Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Iron Curtain falls, lands on copy editor's toe

Headlines. Everywhere you look, newspapers, magazines, books -- okay, there they're called "titles," but a headline by any other name etc. -- Google ads, blogs, social networking sites -- often the first thing you see is a headline. Graphic whizbangs might dispute that, oh no, the first thing the eye goes to is the picture, the bigger and more dramatic the better, and maybe they have a point, but the point is debatable, and here's my side of the debate: Look for instructions on how to create enticing graphics, and the first thing you see is: "How to create enticing graphics." Besides, there are textbooks, web sites, expensive software, freeware, tutorials, but look for a tutorial or software package on how to write headlines and you may come up with the first blank page in the history of Google. Tempted as I am to check that out, I'm not going to, as I'm sure there are some tutorials and copy editing forums that deal with the art of writing headlines.

It's been my experience in the newspaper business that if you give the same story to a dozen copy editors, in most cases you'll come up with nine or ten different headlines. On some occasions a headline will virtually write itself, say, when a customer goes into a Taco Bell and finds a chihuaha in his stuffed burrito, four out of five copy editors might write "Man bites dog," whereas the fifth copy editor would say "Oh, the poor dog, how can you make fun of a situation like that?" and spend half an hour trying to come up with something tasteful, or at least better tasting than a chihuaha smothered in refried beans.

I'd like to say you'll learn something about headlines here, and you will, but some of my favorite headlines have gotten the people who wrote them, including me, in hot water with their supervisors. Good headline writing is risky business, and entertaining the reader and giving giving him or her a reason to read a story that shouldn't merit a second glance might not be worth facing the wrath of a supervisor.

Case in point: When I was working at the New York Daily News, which had some of the greatest headline writers in the world, there was a woman on the copy desk who was a Russian emigre. Her name was Mila, and she was in her mid to late forties. One day she was given a restaurant review to edit. Copy desk chiefs like to parcel out stories to editors who might have a bit of expertise in certain fields, and the restaurant served Russian food and was named Caucasus. Mila edited the review and the headline in the paper the next day read: "Ve vas hungry, Soviet." Only a Russian emigre could come up with that. If you asked me what was my favorite all-time headline, that's the one I would point to. The next day, Mila got called into the copy desk chief's office and got her head handed to her, so to speak. The headline had nothing to do with the quality of the food or the service of the restaurant, the copy desk chief blurted.

"But it made people read the review," Mila argued.

And it made me laugh.

Here I should make a note about newsroom dynamics. This very same copy desk chief read the headline and pushed the button sending it to the typesetter, which means he either approved of it or trusted Mila's judgment sufficiently to know that, pressed for time as copy desk chiefs are, he wouldn't have to analyze the story to determine the appropriateness of the headline. So here's what happened, to borrow a line from my favorite obsessive compulsive detective: The restaurant owner complained to the advertising salesperson that the headline was inaccurate, and the advertising salesperson complained to the publisher, and the publisher sent a tearsheet to the managing editor with the headline circled and a scrawled note saying "How did this happen?" And the managing editor put the tearsheet in an interoffice envelope addressed to the copy desk chief, and the next thing Mila was in tears as she left his office.

There's another lesson in that headline. This is just my opinion. That headline was written so long ago that the Soviet Union was still in existence. I left the Daily News in 1988, the headline was written a few years earlier, and the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. Newspaper publishers are streaming crocodile tears these days that younger readers can't relate to them, and if Mila were to write that headline today, she should factor in the possibility that a substantial number of readers wouldn't know what the Soviet Union was, and so their reaction to such a headline might be "Huh?" instead of "ha!" I mentioned earlier that occasionally a headline will write itself. There was one such story recently, in which Bob Dylan was in Asbury Park for a concert, went for a walk late in the evening, and was stopped by two young police officers. He told them who he was and they'd never heard of him, so they walked him back to his hotel and the story became national news. Just about every headline I saw, in newspapers, online, or heard on the radio, went something like "How does it feel?"

I wouldn't have written that, because I believe there are many readers, of newspapers and web sites, who've heard of Bob Dylan but wouldn't identify "How does it feel" as a line from his anthem "Like a Rolling Stone." At an earlier stage of my alleged career I would have written that headline in a heartbeat, but hearing and seeing it in 2009 my reaction was that today's headlines are being crafted and edited by a bunch of fogeys who want to show off how much they know about culture with virtually no sensitivity to the youth of today whose readership they want to attract. Result: While 90 percent of copy editors probably wrote "How does it feel?" I likely would have spent twenty minutes trying to come up with something more identifiable to today's audience.

I should be on the fence about that, but I'm not. And why? Because my instincts tell me I'm right, and a good headline writer will learn to trust his or her instincts.

Thanks for reading.

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