From the Newsroom


Raji Chacko

Just how important is a headline to a news article?

During the course of my career, I worked for two different newspapers. At the first of these, I was considered a decent editor, but my appraisal always noted that I needed to work on my headlines. When I tell you that I worked for a tabloid where we were expected to churn out headlines that would ensure that the city’s train-travelling population were hooked and shelled out the money needed to buy a copy for the train ride, you will understand the significance of my failings.

Headlines are the marketing tools employed to get you the reader to read a piece that has been painstakingly put together. Imagine the window displays in retail establishments. They entice you to get in, making it impossible to walk past unaffected even if shopping was not really on your agenda. They beckon, you go to them! The headline is meant to serve a similar purpose in a newspaper/article/blog or a feature. Put a fair amount of thought into the headline you write for your piece. A badly written or a shoddy headline can ruin your entire article, if you are not careful… https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/24/most-obvious-headlines-ever-photos_n_1542847.html

What works for a headline

Sometimes, writing or editing a news report is a trial in itself. After you’ve crossed that hurdle, you then spend a good 5-10 minutes staring at the computer willing the copy, using techniques à la Dr Sheldon Cooper (from the American TV series The Big Bang Theory), to throw up a good headline. That rarely works. However, I have discovered a few tricks that do…

One, it is absolutely important to understand the focus of the story. Without it, your headline will not accurately reflect the content of the article and a misleading headline will disappoint readers, who will stay away in future.

Two, read and then read some more. The more you read, the greater your exposure to clichés, witticisms, useful puns, associations that you can work with, ideas, and more.

Three, practice. I would come up with alternative headlines to stories that I read in other papers and jot them down in a book to remind myself that I could come up with decent headlines if I put some thought into it.

Four, remember that, as in all things, variety is the spice of newsroom headline creation as well. Therefore, no one size fits all.

How a Relationship Dies on Facebook, is the headline of a recent piece in the New Yorker http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013/09/how-a-relationship-dies-on-facebook.html. While being simple and straightforward, it arouses curiosity without giving away too much.

Effective and engaging

A news report might need a concise yet informative headline. The BBC does this very well. On the BBC news home page, the detention of the partner of the journalist who worked on the Snowden revelations was headlined as “UK row over Snowden-linked detention” (http://www.bbc.com/news/). The link to the story had a more elaborate headline but I found this one to be far clearer than the rather convoluted attempts of some other papers. Another heading on the home page on the same day revealed “Carberry gets England Twenty20 call” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/); again, to the point with no frills. These headlines also illustrate the use of active voice, another vital element of a good headline.

Correct punctuation is a must for a good headline. Most newspapers advise against using the exclamation mark, but some tabloids might not follow this policy. Correct capitalisation is another punctuation concern. Incorrect use of the comma is becoming rather frequent these days and must ideally be guarded against. For instance, consider this headline in the New Zealand Herald, “Rich car, discount attitude”

When I first saw the headline, I wondered what the story was about — were “rich car” and “discount” qualifying “attitude” and to what end? The article is actually about a study that found that people who drove high-end cars were more likely to be discourteous on the road. For me, “rich” is a wrong choice of adjective in this context; I would prefer “expensive” or “costly”. Then, I’d prefer to punctuate in this fashion: “Costly car? Discount attitude” since I am guessing discount here is used as a verb to mean disregard. This punctuation is more useful in conveying the message in my opinion.

It is also important to ensure that the headline is not repeating the introductory paragraph of the article. It is also critical that the headline isn’t packed with too much information since you want your story to be read. For instance, the Dayton Daily News recently reported “Both missing Montgomery County teens located” (http://www.daytondailynews.com/news/news/local/search-on-for-missing-clayton-teen/nZnCh/). The first paragraph of the story then reads “Two Montgomery County teenagers declared missing this week have been located.” One wonders then if “Happy ending to search for teens” would have, at least, sounded different without giving away nearly all the relevant information.

While simple is sometimes better like the straightforward but dramatic “Diana is Dead” seen on the cover pages of most UK papers reporting the death of Princess Diana, a headline is where some of the adjectives you have had to edit out of your copy can be added.

Watch out while using puns

The Indian broadsheet Daily News and Analysis carried an article that was headlined “Meet the artist who got seriously thrashed” . As an editor, “seriously thrashed” is not a phrase that I would retain in copy but in a headline it seems forgivable. Unfortunately though, this headline, which I am guessing was attempting a bit of wordplay with a story about an artist who has converted a dumpster into a home, messed it up by using “thrashed” instead of “trashed”. While the latter would have made a nice pun, the former means the artist got beaten up. This to me is a good example of why great care must be taken when attempting puns. A good example of the use of puns comes from The Economist’s article “Blame ITT on the West,” which discusses Ecuador’s policy on the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) field and how it was influenced by the West (http://www.economist.com/blogs/americasview/2013/08/ecuadors-environmental-policy).

The question of a question in your headline,

What is usually considered effective in piquing curiosity and reeling in readers, is a question. A good example is this piece that appeared in the New Zealand Herald titled “Would you board flight 666 to HEL?” about a flight to Helsinki with an ominous number. (http://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=11124480) Certainly an attention grabber of a headline! More so because it appeared on a Friday the 13th  edition of the paper.

The cover page of the New Yorker tantalisingly asked “How to pick a pocket?”. The link to the story (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/01/07/130107fa_fact_green) had a different heading but I was hooked and read the entire piece about a performer who picks pockets to entertain.

While these are newsroom tricks, they are equally applicable to blog writers who are fighting for attention with thousands of other commentators. Whatever technique you employ, remember your headline must be error-free and your content must back up the promise of the headline.

Want to know what not to do? Enjoy a laugh over some bad headlines and guard against the same mistakes in your piece: http://littlecalamity.tripod.com/Text/Newspaper.html

 

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