‘What a bozo move’: Publishers react to X update removing headlines from posts

Another day, another platform change at X.

As of last week, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter no longer automatically features headlines in posts containing links. This change has led publishers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, to notify their newsrooms with guidelines for posting to the platform.

The Washington Post’s deputy director of social and off-platform curation Travis Lyles sent out a memo to the newsroom on Friday, which was shared with Digiday, encouraging journalists to include the full context of an article in the text of a link post. “Your share text should now act like more of a headline. Don’t be afraid to over-explain and direct followers to read more by clicking the link,” the memo reads.

The memo also urges journalists to choose the best and most relevant image for link posts. “Consider what the best share image is for your story before publishing and avoid more general images, such as exterior photos of government buildings, that do not directly reflect the story,” the memo reads. The memo adds that The Washington Post’s main account won’t retweet journalists’ tweets that do not follow this guidance.

“We just have to be on our toes at all times and be even more attentive than we were,” Lyles said. While the Post occasionally posts articles with images on X that feature a headline, Lyles said it would be unsustainable to create a designed card for each X post due to the amount the Post tweets.

Last week, The New York Times’ social team told the newsroom: “It goes without saying that without a headline on a link preview, what we put in social copy on the X platform is all the more important. The good news, for all of us, is that our social style guide essentially accounts for this. Whether you’re posting from your own personal account or an official Times account, it’s worth a reminder on this style guide.”

A Times spokesperson said the publisher’s social team contacted its newsroom on Slack and other channels on Oct. 4 to remind staff of the Times’ internal style guidance for social media usage, which was shared with Digiday. In place since 2020, the guidance reads: “Social copy should be written as if it is the ONLY thing a reader may see of a story. Do not assume that readers will see the headline or promo image, especially on Twitter.”

Some publishers, like The New York Times and The Hollywood Reporter, already had the text in X posts auto-populated with headlines. Other publishers, including USA Today added shortened URLs to the body of their tweets to emphasize that the posts contain a link to an article. Reuters has taken another approach — instead of posting a link, the publisher is posting an article’s lead image along with a URL.

Andy Campbell, a senior editor at HuffPost, shared some guidance: attach a photo to the post that shows the headline, outline and byline, as well as a link to the story and “alt text,” or a description of the image. Publishers like the AP have started using the alt text feature to highlight their publication’s URL.

One publishing exec said their team had already been pulling away from sharing link posts due to a notable decline in engagement on the platform this year.

“Traffic is not what it used to be,” they said, but didn’t provide exact figures. “Since we were scaling back [on posting link posts] anyway, posts aren’t a huge priority for us.”

An ‘esthetic’ update?

X’s removal of headlines from linked posts is one of a head-spinning number of changes to the platform since Elon Musk bought the company last year. This recent update is part of Musk’s larger goal to keep X users on the platform and not direct them to other sites (publishers told Digiday last week that Meta’s move away from news publishers is part of a similar emphasis on keeping users on the platform longer). 

“Our algorithm tries to optimize time spent on X, so links don’t get as much attention, because there is less time spent if people click away,” Musk said in a tweet last Tuesday.

“What a bozo move,” said a second publishing exec — seemingly summing up the consensus response among publishers.

Case in point: Slate’s social team took a humorous approach to it all, tweeting out a string of link posts with the simple text, “Whoa—you have GOT to read this.” A Slate spokesperson described it as a temporary stunt. “What we felt was the appropriate, maybe effective, definitely fun, response to Elon Musk’s new and inventive way to deprioritize news on Twitter,” they said. “We will continue to share our work on X, but due to the diminishing returns, we’ll limit the amount of time and effort we spend trying to come up with a strategy for a broken platform,” the spokesperson added.

X has taken a more antagonistic approach to its relationship with publishers on the platform since Musk’s takeover. In April, the platform removed verification badges from some news sites. Last month, X slowed the page load speed of links to news organizations like The New York Times and Reuters, as well as other platforms like Substack. The Times saw a drop in referral traffic as a result.

Musk took credit for the change to link posts, and suggested it was made to improve the user experience better. “This is coming from me directly. Will greatly improve the esthetics [sic],” he tweeted in August.

But publishing execs that Digiday spoke to strongly disagreed.

“I think [X is] going to very quickly find out that it’s just not serving anyone’s interests to do this. An image associated with a story really does need a headline. And we may see if there’s this bizarre reliance on those images and it’s just going to devolve into YouTube-esque, thumbnails that are just over-sensationalized and kind of gaudy,” said the second publishing exec.

Better or worse for referral traffic?

Publishers are already struggling with declining referral traffic from X. This change has the potential to make matters worse.

The Washington Post’s newsroom memo warns that these changes could lead to further declines in referral traffic: “Not only is this platform change likely to have an adverse effect on clickthrough rates, it also limits the information and context surrounding a feature image, presenting a larger opportunity for misinformation.”

Lyles said it was “hard to tell” what kind of impact this update will have on referral traffic. “I definitely don’t think less context [in X posts] will lead to more link clicks,” he said.

While the first publishing exec hadn’t noted any changes to clicks or referral traffic as of Thursday evening, they speculated that in the short term, the X update might lead to the opposite of what Musk intended and increase clicks to link posts.

“One part of me really does think that perhaps these are all just little short-term engagement plays to keep pumping those numbers. If you click five or six extra times because that’s the only way for you to actually figure out what the link is about, that’s a great way to artificially inflate your referral figures for the next quarter,” the first publishing exec said.

https://digiday.com/?p=521124

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