Does a story by any other name still ring true?
Earlier this month, President Donald Trump again went after one of his favorite targets, the New York Times, over the paper’s decision to change the headline on two stories covering the president’s speech on the mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas.
The chronology went like this:
Trump delivered the speech from the White House, denouncing hate and violence.
The Times’ initial headline, published shortly after the speech, was “Trump urges unity vs. racism.”
Democrats and other activists criticized the headline as being overly kind to Trump, since Democrats wanted the president to call for tougher gun laws.
The headline was changed to “Assailing hate, but not guns.”
Trump criticized the Times for kowtowing to the Democrats.
Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet said in a statement the headline was changed not because of pressure from Democrats but because “it was evident” the first go-round was simply a bad headline.
The spat got me thinking about the lost art of headline writing.
I don’t consider myself a great headline writer. One of my former editors, “Cranky” Bob Warner, was the best. He had this knack for sharp, kinetic wit, and brevity, and just the right use of puns without being cheesy and alliteration without being cheap.
My first copy editor, John Head, was very good, too. Here at The News, James Andersen is better than I.
I grew up in this business at a time when the art of headline writing became increasingly less important than “search engine optimization.” Corporate folks at a lot of papers want reporters and editors to worry less about choosing the right word for the punch and more about cramming as many keywords into a headline as possible, so the story shows up higher in Google searches.
That might be great for Web traffic, but it often makes for clunky, too-long headlines.
But, even in Web headlines, the basic principles of good headline writing still apply:
∫ Above all, a headline must be accurate, and it must be fair.
∫ It must fit the tone of the story. No puns or cleverness above a reverent story about death.
∫ You want a headline that gives readers the gist of the story without giving so much away they don’t need to read to the story.
∫ You want something that catches attention, so readers want to pick up the paper when they’re walking by the newsstand (or click on the story when they’re scrolling through Google or Facebook).
∫ If it’s appropriate (see the second bullet point), a little wit — even humor — can make the headline more attractive, making people curious about the story underneath. It can also make the headline and the story more memorable.
In print, you have the added pressure of choosing the right words and right number of words so the headline will fit in the space you have on the page while still keeping the font size large enough to catch a reader’s eye and still adhering to the principles I outlined above. That forces you, sometimes, to dig deep into your vocabulary for a synonym that readers will understand.
It’s tough. On a lot of stories, the two parts on which you spend the most time are the lead and the headline. The headline is usually the last thing you’re writing, meaning that often comes at the end of the work day, when you’re already tired and a little burned out.
And there’s a lot of pressure. Far too many readers form entire opinions after reading only the headline, so you want to hit the headline just right, so the opinion they form is as well-informed as it can be.
Which brings us back to the Times.
I’d like to believe Baquet when he says the headline switch had nothing to do with the Democrats. Many a time have I changed the headline after a story has published online because more information became available or simply because I thought of a better one that might draw more eyeballs.
And the second Times headline is better.
The stories beneath were not just about the president’s speech, but about the way that speech fit into the broader national conversation about guns and gun violence. The second headline more completely captures that debate and more accurately describes the stories.
Sizable portions of this country want more gun control, and sizable portions do not, and to which of those camps the president responds is worth noting. The headline didn’t criticize Trump for not calling out guns. It simply pointed out that he did not. Half the Times’ readers will celebrate that fact, the other half will not.
But all of them will know.
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.