by Michael Sweeney, Professor; Associate Director for Graduate Studies
The Web is erasing a fine, old, delicate art: The crafting of a good headline.
Headlines that appear in print publications are incredibly hard to write well. They must say something engaging, yet fit the allotted space. It’s no good to have a clever headline that won’t fit the six inches or so of white space above a three-column story on the front page.
It’s different on the Web. Space is theoretically infinite, and nobody cares about fine-tuning the words in rectangles of white space on the screen because browser settings often alter how the type appears on individual computers. True, it’s nice to have a headline that doesn’t wrap onto a second line. But nobody “counts” headlines on the Web to make sure they occupy just the right amount of space.
Headline writers on the Web say what they need to say, and space be damned.
More about that later. First, let me tell you how it was in the old days (when I was paid to write headlines).
I love a cartoon that used to hang in a newsroom artist’s office.
It appears to be vintage 1969, from the summer that gave us the lunar landing. That was the biggest news of the space program and the story with the easiest headline to write.
The drawing shows a man reading an open paper. The headline type on the front page is as big as his head.
“MAN ON” it screams. Then, smaller, “See moon on Page 2.”
I call this it journalistic eclipse.
It is a paradox of headlines that the biggest news forces the headline writer to use the smallest number of words.
This challenge makes traditional headline writing an underappreciated art.
You can tell a lot about a publication by its headlines. They can be outrageous or boring, stick to the facts or stretch them.
A British tabloid, for example, once ran a story about Queen Elizabeth dining in Belize, an English-speaking country in Central America.
Apparently one of the dishes was a native rodent.
The tab’s head? “Queen eats a rat.”
The great, gray East Coast papers, given the same story today, probably would come up with something like “Queen has unusual dinner, is surprised at what it is.”
Maybe not that, exactly, but you get the idea.
These examples reflect two philosophies about what headlines should do. I call them “circus barkers” and “window shoppers.”
In the former, headlines are intended to tease or draw the reader into the story, much like a barker who says you’ve just got to see the dancing girls inside the tent. These headlines don’t say as much, but they say it with style.
In the latter, headlines are a way for readers skimming through a publication to find out in a hurry what’s going on, much as pedestrians on downtown streets can look at the window displays to see what’s for sale. They don’t have to dig through what’s inside to know what’s there.
Most traditional papers will mix these kinds of headlines to match the tone of their stories. Serious stories require serious headlines, and any miscasting of the tone of the head tends to jar. Headlines fall flat when they try to be cute on stories that aren’t.
Besides the tone, headlines must navigate through a lot of potential problems. Errors in spelling, fact and grammar cast doubt on a publication’s intelligence.
Headlines that say more than stories, such as heads reporting a fact that can’t be confirmed, mislead the reader. And headlines that can be read two ways sometimes are unintentionally funny. I tell beginners that they shouldn’t write headlines with the idea of being understood; they should write to avoid being misunderstood.
This brings me back to Web headlines. Many online readers get directed to news stories on the Web by search engines such as Google and Yahoo. Typically, the search algorithms in these engines seek key words in the lead paragraph, headline, and meta-tags. Thus, headline writers for online stories are well-served by loading their headlines and lead paragraphs with as many keyword-searchable terms as possible. Full names work best in headlines because people search for “Michael Jackson” instead of Michael, or Jackson, independently. They don’t search for clever, circus-barker words, such as the kind that work well with photos, deck heads, and the context provided by a full, printed newspaper page. The headline “Bastards!” on the front page of the San Francisco Examiner on the day after the 9-11 attacks would rank pretty low on the “search engine optimization” scales that promote readership online. But remember, that kind of headline is something of an anomaly on the Web.
Is the change from traditional headlines to Web headlines a good thing or a bad thing? I suppose the answer is in the eye of the beholder. As an old green eyeshade who used to sweat making headlines fit on deadline at 12:55 a.m. in the backshop, all I can say is, it’s easier to write headlines today that it used to be. I feel a twinge of nostalgia, and a bit of regret, at the loss of an art form.