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The technically correct strapline

(Re)Stumbled upon this article, by Ed Yong in The Atlantic, July 2016, this morning. As usual, it is rivetingly packaged. The strapline in particular caught my eye:

Biology textbooks tell us that lichens are alliances between two organisms—a fungus and an alga. They are wrong.

Makes you go “Wow”, doesn’t it? But then you read the article and realise the strap is not entirely right. Lichens are still symbiotic unions of fungi and algae; the new finding is that there are two types of fungi involved, not one. You realise it’s the sort of blurb that only a pedantic biologist might be able to defend, or the sort of blurb most readers could be expected to gloss over because the article’s author is Ed Yong.

I would never have used this strapline to describe the story. Instead, here’s the one we did use for Nandita Jayaraj’s story on the same topic:

Lichens are the most famous and successful examples of symbiosis on Earth, but an unexpected discovery of a third player in this composite organism has given their study a much needed jolt.

As R. Prasad, the science editor of The Hindu, says,

… the strapline (or deck) together with the headline makes the sales pitch to the reader for her time. The headline is often the sole bit of metadata that will be most visible on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and is the one that’ll be most commonly shared (my guess). This way, the headline makes the all-important elevator pitch to bring the reader off of her platform and onto our site. Once she’s here, the strapline makes a more extended pitch to get her to start reading the body.

For curiosity gap headlines, the strapline often heightens the curiosity instead of fulfilling it. This is also true in the Ed Yong article: the headline makes you wonder what bit of biology was overturned; the strapline takes over from there, focuses your imagination into the niche, and still keeps you wondering (not necessarily about the same thing). The question here to me is whether it’s okay to be only technically right in the strapline because it’s still part of the inverted pyramid, where you can get away with making generalisations at the top as you funnel the reader’s curiosity into more specific niches below.

As a prolific consumer of science writing both fab and crap, The Atlantic‘s strap is not good enough for me; it’s a letdown. While Yong does a typically good job of dramatising the reveal, it pales in comparison to what the strap seemed to suggest. Such a description would be par for the course on, say, the Times of India, but I would expect much better from The Atlantic. It often feels like the smaller publishers are held to higher standards than the bigger ones, and in this sense The Atlantic certainly towers over The Wire.

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