What is Dek or Subhed Is in Journalism?

This line is a dek

Journalist working on laptop
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A "dek" is a journalism term for the summary that appears below the headline of a story on a printed page, usually in a smaller font (but in a larger font than the main body of the article).

Dek, like other slang terms editors and copy editors use when they are referring to stories they are working on, is a word you might hear spoken or written on a story during the editing process but is seldom seen in a printed sentence.

In journalism jargon, the terms subhed or dek may be used interchangeably, but it is also referred to as a subhead, subheading, slug, subtitle or deck.

Why 'Dek' Is Spelled Oddly

Why the misspelling? The same reason the word "lede," referring to an article's opening paragraph (or "graf") is spelled wrong: Copy editors write such notations directly on printed proofs of newspaper pages, and by misspelling the terms, make it clear that it was an instruction or reference for the page layout editor or typesetter, not a missing word to be inserted into the copy itself. 

What Makes a Dek

In the early days of newspapers, one article might have several headlines and subheadlines stacked up on each other, in what became known as a "deck" or "dek." It's unusual for an article to have more than one headline and subheadline in modern newspapers since the news hole (the amount of physical space on the page for news copy) has grown smaller. 

In traditional print publications, it does not matter if the dek is super short, just a phrase, a sentence, a blurb or even a full paragraph, as long as it helps readers get an idea of the story and make a decision about whether they should continue on to read the full article. 

The dek informs the reader about the topic at hand, and usually complements or further explains the headline. 

How to Write a Dek

Before news was published online, requiring optimization for keywords and search engines, traditional print publications like newspapers and magazines used deks that were fairly substantive. Headlines were catchy and written to entertain while subheads were expected to carry the weight of explaining what the story was actually about.

But with search engines such as Google which drive much of the traffic to online news articles, headlines now play a large role in how a dek is written. To ensure that a search engine can pick up and identify articles based on the content in the whole article, it's important that the headline itself is both optimized and to the point.

No longer are headlines merely entertaining, instead, they get to the point and address what the article is about without relying on the dek to do the explaining.

For online publishing, the dek would most likely be placed in the reserved "short article summary" area of the website or in the meta description box that accompanies the whole article, to briefly sum up what the article is about.

To write a well-formed dek or meta description, consider the following steps:

  • Summarize but don't give away the full story.
  • Consider and incorporate SEO, this includes being mindful of character limits and keyword inclusion.
  • Let the reader know the type of story she is about to see, i.e. an interview, list, review or Q&A.
  • Leave out any acronyms or abbreviations and avoid puns (search engines aren't clever enough).
  • Be brief and to the point.
  • Use verbs and the article's voice or tone.
  • Provide just enough detail and information to get readers to move onto reading the article itself.