One Title Is Better Than Two

Can we all agree that having more than one title for a magazine article is confusing and counterproductive? I try to read a feature article every day from the magazines piled on my desk and the ones taking up virtual bits on my phone. The problem for me is that the title of the article in the printed magazine rarely matches the title in the digital version. How can one discuss an article with a friend if the same article has more than one title?

Take, for example, an article I read in the January/February issue of The Atlantic. The title of the article (which I read on my phone) was “The Christian Withdrawal Experiment” by Emma Green. At the conclusion of the article is this message: “This article appears in the January/February 2020 print edition with the headline ‘Retreat, Christian Soldiers.’”

Having written nonfiction for magazines, I know that the author’s title is rarely the title that makes it to the page. When I wrote for The Daily Beast, I don’t think any of the titles on my manuscripts were ever used in the actual article. I assume this is because editors are smarter than I am about what attracts online readers with shortening attentions spans. Presumably, if someone is reading the print version, they are in no hurry so a different, less click-bait-heavy title is warranted.

(When I write fiction, editors rarely changed my titles. Indeed, I can think of only one time when an editor requested a minor title change—and it ended up leading to my friendship with the science fiction writer Allen Steele.)

The problem with two different titles for the same article is that it makes it hard to refer to the article when discussing it with friends and family. A few days earlier, I read a fascinating, long piece in the digital version of The New Yorker titled “Quassem Suleimani and How Nations Decide to Kill” by Adam Entous and Evan Osnos. This is a particularly wordy title, and the words, I imagine (“Suleimani”, “Nations”, “Kill”) are specifically chosen to capture clicks and views. In the print edition, the same article has the snappier, shorter title, “Last Man Standing.” Considering the nature of the article, the latter title is far superior.

The online titles are inevitably more verbose than their terser print companions. Take the February issue of National Geographic, for instance. Here are the titles of the feature articles in the print and online editions:

Print EditionOnline Edition
“The Last Slave Ship” “America’s last slave ship stole them from home. It couldn’t steal their identities”
“Prairie Divide” “Two visions collide amid push to restore Montana plains”
“Redefining Beauty” “The idea of beauty is always shifting. Today, it’s more inclusive than ever”
“Flamingo Bob” “Meet Flamingo Bob, the poster bird for conservation”
“A Journey with Spice” “This Vietnamese national park is a spice lover’s dream”

If I refer to the online title in speaking to someone who reads the print edition, they might not have any idea what article I was talking about, especially if they haven’t read it yet.

And which of the titles is the “official” title? How does the The New Yorker handle this? Is this the kind of thing that would have driven William Shawn crazy? Of course, Shawn was out at the New Yorker before the Internet and online editions, so it was not something he had to deal with. Do magazines differ in their policies for having an online title and a print title as far as which one is official? What are the standards for citing such an article? Does it matter if you read it in the online edition or the print edition? Certainly, I can imagine some citations referring to the online title, and others to the print title, which creates further confusion.

Also, the online titles are invariable longer and more terrible than their print counterparts. There is an elegance of brevity to the print titles that often infuse them with wit. The Entous and Osnos article in The New Yorker is one example of this. “Prairie Divide” is another good title that succinctly summarizes the crux of the article whereas “Two visions collide amid push to restore Montana plains” is a mouthful, and quite frankly, is an inelegant and terrible title.

I was thinking about this because I have been trying to jot down the articles I read each day in my bullet journal. I started by scribbling just the title as it appeared in whatever medium I happened to be reading. But the notion that this might prove confusing has forced me to record both titles. The first title I write is the one that appeared in the medium that I read the article. Then, parenthetically, I write the alternate title.

I, therefore, make a humble appeal to editors everywhere: call the article whatever you like. But to spare me the extra effort it takes to look up and write the alternate titles in my notes, to say nothing of the confusion it causes, please settle on a single title for all editions.

This post will someday appear in a print edition with the title, “Title Confusion.”

One comment

  1. The point of the online titles is SEO. I read an article about that once, which had a different title in the print edition. 🙂

    (You hit on this above, when you noted that one title seems “specifically chosen to capture clicks and views.”)


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