Tuesday, January 12, 2010

You call that a great headline?

On Twitter, I came across a tweet from @howardowens: “A copy editor could work a lifetime and never get a chance to write such a great headline.” Intrigued, I clicked on the link and found this Washington Post headline:

Skywalkers in Korea Cross Han Solo

I’m sorry. I can’t endorse this one.

I’ll grant you that it’s cute, and I’m sure it brought a round of chuckles at what remains of the Post’s copy desk. But it’s just arbitrary.

A play on words in a headline, particularly one combined with an allusion, should work both ways. It should give a sense of the content of the story, and the allusion should have some connection with the story. There is no Star Wars angle in the story, so the headline is just standing there, saying, “Look how clever I am.”

I’ll give you an example from the archives of one that works.

Some years back, Bill Clinton visited Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and to commemorate the president’s visit, a bald eagle that had injured a wing and been nursed back to health was released into the wild. They called the eagle “Freedom.” Unfortunately, Freedom promptly got into a scrap with a couple of ospreys, was injured, and was returned to veterinary care.

The irrepressible Paul Clark, then working on The Sun’s copy desk, wrote the headline:

Freedom’s just another bird with nothing left to lose

Watch and learn.


  1. We disagree on this, John. I might agree with you if the story ran without art. But it ran with a picture of a skywalker. The headline's first job is to invite the reader to read the story. I am sure that more read this story with this headline than with another head. (But yes, I like the Freedom head, too.)

  2. The skywalker head said it all. no need to read the story.

    the freedom head is like what John Ciardi said about a good metaphor: surprising and surprisingly rigt.

  3. How can a plural ("skywalkers") do anything "solo"? One after the other, I suppose, but it's still a stretch. I agree...clever, but not a great headline.

  4. I'm with John on this, and I'm a huge Star Wars geek. Clever headlines are a lot of fun, but there's also a time and place - which is part of the trick of writing heds.

    I had a colleague once at a small mining town paper who used to write "funny" headlines for an ongoing story about a town's fight to keep controling interest in its hydroelectric dam. The dam's loss would have meant hundreds of lost jobs in a town of 5,000 - and in that case, the fact that "dam" sounds like a curse word is anything but funny.

    I enjoy the Skywalker line, but in my mind, it's the perfect example of something a desker says and the copy editors laugh about -- before changing the headline to something more appropriate. Once again, cutting the desk means there are fewer extra opinions discussing such mundane details as the appropriateness of headlines.

    It is some nice wordplay, though.

  5. What can ever top "Headless Body in Topless Bar"?

  6. My learned colleague Bill Walsh corrects me: "For the record, that is a Washingtonpost.com headline and not a Washington Post one -- the story didn't appear in the paper."

  7. The date on the story is 2007, isn't it? Why is this surfacing now?

  8. Kate likens this to "something a desker says and the copy editors laugh about -- before changing the headline to something more appropriate." One step beyond that is the headline that is clever enough at the moment it is filed, but does not really work. Many's the time that a slot has saved me from a head like that and pushed for a better one. Nowadays, what's a slot?

    - John Campbell

  9. The best I've ever seen would have to be "Chinks in Royal Armour", about the multiple-murder and suicide in the Nepal royal family.

  10. The story is almost three years old. You can tell by the date at the top of the story and the dismissive print-vs-web sniff from Mr. Walsh.

  11. Wasn't this headline written and posted three years ago?

  12. Not to be obtuse, but how does the "Freedom" headline example meet your standard of the allusion having some connection with the story?

  13. Pop-culture references (sports allusions, too) should ALWAYS be used with caution, since not everyone gets them. (I'd have the same misgivings about the Freedom hed.)That's why "Headless" is so brilliant.

  14. Here's one barometer. Not seeing the story -- or the art -- I had NO idea what the story was about. So, while the hed was clearly clever, it did fail in its primary job.

  15. My favorite headline came about after Mt. Saint Helen blew her top. I can't remember which newspaper it was but the headline said something to the effect, "Mountain Kicks Ash Across Three States."

  16. I'm with Mr. McIntyre on this one -- very clever, but shouldn't have reached publication.

    Now, if Harrison Ford were the skywalker in question, maybe I could endorse it.

    I read this headline and expect some type of Star Wars-related entertainment story. Instead, I get no connection to Star Wars whatsoever, save for some clever word play.

    If I'm searching for, say, the latest fan fiction from the Star Wars universe and come across this, I feel cheated and annoyed. Kind of the same way I feel when I search for something nonpornographic on Google and get porn (like in the newsroom, for instance).

    I could grudingly buy this as a decent print headline if it came with a photo and a subhead that clarifies the cleverness. But online, when so much of our traffic is driven by search, we really ought to be playing it straight. We're doing our readers no favors by making it harder to find the things they're looking for.

  17. Mr. McIntylre had me with him until he cited his contra-example. He complains about the Skywalker headline because "There is no Star Wars angle in the story." So, by that standard, wouldn't the eagle headline require some musical connection? It seems equally random (and less clear, actually).

  18. What can ever top "Headless Body in Topless Bar"

    How about this, on the front page of the NY Daily News, when the transit union "called in sick" as an informal strike:


  19. Did the headline make people want to read the story? Absolutely, apparently. Mission accomplished.

  20. I'm sure you heard about this by now, Mr McIntyre, but just in case... http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/11/AR2010011103690.html?referrer=reddit

  21. You've inspired me to share my favorite headlines from my short time as a copy editor. I hope you like these; they still make me smile:

    On a story about hiking in Maine:

    The terrain of Maine never fails to entertain

    On a story about an Early Music Society concert:

    Tonight, they're gonna party like it's 1099

    On a story about the versatility of bamboo:

    Wop Bop a Lu Bop (We Love Bamboo)

    And my favorite, although it's not entirely accurate, from a story about an upcoming eclipse:

    When the moon
    in the sky
    Can't be seen
    with the eye
    That's an eclipse

    (I don't remember exactly how it fit the space, but it did.)

  22. my objection to the headline is the word "solo." how else are these skywalkers going to cross the Han? It doesn't appear that tandem was an option in this case, so the word "solo," while accurate, is gratuitous and there simply to complete the gag. Would have been better as "Skywalkers in Korea Cross Han" leaving Star Wars fans to enjoy what almost was?

  23. I always wanted a safe-cracking on Easter so I could write: Police hunt Easter yeggs.

  24. My favorite headline was a NY Daily News story about the Indiana Pacers not wanting to sell playoff tickets to Knicks fans. The headline:

    "Hicks Nix Knicks Tix"

  25. 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.

  26. i'm not with you on this one, john. i would be more impressed with your argument if your freedom-example would have a real connection with the story. you can't blame example one for a missing connection between head and story and then praise example two that has the same problem.
    i think the skywalker-headline is brilliant in connection with the photo. you would be more convincing if you wouldn't compare this headline with a head for another story but try to find a better, more attention-grabbing headline for this specific story - good luck with that one. (sorry for the mistakes - i'm not a native speaker/writer)

  27. the old war reporting chestnut: navy pilots fly back to front

  28. I think the headline's awesome (when seen with the picture that accompanies it). I agree with those who say it did its job: made you read the article. However, Mr. McIntyre makes great points and has given me something to think about when I write headlines. Interesting post.

  29. I was in New York on business when the Eliot Spitzer scandal broke. The NY Post carried the headline "Ho No!"

  30. 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.

  31. I like clever heads, too, but I agree with John M. No surprise. I also wonder how this headline would play in search engines. Give its location, isn't that a key issue?
    John Russial

  32. My idea of a headline is to tell me what a story is going to be about, not confuse me in order to get me to click on it. Thus, headline fail.

  33. "freedom".. what's the "nothing left to lose" part about? Not the story, onviously.

  34. After the Los Angeles Rams' last game in the L.A. Coliseum before moving to St. Louis, they got trounced by -- I think -- the New Orleans Saints. The headline in the L.A. Times was 'Arrivederci Aroma, Rams Stink Up the Coliseum.'

  35. My favorite headline is one from the San Jose Mercury News. When the transit authority named its new light-rail system Santa Clara Area Transit and adopted the acronym SCAT, only to learn that the word also means animal droppings. The headline on the story:

    Dung, dung, dung went the trolley

  36. Mr. McIntyre, I agree with you and several commenting here about the Han Solo headline. I failed to make it across the Han myself. I wondered what skywalkers are and how plural skywalkers can be solo. I concluded I don't understand the headline. It implied that the article also would require too much work from me. The headline drove me away. I'd rather see a clear and concise headline that points me to an article and compels me to read it.

  37. And was it the NY Post or the Daily News that, after the recent underwear bomber incident, ran GREAT BALLS OF FIRE!

  38. Additional comments from Facebook:

    Linda Felaco: Not sure why this guy is tweeting a 3-year-old headline (which, BTW, was on an AP story, not WaPo), but it spawned quite a lengthy discussion on Testy Copy Editors at the time. I too much prefer the "Freedom" head.

    Ben Welter: The worst headline to hit the slot during my years at the Pioneer Press in St. Paul topped a photo that showed striking firefighters standing by as a car burned near their station:


    Jo Parker: ohmy. "Diddling"?

    Linda Felaco: I kind of like the diddling one. At least it's not a pop-culture reference.

    Jo Parker: Except, um, "diddling" is slang for something I hope the firefighters weren't doing in the photograph.

    Linda Felaco: The primary meaning of diddle is to cheat; swindle; hoax. Which still doesn't really fit. Perhaps these things are best not examined too closely.

    Linda Felaco: Has anyone been able to figure out why a story from 2007 is suddenly "news" again?

    Jo Parker: Linda, my dictionary has primary meaning as "to move back and forth in a jerky or rapid manner; jiggle" then moves on to masturbation.

    Tim Lawson: I completely agree on the Post headline. When was it from? I know it's not recent. But ... what does the Sun story have to do with Janis Joplin?

    Gary Kirchherr: OK, granted, the "Han Solo" headline isn't the greatest headline ever written because it doesn't "work both ways." But not endorsing it for that reason alone is draconian. Would you really kill it for that reason alone?

    Charles Apple: It was probably written by a fresh-out-of-school Wookie. *snicker*

    Linda Felaco: Tim, et al.: Here's the link to the discussion thread on Testy Copy Editors back in 2007 when the "Han Solo" story first ran: http://www.testycopyeditors.org/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=8&t=8032&hilit=Skywalkers+in+Korea+Cross+Han+Solo

    Jo Parker: Gary, my first thought after reading that headline was "Star Wars." In my opinion, if you send a reader on a mental wild goose chase, that reader can feel confused or cheated. It's a real disservice, and I would've killed it so fast it would've made your head swim.

  39. Still more Facebook comments:

    Linda Felaco: Yet another reason to spike the Han Solo head, as if we needed more: "cross" can be both a verb and a noun, and as a verb has more than one meaning, and there's nothing in the headline to let you know which of "cross"''s several meanings is meant.

    Gary Kirchherr: Well, of COURSE the first thing you think of is "Star Wars." That's the point. I really, really doubt that gentle reader is going to feel "cheated" (!) because it's not. And getting back to Tim's point: Why won't the reader feel cheated about the allegedly great "Freedom" headline, given that it has nothing to do with Joplin?

    Jo Parker: So why would you want someone to think of "Star Wars" when that isn't what the story is about? Why is that a good (or even acceptable) thing?

    Linda Felaco: Why does a play on the title of a song sung by Janis Joplin have to have anything to do with her personally? Do Star Wars heads have anything to do with George Lucas?

    Bruce DeSilva: I think it's stupid because it gives me no idea what the story is about.

    Gary Kirchherr: I disagree, Bruce. If there were no "Star Wars," the headline would make perfect sense, and no one would be kvetching that it "doesn't work both ways." Look. I don't know you guys, I have nothing against you at all, but this pedantic criticism reminds me of those whiny, crusty editors who wouldn't let "kids" in copy or headlines unless it was about goats. The headline's clever. Readers liked it. Lighten up.

    Bruce DeSilva: You only know what it's about after you read the story.

    Tim Lawson: To Linda: John rightly said "the allusion should have some connection with the story." In this case, there is an allusion to a very specific song that has nothing to do with the story.

    Linda Felaco: Here's a test: Put the so-called clever headlines in one column and the stories in another, and see if people can actually match them up. That should be entertaining.

    Paul Ybarrondo: I would've killed the "Freedom" headline in half a heartbeat. Why is it good? It's every bit as contrived as the Star Wars headline, and wrong to boot. The bird had plenty left to lose. Starting with its life.

    Jo Parker: Gary, how do you know how many readers liked vs. disliked it? Metrics these days can easily measure how many people are enticed into reading a story online. We can even tell how long they will dwell on a link that they click. I can tell you time and again that they are absolutely turned off by headlines that don't let them know what a story is really about. I have been in the clever seat, amused myself to no end and the darling of headline contests. Boy, did I have a shock when metrics were attached to my work. It’s a harsh lesson, but one that needed to be learned.

  40. Who would pass up such a headline? So what if it says, "Look how clever I am"? What would the alternative be? Just something boring.

  41. "Rearranging deck chairs on the Titantic"
    How's that for a headline for this post?
    (There are some people out there with A LOT of time on their hands.
    Gotta run...)

  42. As a former newspaper guy who loves wordplay, I've enjoyed all this talk about headlines as extreme sport. I'm here just to report the one headline that has stayed indelibly etched in my mind since I was a young man in the '70s. This is an actual head from the old Boston Herald during the conflicts between the Catholic church and various governments re: birth control:

    Pope: No Dope.
    Will Kill Pill Bill.

    I swear, this actually ran. Can you beat that?

  43. No, but a famous Cincinnati Enquirer sports headline, "Boston College nails Holy Cross," comes close.

  44. Come on, us copy editors never get to have any fun. Why shouldn't we play around with headlines? It's all "reader this" and "reader that". What about us???

  45. BTW I appreciate Mr. Owens commenting here since it was his tweet that sparked this discussion (assuming the commenter and tweeter are the same).

    But I believe he has his conclusion exactly backwards: The headline has a lot of people talking about the headline, not the story; it calls attention to itself rather than providing a seamless entry into the information below.

    Thus it is even worse than a dull hed: It impedes understanding instead of helping it.

  46. Such headlines may get me to read a story. Works!

    But more than a couple of them will make me stop reading the paper. Fail!

  47. "Freedom’s just another bird with nothing left to lose"

    A cutesy headline with nothing related to music and obviously trying too hard to be cute.


    "Skywalkers in Korea Cross Han Solo"

    This headline is innocently written with no pun intended. It doesn't seem as fake as the one above. The story is about skywalkers who cross the han river solo. So it seems appropriate. It is a coincidence that it has anything related to Star Wars.

    And for people who don't get the title. Skywalkers (plural) are crossing the Han River individually (solo) as opposed to crossing the river AT THE SAME TIME or ONE AFTER ANOTHER (not solo).

    Get it now?

  48. The best headline I 've ever seen comes from a Brazilian newspaper, it read something like this:

    Batman's escape may allow him to rearticulate Justice League. (the original portuguese is "fuga de Batman pode rearticular Liga da Justiça")

    No misspellings and the headline actually is very in context with the story. The catch is, in Brazil is very common for bandits and felons to receive a nickname, and this one was called Ricardo "Batman", and he created a militia called "Justice League". I just don't know if other members also had appropriate knick names.