Anticipating Attention: On the Predictability of News Headline Tests

Nick Hagar, Nicholas Diakopoulos*, Burton DeWilde

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Headlines play an important role in both news audiences' attention decisions online and in news organizations’ efforts to attract that attention. A large body of research focuses on developing generally applicable heuristics for more effective headline writing. In this work, we measure the importance of a number of theoretically motivated textual features to headline performance. Using a corpus of hundreds of thousands of headline A/B tests run by hundreds of news publishers, we develop and evaluate a machine-learned model to predict headline testing outcomes. We find that the model exhibits modest performance above baseline and further estimate an empirical upper bound for such content-based prediction in this domain, indicating an important role for non-content-based factors in test outcomes. Together, these results suggest that any particular headline writing approach has only a marginal impact, and that understanding reader behavior and headline context are key to predicting news attention decisions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)647-668
Number of pages22
JournalDigital Journalism
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2022


  • Digital journalism
  • computational methods
  • headline writing
  • news attention
  • news production
  • news values
  • text analysis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication


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