs to click on them to see the story.

Sometimes the Nation runs different headlines online and in print for different reasons but most likely because of space.

For print, headlines are written to fit a specific space and space is limited. Online headlines have less space restrictions and may be longer to make them enticing enough for readers to want to click on them.


Print headlines can afford to be shorter as they are accompanied by images and text that provide meaningful context and set in bigger font to command attention.

The web ones must catch the readers’ eye without the help of bigger fonts, subheadings, story text and, often, without images. They must also contain words optimised for search engines.

However, all headlines must help readers to decide whether or not they will look at the story, as Caples advices.

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