Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Made you look.

When I first worked at The Cincinnati Enquirer in 1980, the newspaper used the Hendrix publishing system, on which the slug, or working title, of a story was limited to six letters. Rawsex was a popular slug, and dropping a story with that slug on the copy desk was like dropping a calf into a stream full of piranha.

About ninety percent of the time, RAWSEX would be about ORSANCO, the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, or some equally gripping topic, and about ten percent of the time it would be about sex, but it always got picked up fast, which was the city desk’s intention.

I mention this in connection with yesterday’s post, “You call that a great headline?”

I wrote the post to take exception with Howard Owens’s tweet about a three-year-old headline, “Skywalkers in Korea Cross Han Solo," as being a great one that any copy editor would envy.

Mr. Owens subsequently took exception to my exception, commenting (and you’ll want to be sure to look at the comments, which came in a burst after Romenesko linked to the post):

I think the fact that the headline has gotten so much attention speaks for itself.

The headline did its job -- got attention to the story.

End of story.

Great headline. One of the best ever.

By that standard, one, by the way, echoed by other commenters, ‘RAWSEX” would be an even greater one. Maybe add an exclamation point.

When he was in charge of the copy editors at the Free Press in Detroit, Alex Cruden conducted a series of headline workshops at American Copy Editor Society conferences, the American Press Institute, and other venues, in which he empaneled civilians — actual readers — to comment on a variety of headlines while muzzled copy editors looked on.

The results were startling to many of the copy editors. Even veteran readers of newspapers did not always pick up on all the headline conventions. And one thing came up repeatedly, in panel after panel across the country: Readers were much less impressed with clever headlines and wordplay than the editors who wrote them. What the readers wanted was clarity.

Not to mention that many clever headlines in newspapers are hardly more than obvious puns, suggesting that copy editors as a group share one of the characteristics that Samuel Johnson found in Shakespeare: “A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.”

It remains only to make a couple of points about the alternative headline I mentioned yesterday, my old friend Paul Clark’s “Freedom’s just another bird with nothing left to lose.”

If memory serves, I was the slot editor who approved it for Page One, and I did — pace, commenters — not to allude to Janis Joplin. Without going into the philosophical underpinning of “Me and Bobby McGee,” I thought the headline suggested that the signature line of the song had a parallel to this eagle that had twice been injured.

I’m afraid that nearly all of you who commented on it missed a salient point. Over or the past several years, when I have used this headline in my editing class at Loyola, I have gotten blank looks from every student. If you caught the allusion, then you are probably a fogy like me who still reads things in print. If you drew a blank, you’re probably under forty. If I were in a position to approve that headline today, I’d probably have to kick it back to the editor, much as I like it. Allusion is slippery.

One last thing, commenting on Twitter, Steve Buttry, a classy guy, wrote, “We disagree, but I call attention to John's argument.” Contrast that with a comment by someone named Ray, who wrote, “It's a good headline. It only took a look at the accompanying picture to know what the story was about. This is just a case of sour grapes on McIntyre's part.”


  1. Steve Buttry's comment echoes what I often tell people, based on decades of experience managing people and being a journalist in Washington: Listen to other people's arguments, because you should always consider the possibility that you might be wrong. Our pastor pointed out recently that our church was founded by people who were wrong. They left another church over the issue of slavery. History proved them wrong.

  2. Surely the "job" of a headline is to tell the reader what, in a nutshell, the article is about. It should not be primarily about getting the reader's attention. If the reader reads the article beneath a snappy headline and then realizes the headline misrepresented the article, or had nothing to do with it, he or she will not be happy. That said, I once wrote a headline in a gay newspaper in the mid-1990s for an article about a Navy man the military was trying to kick out: it read: "Judge blocks discharge of gay seaman". I couldn't resist, and the levity did not seem out of place.

  3. What Rolig said. I don't know what the Skywalker article was about, but it will only work if, after the article is read, the reader still admires it. If he doesn't, it'll leave a bad taste in his mouth.

    Besides, from this distance, the headline looks too labored.

    There's a saying in editing I've heard: Kill your poodles. These are the bits you admire that distract from the purpose of the story. Sometimes, you gotta kill the poodle.

  4. Ray's comment about "accompanying pictures" just proves the danger of "fun" headlines, IMO--in most online contexts, all the reader has to go on is a headline w/o any accompanying contextual clues to the subject matter, making it all the more imperative that a headline describe the actual content of the story. I find magazines sold in supermarket aisles particularly infuriating on this score--I'll grab one on the basis of a "sexy" headline but am never able to even locate the story it belongs to by the time I've reached the front of the line.

  5. John, at the end of the week, you'll have to share how many hits this post gets. Will it be an example of "Search Engine Optimization" at its best? Or worst?

  6. I couldn't agree more with the readers who preferred informative headlines to clever ones. I talk back to my paper in the morning, and what I often say (in addition to 'Would it kill you to use the past perfect?') is 'Just tell me the dang news.'

  7. Tabloid headlines, of course, deliberatively mislead in order to suck readers into mediocre stories. "Clams can cure cancer," declared one tabloid headline above a story that that a chemical in clams might have some benefit fighting cancer. I read the story hoping that a pinch from two clam shells blocked cancer's growth.

    The clearest headline I ever wrote:

    If your tooth is knocked out,/
    put it back; it might stay

    John, do you have favorite headlines among the thousands you must have written?

  8. The reference to Me and Bobby McGee brings a couple of items to mind.

    First, the day after your post a gentleman by the name of Preedom was scheduled to be sentenced on a rape charge. All morning the line, "Preedom is just another word for nothing left to lose" kept running through my mind. I was sure, however, that my headline on the story would be "Preedom loses his freedom."

    After sitting through a very emotional sentencing, however, I decided that headline was far too trival for a case that has significant emotional impacted on the lives of two innocent families.

    My competition, which did not send a reporter to court hat day (and had never previously covered this particular case) got the sentencing confirmation from the court clerk and ran a three paragraph story with the headline "Preedom loses his freedom."

    I think I made the right choice in rejecting that headline.

    The other song lyric headline I recall was from an API copy editors conference I attended at USC in the late 1980s (look up the date -- Stevie Ray Vaughn died in a helicopter crash while I was at the conference).

    The headline was "She's got a ticket to write."

    I believe it was also over a Washington Post story.

    It was a story about a meter maid. Her real name was Rita.

    The copy editor/teacher who was leading our class that day was very proud of his headline.

    It wasn't until some time later that the light went off in my head, "Hey, that's wrong." "She's got a ticket to ride" is not the same song as "Lovely Rita, meter maid ... " The copy editor confused his Beatles lyrics, which I think diminished the headline. For 25 years I've wanted to find that copy editor and shake him.

    All that said, I think you commit the logical fallacy of a false comparison by bringing in RAWSEX. Nobody is talking about writing headlines merely to grab attention, especially to the point of blantant salciousness. The debate is whether a particular headline was both appropriate and grabbed attention. By that standard, I stand by my original assertion that it was a great headline.

  9. BTW: That headline and Steve Ray's death are the only two things I remember from that API conference.

    SRV's death stands out particularly because I wasn't a fan at the time, but my paper had recently hired a young reporter whom I barely knew at that point, but I knew she was an SRV fan, so I immediately thought of her when I learned of SRV's death from CNN.

    At this moment, that young reporter is sitting in the chair next to me. We'll celebrate 17 years of marriage this year.

    Howard Owens
    Publisher, The Batavian

  10. Mr. Owens and I continue to disagree about the merits of the "Han Solo" headline, but I appreciate his taking the time and trouble to explain his reasons more fully.

  11. I love that John has stimulated a good conversation over the purposes and merits of headlines. I still disagree with him on the "Han Solo" headline, though I agree that a strained clever head or a clever head on a serious story are not effective. This was effective because the story was a bright (not an important news story that demanded a headline telling you what it was about) and it was accompanied by a photo that told you right away what it was about. It was a good headline and this is a good discussion.