graphic of a newspaper front page filled with the words "Keep it Simple"

Reading Dies in Complexity – new study co-authored by Professor Todd Rogers

New research co-authored by Shorenstein Center resident faculty member Todd Rogers suggests that simpler writing may be the key to attracting readers in today’s crowded online news landscape. A large-scale study analyzing over 30,000 headline experiments on news websites found that readers were consistently more likely to click on and engage with news headlines written in clear, straightforward language rather than complex jargon or wordy phrases.

The findings, published in the journal Science Advances from the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), are based on data collected from thousands of “A/B tests” – experiments where news outlets present readers with two different versions of a headline or article to see which performs better. Researchers analyzed over 30,000 such tests conducted by The Washington Post and Upworthy between 2013-2022, looking at how variations in writing style impacted reader behavior.

Across both the traditional and nontraditional news sites, the data showed a consistent pattern – headlines using simpler language with more common words, an easier reading level, and a less formal writing style consistently outperformed more complex alternatives. For instance, at The Washington Post, headlines rated as simpler on the researchers’ index received on average about 1% more clicks than more complex headlines.

While a 1% difference may seem small, the researchers note that given the massive scale of online news audiences, even subtle effects can translate to thousands or tens of thousands of additional readers. At The Post, which averages over 70 million unique visitors per month, that 1% gap could mean over 200,000 more people reading an article due to its more accessible headline alone.

To better understand why simpler headline writing performed better, the researchers conducted an online experiment with over 500 general news consumers. Participants were randomly assigned to view either simple or complex versions of the same headlines and later completed a test to measure how well they remembered each version.

The results showed people were approximately three times more likely to select the simpler headline versions when first presented with a choice. Later in the study, participants also demonstrated significantly better recall of the simpler headlines’ wording and content compared to the more complex alternatives. According to the researchers, this provides evidence that readers are unconsciously prioritizing clearer language and skipping over wordier phrases in order to efficiently allocate their limited attention.

Interestingly, when the same experiment was conducted with a sample of professional journalists and writers, this pattern did not hold. Journalists performed equally well in the memory test no matter the headline complexity, and showed no preference between simple and complex versions of headlines. Their memory for headline details was also significantly better overall compared to general news consumers.

Furthermore, in a follow-up test, journalists proved no better than chance at correctly identifying which headlines from The Post‘s experiments had actually received the most clicks. This “disconnect” between how journalists read the news and how general audiences do suggests experts may struggle to adopt the perspective of casual readers.

The findings have important practical implications, according to the researchers. In today’s crowded media landscape where high-quality journalism must compete for attention alongside misinformation and hyper-partisan content, even subtle adjustments to writing style could help credible news sources increase readership. While complex topics may still require nuanced explanations, clear, accessible language may be key to drawing readers in online. For news outlets aiming to inform as many people as possible, this simple insight could make a big difference.

Read the full study here in Science Advances.