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Head cases

The future is electronic, and you’ve been told. Newspapers, with their feckless extravagance at paying “editors” to verify factual accuracy and make texts intelligible, are just obsolete. They might as well walk away into the snow and die, leaving the world to its bright online future.

I thought, before I’m freeze-dried and placed in a glass case in the Newseum, to devote this, my 500th post, to one aspect of this brave new world in which copy editors have some expertise: headline writing. Imagine my surprise at the discovery from an examination of today’s stories at CNN, MSNBC and Fox News that the new-era headline writers resemble nothing so much as the hacks of yesteryear. Examples:

Christian families fleeing Iraqi city tops 1,000

Apparently the online model does not protect one from errors in subject-verb agreement.

Mother’s papers tear MLK children apart

Heavy reliance on abbreviations as headline shorthand might be excused here; MLK for Martin Luther King is probably intelligible to many readers. But unless you know that mother’s papers is a kind of synecdoche for dispute over the disposition of their mother’s papers — that is, unless you already know what the story is about — this headline does not give you clear information.

Caylee’s mom indicted, arrested after car swap

Mom for mother is another aged headline convention, especially in tabloids. You already knew who Caylee was, right? You’ve been following the twists of this story about a missing child for weeks, right? Wonder what the car swap was and why it led to an indictment? Guess you’ll have to read the story.

Madonna, Guy Ritchie reportedly to split

“Reportedly.” Who reports? Reportedly to do something and said to do something are among the oldest crutches in the hack’s tool chest.

Mr. and Mrs. Madonna ‘ready to divorce’

Even better, an unattributed quote — again, who says so? — linked to a coy reference to Guy Ritchie as a mere annex to Madonna.

Remote-control Hubble fix to begin

Animate the inanimate. Just as Coretta King’s papers are tearing her children apart, so does the Hubble repair get under way without human agency.

Scoop: McCain wants Palin on ‘SNL’? When I was a lad, a scoop meant you had actual information, not a question.

Gray voters not reliably red

Some credit should be given for the wordplay, but red state/blue state references have been a cliche for much of the past eight years.

Obama, McCain prepare for final debate

You don’t have to pick up a print version to find a dull headline that tells you nothing. It might be news if they weren’t preparing for the debate. Of course, there is some utility in telegraphing to the reader that since the story is about an event that has not yet occurred, there is probably little or no actual information to be had.

CIA tactics endorsed in secret memos

Passive voice leaves out the who. We knew mistakes were made. Tell us who made them.

‘Sex for Secrets’ Poison Needle Spy Gets 5 Years

Two references to this spy case about which I have not a clue.

Tough Times Test Character, Relationships

D’ya think?

VIDEO: Fix for Constipation

Let’s just give this one a miss.

What I’ve found is that these news Web sites have chained themselves to a format that dooms them to an elliptical headlinese as constrained as any print design. One-line headlines of half a dozen words will inevitably depend on abbreviations, opaque allusions and all the irritating shortcuts to which print newspapers have resorted for decades. Of the three, only Fox News offers opportunities to write a deck — a secondary headline that expands on the sense of the main head.

I have seen the future, and a lot of it resembles the past.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:24 AM | | Comments (5)


At least none were mine :)

It ain't just the TV news Web sites. Currently (6:11 EDT) the New York Times has Candidates Prepare for Final Debate on its front page.

You'd think that Web site headlines should be able to get in ALL the key words, since they don't have the same space constraints as newspapers, but I guess not all Web editors realize that.

Actually, Michael, it's not true that Web headlines have no space constraints. Nearly all headlines on, for instance, aren't allowed to "wrap" from one line to the next. Granted, the writers don't have to struggle with one-column headlines ... :)

Another thing to consider, John. Web editors have to use words that will entice a reader to "opt in" and read the story. You'll never really know if a headline in a newspaper has been compelling enough to draw someone into the story. Web site editors can tell what's working immediately by the number of people who are clicking. (That's also how they can tell whether people know who "Caylee" is and which words tend to draw people in more than other words.) While we can differ over the relative merits of print and electronic headlines, the mission is still the same: To engage the reader and get her/him to read the story. Web sites can demonstrate success. Can newspapers?

I have to presume that the one about Palin and Saturday Night Live wasn't so much a "scoop" as it was a teaser link to MSNBC's entertainment column, titled "The Scoop".

None of them are of the "Headless Body Found in Topless Bar" level of quality, though.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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