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 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.