Writing good headlines is as much art as it is journalism, and some days we’re more artistic than others.
Good headline writing always has been important to the TNT, but the recession and the Internet, which have tested the news industry in general, also have complicated our efforts to get just the right words in big type.
In 2005, the TNT won the top newspaper headline writing award in the country from the American Copy Editors Society, beating out The Washington Post. The award came after years of pressing for more accurate, inviting and even entertaining headlines.
First, here’s a bit about the mechanics.
Copy editors write the headlines. Reporters sometimes put a suggested headline atop their stories, but a story must be placed on a page before copy editors know how much space they have to work with. The headline could be one to four lines deep and one to six columns wide. Lead headlines appear in bigger type that allows fewer letters. Tiny headlines over brief stories are much less restrictive.
“There are two essential ingredients in a good headline,” said Jim Kresse, our copy desk chief. “It must relay enough information to let the reader know what the story is about, and it must be enticing enough to make the reader want to read the story.”
Each headline has two key parts – a subject to let readers know who or what is creating the action and a verb to indicate what is happening. To say “Group takes action” won’t suffice. What group? What action? The reader needs to know at a glance.
“The headline also must fit the tone of the story,” Kresse said. “The more serious the story, the straighter the headline. On the other end, feature stories often carry headlines that are clever or humorous (or at least purport to be). Sometimes we put a twist on a common cultural reference to give the headline more interest.”
Friday’s GO section had this headline: “If you teach villagers to make art ..., ” a play on the adage about teaching a man to fish.
One rule at our morning news critique is that editors can’t criticize a headline unless they can offer a better one.
Here’s one you can try at home. Following is the first sentence of a news story that ran Friday. The copy editor had three lines of no more than eight letters each in which to write a headline. Give it a try.
“WASHINGTON – An unpopular tax filing requirement for businesses tucked into the new health care law would be repealed under a bill passed by the house on Thursday.”
Now consider how little time the copy editor had to write that headline. Two editors Thursday night crafted almost all of the 39 headlines on Friday’s news pages. They also had to edit all 39 stories, trimming them to fit, checking them for spelling, grammar, fairness, completeness and context.
They also edited and headlined all the stories that ran in Friday’s Olympian, which we also produce from our copy desk.
In fatter staffing times before the recession, we had more editors with more time to spend writing headlines.
Some in our industry also are blaming the Internet for the demise of creative headline writing. To stand any chance of showing up in a Google search, an online headline must contain key words readers would enter into a search box. Often, readers type the word “Tacoma” or another place name into their search, for instance, so those words should appear in a headline.
Filling a headline with good search words tends to make them more straightforward, but also can make them deadly dull. Our solution is to rewrite headlines when we post stories online.
Friday’s GO section, for instance, contained these headlines: “Prepare your palate for new eateries” and “Sweet seats.” Online, they appeared as: “Prepare your palate for new eateries in Tacoma, Puyallup and Gig Harbor” and “Museum of Glass Chair Affair: Auction of artist-adorned chairs benefits NW Furniture Bank.”
Now more than ever, I have great respect for good headline writers at our paper and others.
Here’s the headline our copy editor wrote over the story above: “House nixes tax rule.”
Please continue to call when you dislike a headline that appears in our paper. But don’t be surprised if we challenge you to come up with something better.
Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434