The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Category: headlines

Aww, shucks — this headline just doesn’t work

Jim Romenesko’s website calls our attention to a recent headline in the Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama. The story is about Auburn University’s narrow defeat to Florida State in college football’s championship game. That’s front-page news for papers in Alabama and Florida, and perhaps elsewhere.

au-shucksThe “AU SHUCKS” headline didn’t go over well with Auburn fans who apparently read “shucks” and “sucks.” Tom Clifford, the editor of the Montgomery paper, reported that he received a “barrage” of phone calls and email from furious readers.

Clifford defended the headline on the grounds that it was clever wordplay on an abbreviation of the school’s name. The intent was something like this: “Aww, shucks. Auburn almost won that game.” Clifford noted that this headline followed through on previous ones in the Advertiser about Auburn victories such as “SHOCK AND AU” and “AU YEAH!”

I asked my colleague Chris Roush what he thought of the headline. Roush, who teaches business journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill, is an Auburn alumnus who follows the football team closely. Here’s his response:

“As an Auburn fan, it doesn’t bother me. But as an advocate of good word usage, it is a poor headline. When I think of shucks, I think of opening raw oysters. I don’t understand how that can be compared to Auburn losing a football game. I think the headline writer tried too hard in this case. But it’s not offending to me as a third-generation Auburn graduate.”

I agree. I have no connection to Auburn, so my measure for assessing this headline is the “pun form” created by Steve Merelman, a former News & Observer editor who now works at Bloomberg.

“AU SHUCKS” fails the first point in Merelman’s six-part test of whether a wordplay headline should be published or posted: “The headline makes immediate sense to the reader and does not distort syntax or usage to make the pun and/or wordplay.”

This headline doesn’t make immediate sense to me. My brain doesn’t hear “AU” as “awww.” My eyes see “AU” the way you would say that aloud: “A-U.” So “AU SHUCKS” baffled me when I first read it. Other readers, for whatever reason, are reading “shucks” as “sucks.” I didn’t and can’t explain why some people see it that way.

It’s obvious that the Advertiser didn’t mean to offend its audience; it would be bad for business to insult its readers or an entire fanbase in football-crazy Alabama. But this is a headline that needed a rewrite before it went into print. Next time, use the Merelman Test.

Q&A with Rylan Miller of Business Insider

Rylan Miller is Contributors Editor at Business Insider. In this interview, conducted by email, she talks about her job and how the site uses headlines and social media to attract readers.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like at Business Insider?

A. I manage all of BI’s syndication partnerships and guest writers, which is an editorial job with some elements of business development mixed in.

My team has three main responsibilities:

  • We help choose the stories we will publish from our 370-ish partner publications, wire services, and blogs;
  • We package these stories so that they fit perfectly with Business Insider’s style;
  • And we act as the gatekeepers — I like to envision Gandalf shouting “YOU SHALL NOT PASS” when I say this — of every article that is republished on the site.

We ensure that editorial is following all of the partnership rules and industry courtesies when syndicating.

This job has a lot of moving parts, but for me, that’s part of what keeps it interesting. Some days I spend a lot of time talking to our point people at companies like Slate, Condé Nast, Wenner Media, and more. Sometimes I focus on teaching our editorial team what syndication is and how to do it the right way.

Other days I like to dive into setting up posts, which means formatting them so that they look great on BI, writing catchy headlines, and picking photos that really pop on the main page. Sometimes I tinker with formatting in our CMS, and I frequently study our analytics.

I have learned more about the world of online publishing from this one job than I ever thought possible. It’s really a fascinating mix of journalism, psychology, business, and management, and perfect for a generalist like me. It’s fun to know what’s happening in just about every section of the site, and — important job perk — people want you on their team for bar trivia.

Q. Headline writing for digital media is seeing a shift from SEO to “shareability,” as demonstrated by sites like Upworthy. What is Business Insider’s approach to headline writing?

A. One of our editor’s mantras is that headlines should “get clicks without being annoying.” It’s very easy to tease someone into reading a story online—I’m sure we’ve all fallen for the “7 Things That Will Completely Change Your Life” headline at some point.

But when you actually read the article and see that the headline is hyperbole, skewed, or a flat-out lie, you start to resent that publication. I think BI does a great job of getting people interested while also delivering a great story.

As a site that does breaking news, features, photo-centric slideshows, videos, syndication, and now longform, there really isn’t a magic formula for how we write headlines. Above all, we consider the reader and what he or she should know immediately before we think about SEO and “shareability.”

If a headline isn’t working for us, we can change it. The priority is still focusing on writing (or in my case, choosing) excellent stories that are worth sharing in the first place, and then pulling out the most interesting nugget or angle for the headline.

Q. Business Insider is active on Facebook, Twitter and even LinkedIn. What is the organization’s social media strategy?

A. Every single person on editorial puts in effort when it comes to our social media policies and strategies. Each section is responsible for maintaining and expanding their own Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and relationship with LinkedIn if it’s relevant. They also have to make sure their best work gets pushed out to BI’s main Twitter and Facebook accounts. We have a small bit of oversight at the top of this chain, but for the most part we rely on common sense and good news judgment when deciding what gets shared.

We’re constantly assessing what’s working and what’s not when it comes to our social media strategies, and I think that’s served us well so far. Everyone gets a chance to put in their two cents.

Q. You graduated from the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2012. What’s the most important thing you learned there, and what have you had to learn on the job after college?

A. As someone who’s not in a traditional journalism job at a 100 percent digital news outlet, I’m surprised every day by how much of what I learned at j-school is still relevant to what I’m doing now. I’ve realized how important it is to have that solid foundation in place before learning new skills on the job.

Copy-editing classes taught me how to be nitpicky (in a good way) while reading through articles. My business journalism classes taught me basically everything I know about the industry I’m in now. Media law gave me a good understanding of where we can get photos, who holds copyright on freelance stories, and how to not get my employer sued for dumb mistakes.

I also cannot overstate how much I’ve learned on the job. I’d say most of what I’ve learned is in the technical and strategic aspects of how a news website functions. I’ve learned how publishers can work with each other to expand and improve, and I’m continually discovering what people feel compelled to read. Despite what you’re hearing, people aren’t solely interested in “reading” GIFs. And finally, I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Serial Comma And All-Caps Headline.

Follow Rylan Miller on Twitter and connect with her on LinkedIn. If you want to become a contributing writer for Business Insider, check out the Contributors FAQ or email contributors@businessinsider.com for more information.

We’re going to put four normal people into a conference room at a Las Vegas hotel and ask them to react to real headlines. What they’ll say may blow your mind.

vegas

Preparations are under way for the national conference of the American Copy Editors Society. This year’s gathering is in Las Vegas in March.

I’m helping put together and will moderate two sessions at the conference. One will be about getting into teaching, either as an adjunct or a full-time, tenure-track faculty member.

The other session will be about headlines. In a revision of a session from previous conferences, we will invite “regular folks” to give feedback on a series of headlines. The twist this time: We’ll include “shareable” headlines from sites such as BuzzFeed and Upworthy. (The one on this post is an example of that type of headline.)

For more about the ACES conference, check out the official site. I hope to see you in Las Vegas.

UPDATE: This session is scheduled to take place on Friday, March 21, at 4:30 p.m at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino. If you or someone you know in the Las Vegas area would like to be a panelist, please contact me.

An invitation to Pat McCrory

As a state lawmaker and governor of Florida, Bob Graham would spend a day working another job. Over the years, he was teacher, a busboy and a baggage handler, if just for eight hours. By doing so, Graham got a sense, however briefly, of what it was like to be a person who did those tasks full time.

I’m hoping that North Carolina’s governor, Pat McCrory, will consider trying a job for a day — namely, an eight-hour shift on a newspaper copy desk or at a news website.

My suggestion is prompted by this interview with The Charlotte Observer, in which Gov. McCrory criticizes the media’s coverage of his administration. This quote about headlines caught my eye in particular:

“A lot of it is the headline writers. They change the words, put a new word in it, and then when the headline goes out the next thing, it becomes the story. That’s probably the biggest issue I have with the media is the headline writers.”

McCrory is not the first politician to complain about headlines. Everyday readers will fret over an editor’s choice of verbs, among other things.

To be sure, some headlines fall short, some infamously so. They are written by humans, who are fallible. But every day (and in the digital age, every moment), news organizations publish headlines that are accurate.

Headline writing is difficult. A well-worded headline conveys news and entices the reader to read more. It matches the tone of the story and the tone of the publication.

In print, a headline may be in a confining one-column design, limiting the editor’s choice of words. For online media, headline writers have to consider search engine optimization and the fact that the headline may appear on an app or in social media, with no photo or other context.

When done well, headline writing reflects the creativity of the editor. It’s an art form that can lead to memorable moments. That’s why the American Copy Editors Society sponsors an annual headline contest.

So here’s my suggestion to the governor: Take a day and try your hand at headline writing. There’s the McClatchy editing/design hub in Charlotte and a similar operation in Hickory. Our State magazine, based in Greensboro, has headlines from cover to cover. Or if you prefer digital news, work a shift at WRAL.com or a similar site.

I think you will see, as Bob Graham did, that every job brings its challenges and rewards, and that like so many things in life, headline writing isn’t as easy as it looks.

How to get help with headline writing

Are you looking for help with writing headlines for digital media? I’m leading a NewsU webinar on that topic next month. Here are the details, in Q&A form:

Q. What’s a webinar?

A. It’s a live, online meeting. A moderator and I will make a slideshow presentation and post a few poll questions for you. We will answer your questions as we go along and at the end of the meeting. It will be fun and informal.

Q. What will this webinar cover?

A. “Writing Headlines for Digital and Mobile Media” will cover the basics of what makes an effective headline, trends in digital headline writing and the latest in search engine optimization. It’s intended for anyone who writes headlines for news websites, blogs and apps.

Q. When will it take place?

A. Thursday, Dec. 5, at 2 p.m. EST. It will last about an hour. The webinar will be archived if you want to watch it at another time.

Q. How much does it cost?

A. The cost is $29.95. If you are a member of the American Copy Editors Society, you get a discount at $9.95. Group rates are also available.

Q. How do I sign up?

A. Go this NewsU page and click on “enroll now.” If you want to get the ACES discount and are not a member, you can join that great organization via this page on its site.

Let me know if you have more questions. I hope to see you there.

UPDATE: The webinar was, I hope, a success, with about 175 people logged in. I had a lot of fun. Thanks all for attending virtually and asking great questions, and thanks to NewsU for sponsoring this webinar. If you missed it, check out this Storify page for a recap.

What we write in big type is a big deal

The American Copy Editors Society recently shared this video via social media. It’s about headline writing at the Winnipeg Free Press.

As I watched the 11-minute piece, memories of my own newspaper experiences came to mind. The personalities, editing skills and headline-writing styles of the editors at Winnipeg mirror those in the newsrooms in Greensboro, Raleigh and Los Angeles where I have worked.

Editors who write headlines care deeply about what they do. And they do it in relative anonymity. There’s no Pulitzer Prize for headline writing — not yet, at least.

Headlines are still important, in print and online. They tell us what’s news, and they lure us into reading more. Headlines reflect not only the content of the stories, but also the tone. And they need a human touch.

Don’t fret over this headline

A letter to the editor to The News & Observer takes the Raleigh newspaper to task for this headline in its print edition: “Teachers fret over budget plans.”

The problem? The verb.

The letter writer, who is the head of the education department at Meredith College, perceives it as an insult: “The headline demeans the teaching profession. Teachers are not fretting; teachers have serious concerns and questions about major changes in N.C.’s spending on education.”

As a parent of a student in the Wake County schools and a resident of North Carolina, I share the reader’s concerns about the General Assembly’s cuts to public education. But I disagree that “fret” is pejorative.

Typical definitions of “fret” go like this: “to become vexed or worried” or “to be visibly anxious.” The educators quoted in this story reflect those feelings.

It helps headline writers that “fret” is a commonly used word that consists of just four letters. That’s probably why it appeared in that headline. It’s a suitable word choice and not a slight to teachers. There’s no need, therefore, to fret about this headline.

His is no disgrace

Former Washington Post writer Howard Kurtz is leaving CNN for Fox News.

Former Washington Post writer Howard Kurtz is leaving CNN for Fox News.

Howard Kurtz, a longtime observer and critic of the media, himself made news this week, leaving CNN for Fox News and trading “Reliable Sources” for “Fox News Watch.”

In reporting this move, many publications took the opportunity to point out Kurtz’s own shortcomings as a journalist. For example, a blog post Kurtz wrote earlier this year about gay NBA player Jason Collins was retracted because of “several errors” and “a misleading characterization.”

That’s certainly a relevant and timely detail. But a few publications took that a step further in their headlines, labeling Kurtz as “disgraced.” It’s probably predictable that The Huffington Post, known for its overheated headlines, was one of them. But it’s surprising that Bloomberg News also used that word to describe Kurtz. It revised the headline and omitted the word, but “disgraced” lives on in the URL for that story.

“Disgraced” indicates actions that are dishonorable or dishonest. I’ve used that adjective on this blog to describe John Edwards, the former senator whose political career and personal reputation imploded because of an extramarital affair. In journalism, I would be comfortable using “disgraced” to describe plagiarists and fabricators like Jayson Blair.

Kurtz has made mistakes, just as any person has, but they appear to be honest ones made from haste, not deception. And he has expressed remorse.

Those errors are, of course, especially embarrassing for someone who has made a career of analyzing the news media. But to my mind, “disgraced” does not match the level of the offenses.

Editing and public relations

For the most part, editing courses at UNC-Chapel Hill, where I teach, are populated with students with a news focus. It’s rare that a student in public relations, advertising or broadcast enrolls in my classes.

That’s not to say, however, that editing isn’t relevant to public relations. It is. Indeed, PR requires writers and editors to do what their counterparts in news do: Put the right words in the right order.*

Here are two recent examples of where editing and public relations intersected:

  • Last month, I led a workshop on headline writing at the Raleigh offices of Gibbs & Soell, a business communications company. Besides the usual challenges of writing headlines for print and digital media, PR people also have to navigate the demands of their clients, some of whom want particular wording.
  • This week, the News & Observer reported that UNC spent more than $500,000 on PR consulting as the university dealt with an academic scandal. One of the PR tasks: revise a letter to the editor written by an athletics department spokesman.

In each instance, editing played a key role in getting the job done. It is, as John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun wrote recently, a portable skill. As lines blur between news and public relations and more people move between the disciplines, it’s important to understand that editing encompasses them both.

* Hat tip to Henry Fuhrmann of the Los Angeles Times for this summary of what we do. I quote him often.

Carol Folt: a new chancellor in the headlines

UNC-Chapel Hill has selected a new chancellor. As first reported by The News & Observer, Carol Folt of Dartmouth University will succeed Holden Thorp as the leader of the state’s flagship public university.

As a faculty member, I like the selection of Folt for a couple of reasons: She’s from outside the UNC system, and she will be the first woman to lead the Chapel Hill campus. After a period of academic and athletic scandals, it’s time for a fresh start and new perspectives.

As an editor, I like Folt’s selection for a couple of other reasons: “Folt” is a short word for headlines in print and online. And “Carol Folt” is an unusual name that is more helpful for search engine optimization than, say, “Becky Jones” would be. Both of those aspects of her name will help headline writers do their jobs well.

Best wishes, Carol, on your move to Chapel Hill. I look forward to seeing your name in the headlines — and for all the right reasons.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 189 other followers