WaPo growing engagement via Facebook

Last summer I decided Facebook was getting in the way of human connections, especially with my wife, because I would spend more time scrolling on the app than actually talking to someone who was in the same room.

I went a month without the app on my phone, and I was impressed with the difference I saw. So impressed, in fact, that I still don’t have the app on my phone. This came in handy during the latest presidential election season to avoid some of the vitriol of partisan political opining. I still log on via my iPad and my computer, but the temptation to scroll like a mindless drone on my phone is no longer present (I may or may not have swapped the addiction with being on Twitter even more, but that’s a post for a different day).


Though I still firmly believe the move to rid myself of easy access to the social media platform was right for me, I recognize it is an important piece to the engagement puzzle for journalists. So when I read The Washington Post was doing some amazing engagement via Facebook, it caught my attention.

According to the Media Shift article, The Post has seen a marked uptick in online engagement due to three reasons:

  • Fostering organic engagement on Facebook.
  • Writing descriptive headlines for Facebook readers.
  • Strength of original reporting.

Original reporting seems like a no-brainer. Any news organization should be striving to produce content readers can’t get anywhere else to ensure people are coming to them to get their information. Though it might be hard to stand out in the noise, if only The Post has a particular story, it still stands to reason it will gain more traction online and get shared.

Of the three, the headlines portion of the article really stood out. According to the report, headlines breaking away from more traditional headline structures and rules cause more engagement by appealing to Facebook’s algorithms. Instead, The Post is having success with headlines meeting the following parameters:

  • They’re conversational and descriptive.
  • They speak to a personal experience.
  • They’re vivid and interesting.

This part of the article sums up the reinvention of the headlines in the age of the Facebook algorithms:

Another article on climate change, which ended up being on the the site’s most engaged stories of the period, was titled ‘The North Pole is an insane 36 degrees warmer than normal as winter descends’. This isn’t exactly the type of headline you’d expect in the Washington Post up until recently.

If this type of headline works, and it clearly does, power to the news organizations doing it. However, it doesn’t sit right with me. It seems to leap over a line of editorializing and sensationalizing the news for the sake of a like, share or click. When I teach my students to write headlines, we talk specifically about not doing this. Perhaps I’m too “old school” and need to update my thinking in this digital age, but, before I do that, I would be interested to know how this increased engagement, at the expense of what I would consider ethical headlines, has resulted in financial gains for The Post. The article didn’t touch on that. I wish it had.

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About toddvogts 819 Articles
Todd R. Vogts, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of media at Sterling College in Kansas. Previously, he taught yearbook, newspaper, newsmagazine, and online journalism in various Kansas high schools, and he ran a weekly newspaper in rural Kansas. He continues to freelance as a professional journalist from time to time. Also, Vogts is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), the Journalism Education Association (JEA), and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), among others. He earned his Master Journalism Educator (MJE) certification from JEA in 2022. When he’s not teaching or writing, he runs his mobile disk jockey service and takes part in other entrepreneurial ventures. He can be reached at twitter.com/toddvogts or via his website at www.toddvogts.com.