Pulitzer Prize winner Gene Weingarten wrote a column for the Washington Post about the lost art of writing headlines. Like circulation and ad dollars, headlines - good ones - are becoming a victim of online media. As papers transition to the web (don't people use the word transition as a euphemism when people die? Anyway.), witty, clever, amusing and outrageous headlines are no longer needed, or even desired. Instead, as Weingarten wrote, headlines are now "designed for search engine optimization." Great. Paper versions can still deliver the goods, but fewer people see the hard copy version so fewer readers get to appreciate the creativity of copy editors, who are usually seen as a dour group of people only obsessed with proper use of commas.
When I worked as a newspaper copy editor, we wrote the headlines and I liked that part of the job more than anything. We also designed the pages, and some people enjoy that aspect more. But give me the headline writing.
It's not as fun if you're on a news desk. Earthquakes, budget deals and city council meetings rarely lend themselves to creative headlines. Also, copy editors on the news desk often write headlines for stories about investigations. Investigations into politicians and corrupt cops. Investigations into bankers who embezzle and dads who write bad checks. Investigations into college basketball players who cheat on tests and coaches who cheat on their wives. Unfortunately, there are very few synonyms for "investigation." And, for the most part, there's only one similar word that fits into a small one-column space: Probe. And copy editors hate using the word probe. It conjures up images of alien abductions and doctor visits that end with a punchline and humiliation. But no matter how much they dislike the word, a news copy editor will inevitably use the word probe in a one-column headline and probably once a month.
Yuck. Back to fun headlines. In sports you get away with more, within reason. A colleague of mine once wrote the headline: FLIP'S FLIP FLIPS FLIP'S WOLVES
Personally, I thought it was genius. Flip Murray tossed in a lucky shot at the buzzer to defeat the Timberwolves, coached by Flip Saunders. Another editor thought it was a bit too much.
The highlight of my time on the sports desk at The Forum in Fargo was when one of our headlines made The Tonight Show, years before everyone hated Jay Leno and stopped watching his show. Most of the headlines Leno displays are mistakes or a typo or an unfortunate picture choice. We knew ours had a chance to get on the air. A few weeks after publication, Leno showed it on his show. This was more thrilling to a copy editor than catching an award-winning reporter misusing there and their.
A writer at the paper, Terry Vandrovec, came up with the headline. All I did was type it onto the page:
FRIKKEN LAYUP DOOMS BISON
The story was about a basketball player named Frikken, who hit a game-winning shot to defeat the North Dakota State men's basketball team. We exchanged high-fives in the newsroom that night.
An old editor of mine, Bob Van Enkenvoort, won an Associated Press award when he penned the perfect headline "Mmm, mmm, goodbye" when the Campbell's Soup factory closed in Worthington.
I still have a dusty file that contains some of my clippings, including old headlines. I have a printout from 2003, when our sports editor sent around a list of some of the department's best headlines of the year, as we debated which ones to enter for competitions.
If I may, some of mine that were up for consideration:
UDDERLY AMAZING (about a kid who owned a dairy herd, had a 4.0 GPA and was a great basketball player. Come on).
BACK ON THE HORSE (gymnastics coach returns to powerhouse he built years earlier)
DEAR JOHN (Feature about a beloved wrestling coach named John who retired)
TWINS PLAY CREDIT CARD (Twins were whining about lack of respect while facing Yankees, who then dispatched Minnesota in the playoffs, proving everyone right, unfortunately)
ANOTHER YANKEE DANDY (Clemens dominates Twins)
HOT COCO BURNS COYOTOES (Player named Coco has big basketball game)
SPANDEX SWAPPER SPARKS SPUDS (Former swimmer became a top-notch wrestler)
And on and on. Some of them are certainly a bit cheesy. But that's part of the fun. Copy editors rely too much on movie and book titles. They rely too much on possibly cliched sayings, but they use them in a way that's usually ironic and puts a new spin on an old line.
You bring readers in with the headline, then tell the real story in the dek right below, then follow with the reporter's story. An older reader used to call periodically and a few times he wanted to know who wrote a particular headline, because he enjoyed it so much. Most of the times readers call to demand why the newspaper hates high school swimming. Or they asks us if we know we possess below-average intelligence. So calls like the headline lover's boost the self-esteem of copy jockeys.
Living in New York, of course, affords me the opportunity to see true headline-writing geniuses at work. I read the Daily News and New York Post every day. Without fail, each paper delivers superb headlines in every edition. I savor papers like The New York Times because of the in-depth reporting and I subscribe to magazines like Esquire and The New Yorker because of the 10,000-word feature stories. But when it comes to summing up a story, a scandal, an arrest, a death or a victory in a short headline, no one competes with the tabloids. Several years ago I had a tryout at the New York Post. It didn't result in a job offer, but during my tryout, I did get to pen a headline that ran with one of the sports section's main stories. It was a simple Mets game story, but it involved Pedro Martinez pitching against the Nationals and Jose Guillen. A game earlier, Pedro had plunked several Nationals hitters, including Guillen. But on that night he shut Guillen down, and the Nationals. The headline: NO WAY, JOSE. Nothing spectacular. An old saying. But seeing it in the next day's newspaper in a giant font gave me a thrill.
Copy editors don't get any credit and if there's a mistake they get all the blame. Many readers think reporters write their own headlines, which proves convenient when an irate subscriber calls in to complain about a headline that "your reporter" wrote. But it also means they don't get the kudos for a superbly crafted headline. And in today's media world, those opportunities are dwindling.
In the big picture, the loss of great headlines obviously isn't the same as the loss of jobs and even entire newspapers. But if newspapers ever do go completely online and great headlines disappear, it means papers would be a little less fun to read. And they'd be a hell of a lot less fun to work at.
UPDATE: Added a link in the post to the Leno clip of The Forum headline. And it's here.