Friday, January 29, 2010

The worst headline I ever wrote

The line between a really really good headline, the kind that makes readers say to their buds "Did you see that headline in the Such and Such?" as opposed to "Did you see that story in the Such and Such?" -- and a really really bad headline is a thin one, razor thin you might say. I walked that line for years and have the stripes on my soles to prove it. Figuratively speaking, of course, I mean I did tend to wear socks in the newsroom, although the Orange County Register used to take out a front page ad in Editor & Publisher showing its copy editors sitting at their desks on the beach, and I'll bet they have the jellyfish stings to prove it. But I digress.

Sometimes a headline looks good on a computer screen but loses in the translation to print, because a word is pronounced differently in common usage than it may appear phonetically on paper. That generally makes for a clunky, albeit not a terrible, headline. In general, really really bad headlines cross a different kind of line, not one that separates funny from not funny, but rather good taste from bad.

Which brings me to what I've always felt was one of the better headlines I wrote, and what I believe may be one of the worst. First the good one, so to speak. It never got published, but that's another story, which I'll relate here so as not to keep anybody guessing.

The Bergen Record was breaking in a new backup slot person, a young copy editor who'd been on the staff for a couple of years, a decent all-around editor although he tended to miss a lot of the nuances in stories that required massaging, and his headlines were somewhat less than inspired. But he had an affable personality and a seemingly good future at the paper, which has proved true -- he's now some kind of assistant news editor and is one of the few "good guys" on a largely dysfunctional editorial staff. But I was a former backup slot person and was perceived as a "loose cannon," and the copy chief and his deputy were wary that I might try to undermine the new backup's authority, which couldn't have been farther from the case.

However, I did give him a hard time over a headline. It was what in the vernacular was called an "overline" for a picture, the little headline that goes on top of a photo while the caption goes below. Honda at the time had a big advertising campaign for its redesigned Accord, and the theme was "Introducing the Honda Accord," which of course had been around for decades but the word "introducing" made it seem newer. The day of the headline in question was an exceptionally windy one, and a photographer had captured a picture of a parked 18-wheeler that got blown over onto its side, crushing an unoccupied Honda Accord. The key word here, to me at least, is unoccupied. The owner wasn't in the car, and wasn't even in the picture.

Sometimes you have to scramble your brain to come up with a good line -- I spent about eight months faithfully submitting entries to the New Yorker's cartoon caption writing contest and never even got an honorable mention -- and sometimes a headline "Wham!" just plain kind of smacks you in the head, no pun intended. This was one of those Whams. Onto my computer screen, almost without thinking, I typed: "Introducing the Honda Accordion." I then wrote a modest caption and hit the send button.

A short while later, my message light started blinking, and I called up a note from the in-training backup slot person, who often was given my copy to slot because it was generally clean and not likely to get him in trouble for missing the kind of stuff that might get the paper sued. "We can't run this," the note said. "Somebody might have gotten hurt."

"Might." This is the operative word here. Nobody was in the car, and, without thinking, I quietly went ballistic. I fired off a note to the copy chief saying "We've got to talk," and after the edition was put to bed -- another silly newspaper term -- the copy chief, deputy copy chief, new backup slot person and I had a conference, at which I went ballistic a little more loudly and the interpretation was that I was obviously attempting to undermine the new backup's authority. Which I can see made a lot of sense, but I was really only defending my headline. I later realized the dynamic at play and wished I had acted in a more subdued fashion. But in general I would prefer a copy editor to take enough pride in his or her work to argue over a rejected headline rather than "dumb it down" to avoid getting any grief.

But that is neither here nor there. If somebody was sitting in the Accord and had their head turned into a pancake, I never would have written a humorous headline. Unless, maybe, the 18-wheeler was delivering a load of maple syrup. Just kidding.

This episode, however, broaches the subject of good taste/poor taste, which brings me to what may have been the worst headline I ever wrote, several years earlier at the New York Daily News, not because it wasn't a clever headline, but because in this case, people did get hurt, killed even.

A couple of days earlier, there had been a deadly tornado in Texas, 24 people were killed. At the time, it was one of the deadliest tornadoes in years, although there have been many deadly tornadoes since. But it was big news at the time and stayed in the front pages for a few days. On the second or third day, somebody pulled a dog alive out of the rubble of a building. The headline I submitted, which wound up in the paper along with a picture of the dog and its rescuer, was: "Toto! Toto! You're Alive."

That was in poor taste. Very bad taste. I admit it. But I wrote it and learned from it, although I don't think the impact of the lesson sank in for several years, like an epiphany, I just woke up one day and thought, "Gee, that headline was in really bad taste."

Which is not to say that a copy editor shouldn't walk that line between good headline/bad headline, good taste/poor taste. It may take years to develop the instincts that keep you on the good headline side most of the time, but the journey is worth it.

1 comment:

  1. Many years ago I was presented with a photo of the late, great comedian Flip Wilson. He was attending a produce growers convention of some kind at which grapefruit was being featured. He was flanked by a half dozen bikini-clad women, each of whom was holding two grapefruit. Needless to say, the overline I wrote was "Look at those grapefruits." The copy editor, knowing that the plural of "grapefruit" is "grapefruit," hacked the "s" off my overline. I did not become aware of this until the newspaper landed on my desk. When I remonstrated with him, he looked at me blankly: He had never heard of certain parts of a woman's anatomy referred to as "grapefruits."
    Oh well, at least the overline was gramatically correct...if unfunny.