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Over the years I’ve been engaged to judge headline competitions involving other publications, and it is almost always dispiriting. You riffle through a sheaf of samples of what the publications consider their best work, only to discover obvious puns and plays on advertising slogans.

My long-suffering colleague Phillip Blanchard encountered just that phenomenon, commenting on it earlier today on Facebook:

The winner of a major newspaper's internal headline award -- we're not saying who -- “‘bowled over’ the judges with her ability to transform the pun into literary metaphor. ‘Snappy,’ ‘sophisticated’ and ‘layered’ were some of the adjectives used to describe gems such as ‘Claire buoyant’ on a profile of actress Claire Daines; ‘Toto recall’ on a spate of ‘Wizard of Oz’-themed movie projects; and ‘Do fence me in,’ about a Texas museum dedicated to barbed wire.”

Punning on people’s names is childish, associating Toto with The Wizard of Oz is likely the first association that came into the headline writer’s mind (Always be suspicious of your first idea), and “Do fence me in”? Puh-leese.*

In a recent article in The Atlantic, David Wheeler bemoaned and deplored the death of the witty headline in the age of Search Engine Optimization. (For you civilians, that means writing the kind of headline that will be noticed by Google algorithms and put your story high among the search results.) He should know better, because the pathetic examples Mr. Blanchard quotes are just the sort of fancied wit you typically get.

There is a reason for SEO headlines, and it is a good one. Print headlines come with a context. They are on a page, often with an accompanying photo and a secondary headline that establish that context. That’s is where a clever headline, if it is genuinely clever, has an impact. But increasingly the people who come to your article electronically are not doing so from a home page. They are discovering your work through a search engine or a link from another page. That means the six to eight or so words in your main headline are bare, without context, and your wit is unlikely to ignite.

The best SEO headline is a straightforward, clear, factual, informative headline.** There was a time early on when people writing headlines for electronic publication would just fling a handful of keywords at the top of the page to draw the attention of Google or Yahoo. The headline on this post is one such example. The search engines got wise to that and started to filter that stuff out. Headlines are still written for human readers, not for robots, and intelligibility is not a quality to scorn.

 

 

*I do not come before you as one without sin. My first citation for a headline, in an in-house memo at The Cincinnati Enquirer in 1980, was for “Bakery break-in yields no dough.” And once, in an article for The Sun on the enduring popularity of the Malayan dagger, I wrote, “A kris is still a kris.” All have fallen short, &c., &c.

**A reader, responding to a previous remark advocating SEO headlines, pointed out that I don’t write them for these blog posts. Such is my whim.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:24 PM | | Comments (15)
        

Comments

Despite being a reader of newspapers for more than 40 years, I've never considered the craft of writing the headline. Had I seen the article, I would have thought "A kris is still a kris" to be a great headline. Reading it just now I laughed out loud. Shows you what I know.
K-

"Print headlines come with a context. They are on a page, often with an accompanying photo and a secondary headline that establish that context. That’s is where a clever headline, if it is genuinely clever, has an impact."

And yet, here we are, belittling the author of print headlines without any of that context. What a mean-spirited attack. I don't suppose you or Mr. Blanchard would care to offer examples of what you'd have written instead?

I never did quite understand the line of reasoning Paul uses: "In order to have a valid complaint, you must have demonstrated superior skill in the relevant endeavor." I have no doubt that Mr. McIntyre could come up with examples, but why should that be a prerequisite to pointing out groaners? I can't play the fiddle, but I know when one's out of tune.

On another note entirely: Did you intend for the title of this post to be rationally parsed? I can't decide if the intended meaning is "Obama's fake birth certificate [exists just as do] Britney Spears' nude pics [which is to say, not at all]" or if I'm just trying too hard, and it's meant solely to be an example of soulless click-bait. I think there's a case to be made for the former, though.

Dan, my point was that we can't know if they're "out of tune" without the context that John says is so important. And since both he and Phillip Blanchard have decades of experience doing exactly the job they're critiquing, I don't think my question was illogical. Both, in my opinion, are experts in the field. I'd like to know, if these award-winning examples are bad, what would those who write headlines for a living suggest instead?

I'm not the author of these headlines, but I work with that person at the same publication. I do think the headlines need to be judged in context. The "Claire buoyant" headline, for example, was not a cheap pun or even really a pun at all. It's on an article about a buoyant Claire Danes. The subheadline was, "After obsessively studying to play autistic scientist Temple Grandin in HBO's biopic, Danes was thrilled to earn her blessing -- and a hug." What other combination of 14 characters would better introduce that sentence while also conveying the subject of the article?

I won't belabor the issue by defending all of the headlines, but I think it's clear that context matters. I think it's ridiculous and offensive for fellow professionals to rip into another's work so thoughtlessly.

When you perform in public, and writing headlines for publication is as much a performance as any other, you leave yourself open to public comment.

Yes, John, you do.

The problem with "Claire buoyant" is, as Paul Ybarrondo says, that it's not a pun. It echoes "clairvoyant," but to no point. If Danes had been playing a medium in the film, the headline would have been witty. As it is, it's just pointless and silly. On the other hand, "Bakery break-in yields no dough" (assuming that the thieves found no money to steal) works fine.


Prof. McI.,

Respectfully, your observation that , "writing headlines for publication is as much performance as any other (performance)", is a tad troubling, in that you are almost tacitly acknowledging that certain aspects of the journalistic craft are slowly becoming beholden to the lure of pop culture/ entertainment, giving rise to that quasi-newsy, light-weight arena of shallow reportage we've more recently labeled infotainment.

(Just watch any local nightly newscast in any major U.S. TV market these days, and over half the news is lifestyle, or entertainment fluff, and maybe a third of the total content is devoted to hard news. Very troubling, but clearly a continuing trend on commercial TV. Basically the continued dumbing down of the news for those precious ratings, perhaps to pull in a younger advertising dollar$$$?)

Having worked for decades at all the major L.A.-based animation studios, regular daily copies of The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Billboard, and a smattering of other entertainment-related trade publications were ubiquitous in our workplace. Almost every middle and upper management studio exec would get their own personal copies of most of these trade mags, on a daily, and weekly basis.

I'd occasionally take a gander at said publications, and was often troubled by the 'in-zee', hip, short-form jargon used by many reporters, and headline writers. You'd often see a terse, zippy 'header' clearly shortened to fit the limited column width, and invariably have nary a clue as to what the particular article might be about, w/ the cryptic headline lead. (I guess if you read, say The Hollywood Reporter, for months on end, one would eventually become familiar w/ the peculiar argot, yet for the casual reader, it's at times just one big pain in the tush.)

I'm just as fond of a clever pun used in an article headline, as the next guy, and really appreciate a fun 'header' using a snappy play-on-words, even though the official 'comedy police' generally rank puns as the weakest form of humor. What do they know? HA!

I do definitely draw the line, however, when the 'punny' headline is so removed from the actual content of the article to which it is appended, where you just want to go.......duh???????

Prof. McI. and Paul (Ybarrondo), hopefully going forward you two 'dogmatists' can at least call a truce, and amicably agree-to-disagree, and move on?

(We Canadians do have a track record in conflict resolution, eh?)

ALEX


"Bakery break-in yields no dough" is hilarious. Too much so for a story about a crime? Perhaps. But I'm glad John shared it.

As for the competition-worthy headlines, it's difficult to assess them. We're seeing them without context, but presumably the judges aren't. However, it's a headline-writing contest, which means the headline, presumably, has to ultimately stand on its own. Outside of little wordplays, I don't know that those examples do. I wonder if context really matters to many judges, for if it did, the headline on a delicate story of crime, scandal or loss would usually win such a contest. That doesn't happen all that much.

This is not to put the blame on that headline writer, however. There's a place for cleverness and wordplay, and features that don't really matter in the long run are a great place to try them out (I think I like "Do Fence Me In," though I'm lost without context).

I assume the larger point is that in making SEO the enemy, we're mistaking fun headlines for being essential rather than, well, fun.

And, as sarababe's post proves, one must be careful with blog headings even if they are written to make a point!


Sarababe,

Hmm........ isn't "hang(ing) out naked", as you so eloquently put it, more-or-less stating the obvious?

Man, that gravity can be a real b*tch!

So sarababe, I would strongly recommend you say 'saranara' to this upstanding blog, toute suite (that's French), unless you've got something a little more groovy than a lame 'naturist"' website to offer us.

We regular bloggin' folk here usually like to communicate w/ most of our clothes on at all times, or at a minimum, our 'tidy whities'----undies for short.
Right gang?

So see ya honey buns.

And don't let that virtual wooden door catch you on the way out. Wouldn't want any nasty little slivers in that retreating bare tush of yours, would we now, sarababe?

ALEX

Witty headlines seem to be fine when the story is in the fluff section of the paper but they annoy me when they're in the news part of the paper.

Is it just me?

Soon after "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" came out in the mid-1990s, I heard its author, John Berendt, speak. One thing that sticks in my mind to this day is what he said about the decades he spent at Esquire as an editor and columnist. He said that long after a story was edited, they'd spend weeks working on the headlines, cutlines and pull quotes. Why? Because those three things would be what enticed a reader to read a story, and they might be ALL a reader read of a story.

Jim Sweeney, years ago I was appalled when a relative told me that she ONLY read the headlines in the newspaper. Her point was that the actual story added little to the information already conveyed. From time to time I have reluctantly had to agree with her.

Failed attempts at cleverness are grating, but true cleverness in the morning paper starts the day right. What was the famous New York tabloid hed? Headless body found in topless bar.

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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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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