The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Category: headlines

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.

Student guest post: When are warnings in headlines enough?

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 12th of those posts. Sarah Sessoms is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill double-majoring in journalism and sports administration. A former world champion equestrian, she grew up on a horse farm in Hillsborough, N.C. She is an intern for the Carolina Hurricanes hockey team and hopes to embark on a career in the athletic administration after graduation in May.

During the NCAA Tournament this year, there was one storyline that you could barely miss hearing about: Kevin Ware’s injury. (In case you did miss it, the Louisville basketball player broke his leg in a horrific way during the game again Duke in the Elite Eight).

CBS showed the injury during its live coverage, then again on replay before deciding not to air the injury again. If you were watching it live like me, you were probably OK never to see it again. But the video of Ware breaking his leg blew up on YouTube, and now, over two weeks later, it has almost 5 million hits.

CBS started the discussion with what they thought was the best decision for everyone: don’t replay the injury and keep the coverage to the basics. No warnings, no graphic images. Many followed CBS’s lead.

But other media outlets didn’t choose to do it this way. One such example is Deadspin’s headline (I won’t link to it, because it takes you to the video of the injury itself). The headline to its article and accompanying media reads: “Kevin Ware Suffered Maybe The Most Gruesome Injury In The History Of Televised Sports [WARNING: VERY GROSS]”.

But when you write a story, is the headline with a warning enough? Is it too much? Should an editor warn the audience that the article, or any corresponding media, is graphic? Should readers be prepared for the content?

The answer is that it depends. Warnings for graphic content are common, but they need to be used sparingly.

What to focus on here is “Warning: Very gross.” True, the break is extremely gross. You could even call it disturbing.  They’re right about needing a warning on some level, but it shouldn’t be in the headline. And there has to be a better, more professional way to put it. In this piece Deadspin goes beyond reporting the injury, they sensationalize it.

But is this enough of a warning for the violent leg break? Is this even enough warning for the giant video that graces the front of this article? Did the editors who wrote the headline think that a warning would be enough? Or is this sensationalism for the sake of getting more hits on the website? There’s no clear answer, but I have a feeling that the more gruesome the headline, the more people would want to click on it.

Let’s compare with some other headlines from the incident. “Louisville’s Ware leaves with right leg injury” or “Horrific injury: Louisville’s Kevin Ware breaks leg vs. Duke in Elite Eight.” These headlines are far better for the privacy of the student-athlete, his family and his team.

Warnings are a really good tool to make sure that readers are aware of the disturbing content. In fact, one of the articles gives its own warning when linking to pictures of the injury. But the fact that it is in the body of the text makes it a much better option than sticking it in a headline. By putting a colloquial warning in their headline, Deadspin took away from the news value of the incident and placed it squarely as a spectacle.

When writing a headline for something this shocking, it’s good to remember all of the parties involved. Yes, it’s good to get readers’ attention, but it’s better to inform them of what happened.

The latter headlines are better for search engines and give many more details to readers in a rush. The headline with the warning only makes a bigger deal out of the injury, with little respect for Ware. In this situation, some media outlets forgot that the injured athlete is still a person, even if his leg break was “very gross.”

All in all, readers needed to be aware that the content of the Ware injury could cause some discomfort. In this case, the warning was definitely warranted, had it been phrased correctly. Where the warning goes wrong is focusing on the gruesomeness of the injury and by doing so taking away from the humanity of the situation.

Guest post: A heart-stopping headline

Dane Huffman is executive Web producer at NBC-17 in the Triangle region of North Carolina. He previously worked at and, for 24 years, in the sports department of The News & Observer as a reporter and editor. In this guest post, first published on Facebook, Huffman looks back at how a headline captured the essence of the 1983 N.C. State basketball team.

I loved watching the ESPN special “Survive And Advance” on N.C. State’s miracle run to a national championship in 1983. One small part I played in that was coming up with the “Cardiac Pack” name. I was a student at UNC-Chapel Hill at the time, and I was working at The N&O when State beat UNLV on a Sunday.

Of course, at that point they’d had a miracle run through the ACC Tournament and had beaten Pepperdine in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. After that UNLV game, I was working at The N&O on Sunday evening and said we needed to come up with a nickname.

We were throwing out ideas, and I remembered the St. Louis Cardinals of the NFL had been the “Cardiac Cards” in the 1970s. So I suggested “Cardiac Pack,” and we put that in the headline Monday morning.


Needless to say, the name took off — The N&O was really powerful then — and you soon saw it on bumper stickers and T-shirts and even on commemorative Coke bottles.

What was interesting back then is how people around the Triangle were pulling for State. Even UNC students were caught up in it at the time, and lots of Carolina students came to Raleigh (including me) for the night of the championship game.

Thanks to N&O news researcher Brooke Cain for providing the image of this newspaper page.

Q&A with Ariel Zirulnick, Middle East editor at the Christian Science Monitor

Ariel Zirulnick is Middle East editor at The Christian Science Monitor. In this interview, conducted by email, she discusses her job, the editing process at the Monitor and how to land a job in international journalism.

Q. Describe your job. What do you do on a typical day?

A. I work from our Boston headquarters, editing copy from a slew of staff writers and freelancers living in North Africa and the Middle East, and occasionally reporting and writing myself.

On a typical day, I wake up around 6 a.m. and immediately check my work email to see if any of my reporters, who are anywhere from 6 to 8 hours ahead of us, have emerging stories or other time-sensitive things on which they need a response. Since they’re already halfway through their day at that point, it’s critical to get them an answer ASAP.

The international desk editors get in to the office at 7:30 a.m. and spend the first couple hours of the day assigning and editing stories, planning coverage, tracking news in our regions, etc. The afternoon, when our reporters are done for the day and heading for bed, is typically the time to catch up on more long-term work, whether it’s magazine stories, non-time sensitive stories for the Web, or just organizational and administrative things, like handling our reporters’ reimbursements for work-related trips.

We spend a lot of time tracking what is rising and falling on Google and Yahoo! news. It isn’t the only thing that dictates our coverage, but it does influence our decisions and it certainly influences the way we write our headlines.

Q. How does story editing and headline writing work at the Monitor?

A. Every story for receives two edits.

The first is almost always done by the relevant regional editor, who will edit not only for spelling and grammar, but also for content – ideas, analysis, etc. The first edit is sent back to the reporter for him to answer any questions that came up and to read over the editor’s changes to ensure nothing was changed in such a way that it became incorrect.

Then they send back a fresh file incorporating all the editor’s changes and questions. That version then gets a read from another editor on the international desk – this time mostly for grammar, style, readability, etc. – before being published to the website. Stories for our weekly magazine go through one additional layer of editing with a designated copy editor.

The international desk editors write the headlines for stories on Typically it’s the editor doing the first edit who writes a headline, making sure to incorporate the so-called “key phrases” that Google News clusters are built around in order to get the story into that cluster and get traffic. We run our suggested headline by either the international editor or the deputy international editor, who gives the final stamp of approval.

Q. Readers often see bias in coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. How do you handle such criticism?

A. I receive more complaints on this than anything else in my region by a landslide. The fact is, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it can be impossible to satisfy critics – sometimes their objection is not grounded in fact and they will read whatever bias they want to into the piece.

It’s not rare to get two e-mails bashing the same story, one for being too sympathetic to Israelis, one for being too sympathetic to Palestinians. The only thing that’s different is the lens through which each reader is reading the piece. That’s what makes it so hard to satisfy everyone, or even most readers.

We do try to respond to all complaints because we want to make sure readers know we’re paying attention to their comments. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of pointing out to the reader the different voices in the piece to show that the reporter did her due diligence by using sources from across the political spectrum.

If the criticism seems valid – perhaps we forgot to include some background about a source’s political affiliation, or cast something in a certain light that seemed misleading – we will typically write to the person and ask them to provide us with their own sources to back up their claims. Sometimes we find that they can’t, sometimes they can and we file either a correction or, if it doesn’t warrant that, assure them that we will take that into account in future stories on the topic. Often readers are just happy to get an acknowledgement of their complaint, whether or not it prompts any action.

We get complaints the most often when we do a piece on only Israel or only Palestinians, mostly from readers angry that we “ignored” one half of the conflict. In that case, I’ll point them to previous stories that focused exclusively on the other “side.” Even if one piece is not straight down the middle, I can say with confidence that our cumulative work is.

Q. You are a 2010 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What advice do you have for students there to get a job like yours?

A. A second major, preferably something with an international slant, is very important if you want to work in international affairs journalism (I double majored in journalism and international studies, with a Middle East focus).

While outlets like CSM are happy when someone has journalism training, we care less about that and more about the reporter’s ability to thing deeply about the topic at hand, synthesize complex information, and see events in their broader context. Knowledge of the region, including its history, is essential for that, and that comes from studying the region, likely in an academic setting. It can be learned in the field, of course, but it’s unlikely an outlet like CSM will take something from a freelancer if they just arrived in the country and have no prior experience or study there.

Studying abroad, and even getting an internship abroad, will also give you a huge leg-up. Getting an international internship overseas is not as unattainable a goal as it sounds – most countries have an English language publication or a bureau for a major US publication, and it’s often much easier to get an internship there than at a news outlet in the United States.

The catch is that they’ll often be unpaid, since they don’t want to go through the hassle of obtaining a work visa for you, but the j-school has many scholarships specifically for covering students’ expenses while doing unpaid internships. That’s how I funded a summer internship at the Jerusalem Post, which I did on the heels of a semester at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (which I also mostly funded with scholarships, in that case from the Global Ed program).

Also, work for the Daily Tar Heel! My work for them is what I used when I applied to my Jerusalem Post internship, and editors there were amazed at the quality of the student-run publication. UNC journalism students are fortunate enough to have a top-notch news outlet around that takes teaching peers very seriously.

Take advantage of it. No journalism school class can simulate the deadline pressures and real-life experiences that you get from writing for the DTH.

If a student wants first and foremost to be reporting overseas, his best bet is to take the leap and set up shop as a freelancer overseas. Do some research into what countries are undercovered (a tip-off is a dateline from a country other than the one the story is about) and move there! You’ll have to pitch like crazy to a number if outlets before you get a bite, but it’s really the best way to go if being overseas is your first priority.

But if, like me, you aren’t comfortable taking that financial risk (student loans!) or care more about being a part of a team than in getting overseas straightaway and having to work solo, you can look into internships with the international sections of newspapers based in the United States.

I got my foot in the door with CSM by taking a semester-long paid internship with the Monitor after graduating from college. You’ll probably spend most of your time editing, not reporting, but you’ll still have your head in international news all day long, and you’ll learn a ton about a lot of places, which will better prepare for a move overseas in the future and maybe even get you in line for a staff position.

I was fortunate to be interning with CSM when a staff position opened up. A year later the Middle East editor position opened up, and now I’m spending my day reading, writing and editing on the region that has enthralled me for years. I even got to take a reporting trip to Egypt and Lebanon last year, which was incredibly exciting.

The Monitor international desk hires an intern each semester and for the summer. If you are interested, or just want to know more, please be in touch! I need people to watch Carolina basketball with up here.

Follow Ariel Zirulnick on Twitter at @azirulnick.

The top posts of 2012

This blog will be on a holiday hiatus this month.

In the media’s tradition of year-end lists, I offer the most popular posts of 2012, as clicked on and read by you. Thanks for reading, and see you in 2013.

10. Q&A with Elizabeth Hudson of Our State magazine

9. Student guest post: The Man Repeller kicks it up a notch

8. My nominee for best correction ever

7. A gap in Gingrich coverage

6. Mitt Romney, headline writer

5. Charlotte still needs N.C. — for now

4. What I am teaching this semester

3. Debunking a headline myth

2. From spelling and grammar to usage and grammar

1. What Abe Simpson yelled at

Q&A with Ness Shortley, editor of the News of Orange County

Ness Clarke Shortley is the editor of the News of Orange County, a weekly newspaper in Hillsborough, N.C. She previously worked as a copy editor and reporter at The Free Press in Kinston, N.C. In this interview, conducted by email, Shortley discusses her job duties and the outlook for community journalism in the Triangle region of North Carolina.

Q. Describe your job. What do you do on a typical day?

A. Since News of Orange is a weekly, I don’t have a schedule that stays the same day to day. But each week remains more or less the same with Tuesday usually being the craziest day. My weeks go Wednesday to Tuesday since the paper comes out Wednesday.

We have a fairly tiny editorial staff — it’s mainly just me and a staff writer — so I wear multiple hats. I write, edit, take pictures, lay out and proof pages: If it’s done at a newspaper and it’s not advertising related, I do it.

Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays are interview, transcription and writing days. I tend to slog through the insane number of emails I get mostly on those days, too.

Wednesday is great for planning the next week’s paper. The general manager and I meet with my reporter weekly for a budget meeting, and there we’ll talk about what we’ve got going for the week editorially, what advertising — and, therefore, our page count — looks like, and any upcoming special sections that require editorial input either with content or layout.

Over the weekend at home, I edit any photos (in CMYK, greyscale and for the web) or video I took that week and finish writing anything I didn’t get done on Friday. I usually rough edit whatever community submissions I got the week before over the weekend as well.

On Monday, I put together a TMC called the Northern Orange Xtra that gets delivered to residents of the northern part of the county. Our community calendar, one staff-written story and one staff-taken piece of art go into that.

Every other week, I attend the meetings of the Orange County Board of Education, since my beat includes the county school system. I usually put together the community calendar — we call it Word on the Street — and make final edits on community submissions, editorial page content and my reporter’s stories. I tend to write my column on Monday since that type of writing is so different from what I normally do. If I had a board meeting, I transcribe any quotes I didn’t get down accurately and create a rough outline for the story I’ll write the next day.

Tuesday’s production day; I get in early and tend to stay late. I’ll do final edits on any of my reporter’s stories that hadn’t already been edited. I lay out the front and any jumps and the church/social, sports, schools and town/county pages. Erin, my reporter, handles the opinion pages and crime reports.

After laying out pages, we proof them, make corrections, doublecheck to see we didn’t introduce new errors into copy while making corrections and then send them to the press up in Virginia. Before we leave, we set some up some of the Web content for the next day, and I upload the eEdition. We also put out a monthly tab in Durham, so on the third Wednesday of the month, we put that together.

Q. How does headline writing and copy editing work at your paper?

A. Erin and I write our own suggested headlines when we write our stories. Of course, once we get into laying out the pages, the suggested head may not work. It could be too long or too short for the space; it might break in an awkward place, or we might honestly just think of something better. We try not to get too cute with our headlines, and I just don’t like puns, so we try to avoid those, as well.

Copy editing is a multi-stage process here. Since Erin and I write everything and edit everything, we want to make sure we read it multiple times to give ourselves a better chance of catching errors. I tend to read content silently and then out loud for style, content and flow. Then, I read it backward sentence by sentence word by word to try to catch typos and grammatical errors.

After the pages have been put together, we proof hard copies of them. I also have our office manager and general manager look over them just to get extra eyeballs on the pages. Then, Erin and I make corrections.

We print out proofs again and go over our edits again to make sure we didn’t miss anything and to ensure we didn’t introduce new errors. We also doublecheck headlines, cutlines, dates, page names and numbers, and jumps.

Q. You are active on Twitter, and your newspaper has a Facebook page. What are your goals on social media?

A. I think social media is a great place to reach out to the community in a way that’s more informal than what’s allowed in the paper. When I became the editor, I made a concerted effort to be more accessible to people, and it’s a philosophy Erin has embraced as well.

Through News of Orange’s Twitter feed and Facebook page, we can engage with readers and post content that wouldn’t make it into the paper. If we’re at, say, the fifth-grade musical production of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” at Pathways Elementary School, we can tweet a picture or short video to let people know. It gives the community the chance to see what we’re doing, see that we’re out there taking pictures of their kids or covering meetings or just doing our jobs.

When I worked at a daily, there was a conscious push for reporters to remain apart from the people we covered. That ivory tower approach to journalism doesn’t work at a community paper. When people talk to me about the News of Orange, they tell me what they like and dislike about their paper. They feel ownership, and they care about what makes it into its pages.

I made a decision awhile back to allow community members to friend me on Facebook and to unlock my Twitter feed for the same reason. It’s made me feel like a member of the community I cover instead of an outsider.

I’ve had people tell me they have found me more approachable as a result of some of the things I’ve posted. Sure, it means I have to be careful what I put out there. I don’t post anything political or controversial, and I watch what people post on my wall, but I think it’s a fair trade. I’ve been lucky enough to connect with some fantastic people through social media and engage with a more tech-savvy segment of our readership.

There are, of course, pitfalls for newspapers and reporters using social media, but I don’t think not being out there is an option anymore. People expect us to be there, so we muddle through as best we can.

Q. These are tough times for newspapers. In our area, the Carrboro Citizen recently ceased publication, and layoffs have hit newspapers in Durham and Raleigh in recent years. What is the outlook for community newspapers like yours?

A. When I first started at News of Orange back in 2008, the media landscape here was fairly diverse. At school board meetings, there were reporters from the Durham and Raleigh dailies, local radio and TV stations, and even student journalists from The Daily Tar Heel. Now, it’s just me. It’s the same at Hillsborough Town Council meetings. That’s a trend that’s played out in all coverage areas.

I think that’s a strength of community newspapers in general and News of Orange in particular; you can’t find most of what’s in our pages anywhere else. As other newspapers have pulled back, we’ve tried to increase our coverage — though that can be tough to balance with financial considerations; most people don’t seem to understand that the number of pages we get each week is dictated by advertising, not by content.

Even so, we put out our first-ever mass mailing in April, which weighed in at 32 pages (a normal paper for us averages 14 pages); we’ve increased the number of editorially supported special sections on everything from high school sports previews to health and wellness; we took our sports coverage from essentially nothing to having a healthy section every week.

The expanded sports coverage isn’t just the big name sports —football, basketball, wrestling, baseball — but everything. It allows us to get the names and faces of lots of kids in paper each week, and people have really responded to it.

Community newspapers have a place in this changing media landscape; News of Orange certainly does as well. The people who read community papers deserve the same quality product that metro readers get. The editorial department at NOC — such that it is — tries to deliver that every week.

What Abe Simpson yelled at

Clint Eastwood’s appearance at the Republican convention is the talk of Twitter and morning TV today. As part of his shtick, the filmmaker spoke to an imaginary Barack Obama, who was represented by an empty chair.

The chair has, of course, led to various online memes, including this one with a “Simpsons” reference:

Some people seem to think this is an odd coincidence, equating Eastwood with Abe “Grampa” Simpson. But I knew immediately that this was an altered version of a real “Simpsons” joke. Here’s the original:

How did I detect this? For one thing, my colleague Bill Cloud is known for giving students extra credit for headlines that include “cloud” references. Secondly, I’m a longtime “Simpsons” viewer to the point that I am probably in the 1 percent in “Simpsons” trivia.

So if you see that “Old Man Yells At Chair” image on Facebook or Twitter in the coming days, you’ll know it wasn’t the real gag. Changing an image for a news event is, of course, part of how memes work. That’s fine. And it’s harmless in that it doesn’t cast an actual person or organization in a bad light, unlike this one.

This is not the only time “The Simpsons” has used headline humor. More about that here.

Q&A with Charles Duncan Pardo, editor of the Raleigh Public Record

Charles Duncan Pardo is editor of the Raleigh Public Record, a nonprofit news organization that covers the capital of North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, Pardo talks about his job, the Raleigh Public Record’s role in the Triangle and the outlook for nonprofit news.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like?

A. I’m not sure if I have a typical day. I have two main jobs. In my “day job” for the Courthouse News Service I go to the Wake County Courthouse every day and Durham once a week to cover civil courts and track new filings.

I’m also responsible for supervising about 20 reporters spread out across the Southeast. I’m very lucky to have the Southeast Bureau Chief position with CNS because it gives me the flexibility to run Raleigh Public Record.

For the Record, my days typically involve assigning stories, talking with freelance reporters about ongoing stories and editing copy as it comes in. But I also spend a lot of time writing grants, maintaining the website, keeping up with everything that’s going on in Raleigh and generally taking care of all the tasks involved in running a small news operation. I even get to report a story every once in a while.

I typically spend half a day in the office and the other half downtown. I can’t work in one place for more than a couple of hours before my productivity drops.

But I also feel that as the editor I shouldn’t be stuck in the office all day. I should go work out of coffee shops and go to city hall and be able to talk to people, bug sources and check in on what’s going on around the city.

Q. The News & Observer and WRAL are the big players in the Triangle media. How does the Raleigh Public Record fit into that mix?

A. Our goal has never been to compete with the daily news organizations. Our goal is to complement. We don’t cover car crashes and drug busts. We seek out the stories that don’t get covered by the big organizations.

We have two focus areas. Raleigh city government has not had consistent coverage beyond city council meetings for quite some time. We almost always have the only reporter in the room for meetings like planning commission or the budget and economic development committee. These are important meetings where elected and government officials debate and make major decisions about Raleigh. We cover that lower-level news that has real everyday impact on the lives of people living here.

We also like to step back and be able to see the broader picture. Take the Wake County school board for example. The traditional news organizations do a good job of covering the day to day. But reporters covering that major story on a daily deadline can have trouble sometimes seeing the forest for the trees. Our job there is to get at the big picture. This is where we analyze the data, dig deep to give the analysis or investigate to get at the heart (and the facts) of a politicized debate.

Q. How does story editing and headline writing work at the website?

A. I or our assistant editor are very involved in stories from assignment through posting. For meeting coverage and short-term news stories, we talk to reporters when we make the assignments and then stories are submitted to me.

Depending on the reporter, the timeline and the deadline, sometimes we edit in person, and sometimes I will edit on my own. Then stories go to our assistant editor for copy editing, design and posting.

For longer stories I am very involved at each step in working with our reporters and making sure they are on the right track and asking all the right questions. Deadlines vary. For meetings and the like, we expect stories to be turned around same day, and they are typically posted that night or early the next morning.

For more involved reporting, we have deadlines that range from 24 hours to three weeks. I would much rather get something right and be thorough and thoughtful than get something online before it’s ready.

We have the luxury of not having to fill pages or time slots every day. We are also very cautious to make sure two pairs of eyes go through every story before we publish.

For headlines, we ask reporters to suggest headlines when submitting articles. I normally make changes to the headline or write a new one. If I’m stuck, I will send a short list of suggestions to our assistant editor, and she will help craft the right headline.

We have some constraints on headline writing just because of the layout of our site. In the top left column, for example, we can’t run a photo and a long word in the headline or the design comes out looking odd. So we try to keep them short and punchy, and we’re not afraid to have a little humor.

I will say that I despise puns in headlines. Sometimes I will let one get up, but I tend to groan when I see a pun in a headline.

Q. You’re part of a non-profit news organization. What do you see as the role of non-profits like yours as part of the future of journalism?

A. I think non-profit journalism is here to stay. What’s the role? We’re still working on figuring that out, at least here in Raleigh. But what we’re banking on is that the role of non-profit journalism organizations is to do the hard, sometimes tedious work that traditional news organizations either don’t have the staff for or can’t make any money from.

Covering the planning commission and doing local investigative journalism are two concrete examples. Our role is to be the local government watchdog, and we take that very seriously.

The next step will be to turn our track record of solid public service journalism for Raleigh into getting public support so we can continue paying for it well into the future.

Student guest post: Is wordplay “Linning” or losing?

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 11th of those posts. Kevin Minogue is a senior journalism and political science major from Reston, Va. He is a staff writer for The Daily Tar Heel, as well as a former intern at The Fayetteville Observer.

Earlier this year, the success of New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin brewed up a perfect storm for epic headline writers across the country. For those tasked with writing a paper’s front-page headline – better known in big cities as those snarky puns that persuade pedestrians to pony up two bucks for a copy of the day’s issue on their walk to work – Lin was the ideal subject of a clever play on words.

After all, how often does a Harvard-educated, couch-surfing, Asian point guard lead the New York Knicks to their most successful spell in recent memory? And how often does that hero’s name contain elements of a common preposition, prefix and suffix?

Not often, most New York headline writers concluded. The headlines during Lin’s roughly month-long reign ranged from the witty and original to the corny, the forced, the poorly contrived, the questionable and the … woops. After that last headline cost the ESPN employee who wrote it his job, the headline hubbub settled briefly.

But on Easter weekend, when a country bumpkin named Bubba used a pink driver to throttle golf balls more than 350 yards on his way to winning the world’s most storied golf tournament, the scribes of over-the-top headlines feasted once more.  Most of the former Lin-obsessed headline writers in New York focused on Sunday’s big Knicks win, but plenty of smaller papers and online editions posted Masters headlines with ill-fitting wordplay.

I suppose this British paper felt obliged to use the obvious Sherlock Holmes reference, but it doesn’t work when nothing about Watson’s one-stroke, playoff victory was elementary. In fact, if not for a hooking moonshot from the trees that defied the laws of basic physics, Watson would have gone home wearing only his buttoned-up polo.

Many other papers, including this Texas publication and this Utah paper, made obvious references to Watson’s bubblegum-colored attire. While I get the attempt at wordplay, the story is about his victory, not solely his clothes. It’s also poor form to poke fun at the man’s outfit when he wore it as a way to raise money for charity.

These headline hiccups didn’t flop quite as badly as the Lin headlines, but they would be better served sticking to the main premise of the story. Headline writers can still use clever wordplay, and I, for one, hope that they do. But here are a few of my rules for ensuring that your witticisms are appropriate:

1. Make sure the headline is not offensive to any particular group. Wordplay is funny, but not if it makes fun of you. Your readership is generally composed of a mix of ethnicities, religions and sexes, so try to avoid wordplay that hinges any of these items. Otherwise, you may offend and alienate a significant portion of your readership.

2. Be original. The point of wordplay is to be creative, and clichés are short on imagination. You won’t get your desired result from a “clever” headline if five other papers wrote the same thing that day.

3. Make it subject-appropriate. There’s no sense in thinking up clever headline wordplay if it has nothing to do with a story. The reader might initially be drawn to your front page, but he or she will quickly lose both interest and respect in your publication upon finding that the title is merely for show. The purpose of a headline is to give readers a sense of what they are about to read. Don’t lose sight of this.

4. Don’t force wordplay. If it’s not there, it’s not there. The headline should instantly jump out at you as you’re writing. If not, don’t try to convince yourself that it works and end up with a headline that isn’t apt. As is the case with a bad comedian, once you have lost your audience, you’ve lost them for good.

Those are just a few of my thoughts on the subject. Feel free to post your own or offer examples of other bad headline wordplay in the comments below.

Debunking a headline myth

The Buzzfeed site has posted a list of “25 Stupid Newspaper Headlines,” including this one that is supposedly from The News & Observer: “17 REMAIN DEAD IN MORGUE SHOOTING SPREE.”

I believe this is an altered image and that the headline in question never appeared in the Raleigh newspaper. Here’s why:

  • The story text is blurry, perhaps intentionally.
  • The story text has problems with indents and justifications that are inconsistent with the actual N&O.
  • The typeface for the headline is not one that’s been used by the N&O for all-caps headlines.
  • As the centerpiece lead, this story would almost certainly have a photograph or other imagery rather than a simple headline and text. This is a gray page that wouldn’t be published in real life.
  • A Newsbank search finds only three N&O headlines with the word “morgue” in them from 2000-2006, and none matches this one.
  • I worked at the N&O from 1992-1997 and 2001-2005. I don’t recall this front page or this headline, and I think that I would have.

The upshot? Don’t believe everything you see in such lists. Besides, with plenty of real headlines to choose from, there’s no need to use fake ones to get a chuckle.

So where did the fake N&O page come from? A Facebook friend points to the Brunching Shuttlecocks, a defunct comedy website, as the source of this image. If you happen to know more, please add a comment on this post.

UPDATE: This PDF of the front page of the N&O from Sept. 7, 2001, appears to be the one that was altered. Note the differences in the actual centerpiece.


In December 2012, Lore Sjoberg contacted me via Twitter, saying that he had written this headline. Sjoberg, a humor writer for Wired magazine, then agreed to answer a few questions via email about the altered N&O page:

Q. Where was the mock headline originally published, and in what context?

A. The image was originally created by me and published on The Brunching Shuttlecocks, the humor site I edited and co-created, in 2001. It was  part of a series I called “Untitled,” which were just random image jokes:

Q. How did you pick the Raleigh paper to use for this joke?

A. I was living in Durham at the time, and the paper was around the house. Sorry, The News & Observer!

Q. Has it surprised you that the headline has been passed around as real and for as long as it has?

A. Yes and no. I’m not surprised it’s been passed around, but I am surprised it became as popular, so to speak, as it did. I didn’t realize  it until today when I clicked on a link to the Freakonomics site that I realized it had any currency. I do have to say I’m a little starstruck that George Takei posted it, even if he did so under a false understanding.

Thanks to the Park Library for assistance with this post. 


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