Q&A with Kevin Davis, editor of Bull City Rising

Kevin Davis is editor of Bull City Rising, a news blog that covers Durham, N.C., which is also known as the Bull City. Davis, a former writer and editor and technology columnist for The Harvard Crimson, works as a university administrator and lives in the Trinity Park neighborhood of Durham. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Davis talks about writing and editing at the blog, and about the media landscape in the Triangle region of North Carolina.

Q. What is the job of editor like at Bull City Rising?

A. As with many “hyperlocal” sites and publications, I’m the owner (via Bull City New Media LLC), main writer and editor of other readers’ submission — plus interlocutor between two outsourced ad placement companies and sponsors, plus the first-line of troubleshooting if the site doesn’t work. And I have to remember to renew the PO Box once a year, too, and to get those LLC annual reports filed.

Tongue out of cheek, this is nothing new for folks at many community news  sites — or for any startup small business. In my case, BCR’s a quasi-hobby, quasi-commercial enterprise I pursue in my spare time outside of a full-time job as a university administrator. BCR takes up the mornings, evenings and many weekends.

Of late, I’ve been doing more editing of others, with three correspondents/freelancers on board or getting started; one covers general news, politics, neighborhood issues and other items of interest; a second is focused on entrepreneurship and startups, a big area of interest in Durham right now; and a third is just now starting and will focus on K-12 education.

On a typical morning, I’ll wake up and peruse the local papers and a Durham-centric RSS feed I’ve built over the years to look for stories worth aggregating into the “fishwrap,” a list of links to key news stories of the day. I’ll typically then write or finish editing one or two other stories that get set for scheduled/timed posting during the day. Evenings are for writing or, in some cases, attending public meetings to get the news for  the next day.

Apart from writing, much of my time is spent playing traffic-cop for local stories coming in from readers, PR professionals, municipal PIOs and the like. I would love to see a study comparing the number of former News & Observer and other pro-jo’s in full-time PR to the number of actual professional  journalists left in newsrooms; based on the well-crafted, attractive prose arriving in my inbox each day that isn’t in my newspaper, I’m afraid we’ve gotten the balance wrong, though few of our newly minted PR pros chose those careers voluntarily.

My biggest weakness is time, especially when demands in the real work or,  of late, with an aging parent have squeezed out what time usually goes to the site.

Q. How does story editing, caption writing and headline writing work at the blog?

A. Bloggers have the freedom to ignore the column inch; a post can run 300 words or 3,000 words depending on the inclination of the writer and the subject matter. I’ve found my readership will stick with longer, more analytical posts with significant original research, but that the temptation to be sloppy and over-wordy for stories that don’t deserve that treatment is too easy.

Certainly the quality of my site suffers from the lack of an independent, separate editor — particularly for my own stories, which unlike those of my freelancers and correspondents don’t get an independent set of reviewer eyes. And frankly, as with anyone else in the business of reporting events, news and views,  timetables and deadlines can lead to mistakes. If I’m pressed on time and run with a story without taking the time to double-check core assumptions, data and links, I’ll almost invariably screw something up.

There’s not an easy answer to that, though. Some of the latest research I’ve read on hyperlocal media throws shadows on the concept of the  university- or NFP-trained community newsroom, with dozens of volunteers providing reportage and a few professionals editing and culling in the middle. The challenge being reported in those startups is that all the journalism training in the world is great, but “citizen journalists” (a term I have issues with) in that model aren’t highly committed and tend to wander away or quit or burn out quickly. It takes a mix of passion, love for the subject matter and OCD to stick with a hyperlocal site, and that comes when you’re invested as the publisher too often.

Hyperlocal/citizen media or what have you shouldn’t replace professional, paid journalism. In communities where it does so only accidentally, and hopefully temporarily, we need to find a way to make those ventures sustainable, with enough extra eyes to provide that independent editing hand, for instance, or a true editorial-advertising firewall.

Headline writing is much more fun in blogs than in my collegiate newspaper days. The temptation for overwrought headlines is always there, though for  sites like mine that send headlines to Twitter, that service’s 140-character limit — less room for bit.ly links to the story, less room for “RT @bullcity” messages you  hope others will prepend — make for tighter text. On the other hand, the ability to write excerpts from posts that appear in RSS feeds and via Facebook gives the opportunity for a little  more flexibility and creativity, especially in trying to encourage deeper reading.

Q. You’re on Twitter and Facebook. How important is social media to what you do?

A. Ironically, I use Twitter and Facebook intensively more because readers seem to expect it and because different readers come in through different channels — regular visitors, RSS subscribers, Twitter, Facebook, search and links. Personally, despite being on the cusp between GenX and the millennials, I don’t feel like a digital-native when it comes to social media, but I am astounded at the power of those platforms to magnify and augment a story’s reach.

Not that I consider them to be a replacement for longer-form work, of course. And I do think we sometimes conflate their use as a source for vox-populi reactions to stories and raw information with the informed lens that journalistic writing should bring to a story. For me, I find them to be very important as a broadcast tool, but less useful as a sourcing tool.

In  fact, as a hyperlocalist, one challenge is that social media tends to connect people in lots of different organizing mechanisms, but place isn’t always one of them. Neighborhood e-mail listservs and message boards are still much better story sources than Facebook.

Q. The Triangle has a lot of media options — print, online and  broadcast. Where do Bull City Rising and similar blogs fit into that? And what changes do you anticipate?

At present, I see BCR as an outlet for stories that print outlets don’t cover or don’t see first. Print journalists are fewer in number, and I tend to suspect that spreading the same corpus of work over fewer reporters is deepening the bias toward press-release and public meeting-driven stories over enterprise journalism. There are exceptions, like the N&O’s fine investigative  work, but I tend to find that newspapers don’t seem to be able to sell more analytical, entrepreneurial work to their readers or  their publishers.

Not  that my site’s work always, or even often, reaches that mark, though I think there’s been times it has. But it’s a similar dynamic to that in place at the Indy: By being able to target certain key stories or areas of coverage for deeper work while  taking an aggregator strategy to commodity news, my ultimate goal over time is to help deepen the discourse on issues that really matter for Durham’s future.

Take crime news. I don’t publish stories on who’s been shot or horrible, yet easily sensationalized, events like a father’s murder of his child in rural northern Durham County a couple of weeks ago. Those stories are well-covered by print and broadcast, sometimes to the exclusion of other stories.

But I do want to look at issues of root-cause of crime, such as some of the papers coming out of Duke’s Urban Economics course each year, or at the lens of multi-year crime trends. At the end of the day, the latter kinds of stories help citizens be more informed about what we as a community need to be doing to improve public safety or to understand the reality of Durham crime versus regional stereotypes.

I think new media entrants like BCR will play a larger role in community newsgathering as traditional media channels face deeper economic pressures. That’s not to say BCR in its current, blog-esque, editorial voice-forward design would necessarily absorb a larger role per se — or, heaven forbid, that we see part-time citizen writers trying to supplant professional, paid journalism. Instead, I think websites can provide a much more sustainable model and channel for supporting full-time, paid newsgathering “without fear or favor,” as the saying goes, than can modes that have high fixed overhead costs.

Among hyperlocals, the entry of Patch into markets is quite interesting, especially since most sites like mine are immature in their advertising take currently. Patch is focused on the sub-75k population cities and is reported to bring in at least as many ad sales staff in a market as they do journalists. It’s a smart strategy: become a local hero to small communities by providing a dedicated journalist to your town, while building a regional sales staff that can (in my guess) eventually let you swoop into the major metro cores with a prebuilt metro market engine that can sell ads and hire local journalists.

But as the question has gone with university and non-profit citizen journalist efforts: Is the passion there for this to work?

The headline verbs that we hate

Some words exist primarily in the world of newspaper headlines. I was thinking about this problem this week as students in my editing classes have begun writing headlines.

Many of the students are writing compelling headlines that communicate the news and lure readers into a story. A few of them are writing headlines that sound like headlines they may have read in their hometown newspapers — and not in a good way.

These “headline-ese” headlines use verbs that no normal person would utter in conversation, and they are often overused. It’s hard to imagine readers understanding or being attracted by these verbs. Confusion is a more likely reaction.

I started thinking about the headline verbs that I find particularly annoying. I also asked friends on Facebook and my Twitter followers. Here’s our list of those verbs that bug us:

  • Mull
  • Eye
  • Ax
  • Irk
  • Ink (as in “to sign”)
  • Rap (as in “to criticize”)
  • Bilk
  • Vie
  • Slate (as in “to schedule”)
  • Tout
  • Toot
  • Laud
  • Finger
  • Fete
  • Tap (as in “to select” or “to appoint”)
  • Pelt
  • Probe
  • Offer (on restaurant reviews)
  • Shine (about Scouts or students)
  • Nab
  • Opines
  • Quiz
  • Limn
  • Any HuffPo verbs: Eviscerate, destroy, hammer, maul, disembowel, go nuclear, skull#$*@

Thanks to @underoak, @laurenhough, @wisekaren, @lukemorris, @montyhobbs on Twitter and a host of others on Facebook for their contributions.

Q&A with Julie Wildhaber, Yahoo! editor

Julie Wildhaber is one of the creators of The Yahoo! Style Guide. She trains writers and editors for Yahoo! and manages the Central Editorial copy desk. She has been editing online since 1996. In this interview, conducted by email, Wildhaber talks about the style guide and the differences between editing for print and online. Note: This post attempts to conform to Yahoo! style.

Q. Why is Yahoo! releasing a stylebook?

A. Because the Web needed a style guide. (That, or we wanted to bang our heads on our desks for two years while we developed the book.)

Excellent reference works abound, and we on the “Yahoo! Style Guide” team have used everything from AP to “Wired Style” to blogs. Generally, though, we found that guidance about Web issues like user interfaces and search-engine optimization targets an audience of Web developers, marketers, or designers rather than writers, while style guides and writing books often ignore online concerns.

We had a 200-page internal style guide, which also didn’t include everything we had learned in the past 15 years about writing for the Web, so we thought, why not create a guide that everyone can use?

Q. How is the Yahoo! guide different from the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style?

A. We’re all about the Web, and our book is both style guide and writing manual. Chicago and AP are terrific, and we still consult them, but they’re built for print publishing. They don’t tell you how to write a Web-friendly headline, why you might want to use a double hyphen (–) rather than an em dash, how to bold or italicize text in HTML, or why the Digital Millennium Copyright Act changes copyright liability for certain sites.

When you write for the Web, you have to think about the complete experience: how people find your page, how they read and navigate the site, how text will look in a Web browser or on a cell phone or in email, and so on. You wouldn’t think that reading is all that different online, but it is: Electronic displays are harder on the eyes than paper, so people read more slowly on screens and skim the page before they commit to clicking a link or delving more deeply into the copy. Also, some of your site visitors may be blind and scanning a page through a screen reader, and some may speak English as a second language and have trouble with slang or jargon.

Speaking of word choice, those punning and clever headlines that we copy editors love to write for newspapers just don’t fly online. Think about how you use search engines: You probably don’t dig through 10 pages’ worth of results; more likely you click the first link that looks relevant, spend a few seconds scanning the page, and go back to search if you don’t see what you’re looking for.

Your time is precious, and the Web offers so many options that you can be fickle. So, headlines need to grab readers immediately by including keywords, by being clear and literal, and by explaining the story. They should also make sense if they stand alone, because a headline may appear in search results, mobile browsers, news feeds, blocks of related links, and other places where readers won’t see the rest of the story.

Q. How did the Yahoo! editors decide on the preferred spellings in the guide’s word list? For example, you like email, not e-mail.

A. Yes, and people have been sending questions about why we treat “email” and other words the way we do. The copy editor’s first line of defense is the house style sheet and preferred dictionary. But of course no dictionary or guide can keep up with all the new words, not to mention all the proper names, and references disagree about treatment. “Email” is a good example, so let’s look at some of the things you might consider in making a style decision:

  • Dictionaries. Look up both “email” and “e-mail” on a site like OneLook that searches multiple dictionaries at once. Most dictionaries hyphenate.
  • Other style guides and publications. AP hyphenates, which means that most news outlets use “e-mail,” and so does the “Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications” (2004). I believe “Wired Style” was the first style guide to close up “email,” and many technology publications and companies have followed, including Apple, InfoWorld, All Things Digital, and, more curiously, The Wall Street Journal.
  • Trademarks and company treatment. If the word is a proprietary name, check how the owner spells it. Companies are often inconsistent, however, so look for a copyright line at the bottom of the page, information about trademarks, an “about us” section, or a press release. Email isn’t a proper name, so we can move on.
  • Industry standards. Are you writing for or about a specialized field? If so, is there an organization that sets standards or terminology? For example, if you’re writing for psychologists, you would consult the APA (American Psychological Association) manual; and if you were debating whether to hyphenate “Wi-Fi,” you might consider how the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), which sets networking standards, treats the word. “Email,” however, is not a specialized term.
  • Search-engine optimization. Plug your terms into a search engine to see (1) which is more popular–look for the total number of results under the search box (Google, Bing) or in the left column (Yahoo!)–and (2) which sites are more relevant to your site or topic. The results for “email” and “e-mail” are pretty similar in quantity and type, though I notice that in the top 10 results, the sites that hyphenate are Wikipedia, Hotmail, and news stories. The top two sites, sans hyphen, are Gmail and Yahoo! Mail.
  • Language trends. Is the word evolving, or are there trends in the way people are using or treating it? In the case of “email,” we see that search results are evenly split between hyphenated and closed, but a few years ago, you would have seen more results for “e-mail.” Also, common compound words in English tend to evolve from open (“electronic mail,” “on line”) to hyphenates (“e-mail,” “on-line”) to closed (“email,” “online”). Recently, AP decided to close up “website,” for instance.
  • Audience and voice. Are you writing for a specific or general audience? Will your readers think the term is difficult and unnecessary jargon, or will they think you’re out of touch if you don’t use the term or if you go against the way specialists treat it? As the search results showed, people use both “email” and “e-mail.” The trend among many Web and technology publications is to lose the hyphen, and we think dictionaries and other style guides will eventually adopt “email,” too. Readers may find that treatment a little fashion-forward, but we’re Yahoo!, Web pioneers, and “email” is appropriate to our voice.

So that’s why we decided, at least a decade ago, to close up “email.” On a personal note, I would say that “e-mail” looks old-fashioned to me, like “on-line.” Yes, we all know that the word derives from “electronic mail,” and the hyphen stands in for deleted letters, but who says “electronic mail” anymore? Is there any danger someone would misread “email”? I think not.

By the way, you can download the Yahoo! word list if you want to use it as a basis for your own. We have more guidelines about creating an in-house guide in Chapter 19 of the book.

Q. The Web has such a tremendous range of content, even in the area of news. What do you see as the future of style guides as the news media continue to fragment and specialize? In other words, can one style fit all?

A. In a word, no. I don’t know any copy editors who have just one book on their desk; we have a full shelf and triangulate multiple points of reference to zero in on the style that will work for our publication and our audience. And that, in my opinion, is how it should be: Language changes constantly, and the style decision that worked yesterday may not work next week. You have to keep doing your homework and updating your word list.

As for fragmentation and specialization, that’s why we focus on principles rather than platforms in our book. We don’t talk about how to tweet or how to write blurbs for YouTube; we talk about how to write good, concise, Web-friendly headlines that will work everywhere, and how to use captions and tags to make your content more findable and accessible, no matter which service you’re using. The platforms will change, but the principles are universally valid.

If you’ve flipped through the book or the website, you may have noticed that ours is not the most prescriptivist style guide. We have three rough categories of guidance: rules, best practices, and options.

Rules include things like subject-verb agreement, which most if not all grammarians would agree on. Best practices include using double hyphens instead of em dashes and straight quotes instead of curly quotes. Hyphens and straight quotes can be rendered by any software, whereas some browsers or text-based email may choke on special characters and display a weird symbol or a snippet of code instead. But we also show you how to code special characters in HTML, if you want to use them.

Finally, we have options for issues like capitalization, where title style and sentence style are equally fine for the Web–both are readable and searchable. We explain the rules for each and say to be consistent. We left flexibility in certain areas because we want to tell editors what generally works best online, but also let them decide what’s best for their site and their audience specifically.

Q. Some editors grumble about the exclamation mark in your name. Care to comment?

A. Sure! (Stet that exclamation point, Andy.) We editors are trained to be skeptical of exclamation marks and rightly so: They’re overused and tend to be a lazy writer’s crutch, propping up wispy sentences that should stand on strong verbs and intriguing adjectives. For Yahoo!, though, the mark’s not just a bit of punctuation; it’s part of our identity, our brand, and our voice.

Fun is one of our company values, and it’s one of the reasons readers like our sites and, I hope, will like the book, too–what other style guide helps you invent a stupid band name while teaching you a little HTML? (That’s Chapter 16.) Style-wise, we treat the exclamation point like a letter–other punctuation goes after it.

Naturally, companies and copy editors have different priorities. Companies have to promote their brands and protect their trademarks. Copy editors prioritize readability and consistency, among a hundred other worries.

My rule of thumb is to follow the company’s spelling for its name and its products, as you would for any other proper names, but to set your own house style for capitalization and punctuation. For instance, our style lowercases the “i” in “iPhone,” except when it’s the first word in a sentence; then we cap the “I” for readability.

I remember when “WALL-E” came out, and editors were going nuts trying to figure out what to do with the title. Pixar was spelling it with an interpunct before the “E,” one of those special characters that won’t work everywhere.

The title was also in all caps, and you couldn’t tell whether it was an acronym unless you had seen the movie. “WALL-E” is an acronym, as it happens, but lots of other company and product names are capitalized or even all-lowercase for marketing reasons, and you should choose a treatment that’s right for your readers.

SHOCK: HuffPo’s headlines need help

The headlines at The Huffington Post are like those in a New York tabloid. They’re often eye-catching and sensational. There’s a generous use of ALLCAPS and the “SHOCK:” start.

HuffPo’s headlines are often misleading and overreaching. Even those who share the site’s liberal politics have noted this tendency to bait and switch. The headlines are also riddled with cliches.

This one about Rand Paul illustrates these problems. Here’s why:

  • First, “15 minutes” is a tired reference. Even Andy Warhol said he was sick of it.
  • Second, the headline is deceptive. My reading of it was that Mitch McConnell wanted Paul off the ballot, gone and forgotten as a footnote in political history. But the story itself indicates that McConnell simply wants Paul to focus more on campaigning in Kentucky and less on appearances in the national media.

HuffPo has experimented with crowdsourcing headlines. It’s an interesting idea. Maybe the readers could have come up with a better one than this one.

Covering the Greek crisis

The financial crisis in Greece has led to the predictable references in the media to Grecian Formula and Greek dramas. But this clever cover and headline from The Economist caught my eye this week.

I wasn’t the only one who was attracted to this cover, a riff on the movie poster to the movie “Apocalypse Now.” This week, I observed a girl in line at Whole Foods who was attracted by this cover. The girl, who looked to be about 14, picked the magazine from the rack and stared at the cover for a good 15 seconds. She then flipped through the magazine for a minute or two before placing it back on the rack, unpurchased.

I didn’t buy the magazine either, but I read the story online.

Guest post: How to pack facts and flair into online headlines

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the latest of those posts. Maggie Tobias is a journalism senior about to graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill  and into the real world to pursue a career in health-related journalism. She loves writing about health, reading about health, bein’ healthy, running, watching Spanish movies, cooking healthy foods and singing rap songs at the top of her lungs. She is a member of the American Copy Editors Society, an avid reader of The New York Times, Women’s Health and many novels. Occasionally, she likes cooking unhealthy things, eating unhealthy things and watching “Glee.”

During the recent American Copy Editors Society national conference in Philadelphia, I attended a seminar called “Surviving the Switch to Online Editing.” This topic isn’t something new to me. Journalists get told every day that their writing isn’t direct enough or fast enough for the new world of Internet and iPads. The speaker, Paula Devlin of the Times-Picayune, gave us the rundown of different ways to increase traffic and readership for our news websites, but she also talked about the difference between headlines in print and online.

Print headlines have the luxury of being vague at times, as readers spend more time reading a newspaper than a website. But writers for online publications need to learn how to write headlines that get to the point and entice the reader, Devlin stressed in her presentation.

I argue that it’s possible to do all this and still keep a sense of humor in headlines. My generation is especially well-suited for this task. We’re already primed from years of texting to produce pithy, factual, funny content.

Devlin gave examples of rewritten print headlines.  Here’s my take on that.

Example 1:

Print headline: “Not by bulbs alone”

Why it’s wrong: This is a headline from The Carrboro Citizen for a story on Lou Ann and David Brower, a Chapel Hill couple who created a lavish garden in the woods around their house. This headline is lovely for print, but in an online version, I doubt a reader would think twice about clicking on the story.  It lacks proper names and buzzwords, there’s no sense of place and it relies on a biblical reference that many young people might not understand.

Suggested online version: “Chapel Hill couple takes gardening into the woods”

Comments: It’s not a riot to read, but I was able to add a place, people and a sense of what they’re doing. Some people might catch the shout-out to Steven Sondheim at the end. At least he’s more current than the Gospel writers.

Example 2

Print headline: “Talking trash at the Shore: Plastic, butts, underwear”

Why it’s wrong: This quirky headline from a Philadelphia Daily News story on pollution at New Jersey beaches might be unique, but it’s also misleading. I had no idea what the story was really about until I read the actual text. For all I knew, they could have been discussing the way beaches are overrun with rednecks and trailer trash. In addition, which “butt” are they referring to? What “Shore” do they mean? All in all, I think this was an awkward headline.

Suggested online version: “Jersey Shore’s trash collection eclectic and … dangerous?”

Comments: My version adds a location for those of us who don’t automatically assume “Jersey” when we see “Shore.” I wasn’t able to put in details about the trash, but by using the word “trash” instead of “plastic, butts, underwear,” I was able to clear up confusion about what those words were meant to suggest. Another element that the headline didn’t capture was the environmental hazard of this beach trash. If space permitted, I think the ending of my headline would intrigue people but give a good idea of what the article was about.

Example 3:

Print headline: “Cheek to Cheek (And Tongue-in-Cheek)”

Why it’s wrong: A first glance at this headline from The New York Times would leave anyone but the most perceptive musical theater lover at a complete loss for what the subject of the story is. “Cheek to Cheek” is a reference to Irving Berlin’s jazzy standard of the same name. But the number of online readers who know the song, much less who Irving Berlin is, must be pretty small. The story is actually a review of the latest season of “Dancing with the Stars,” whose line-up includes Pamela Anderson and soap opera actor Aiden Turner.

Suggested online version: “Pamela Anderson and others give dancing a whirl on ‘Stars’ this season”

Comments: Sure, it’s not quite as dry and witty as the Times version, but I think my headline gets to the point quicker and tells you more about the story’s contents.  Most people who’d want to read a story about this TV show would be attracted by buzzwords like the show’s name or a celebrity’s name. Also, TV lovers have reportedly lower attention spans. Even though my headline is longer, it takes less time to figure out than the questionable Times quip.

Guest post: The challenge of writing headlines

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the fifth of these posts. Mike Gianotti is a senior majoring in journalism (news-ed sequence) at UNC-Chapel Hill. When he is off campus, he lives in Sanford, N.C. He has an A.A. degree from Wake Technical Community College, and he has a copy-editing internship at the The News & Observer in Raleigh this semester. He has also worked at The Daily Tar Heel for four semesters (two on the Online Desk and two on the Editorial Board).

“Hey, Mike, why don’t you take another crack at that headline?”

I hear it at least once a week from my internship supervisor, Leland Senn at The (Raleigh) News & Observer. Headlines are my Achilles’ heel.

No matter how easy a story is to edit, I almost always struggle with the headline. Sometimes the space I have is too short; other times it’s too long. Other times, I’ll get a good headline in only to realize that I need to write a sub-headline that I don’t feel is needed. At times, I’ve spent as much time writing headlines as I have editing the stories they’re for.

But I finally got some good advice, and I think I’ve got the solution. Stephen Merelman, the paper’s page 1A editor, noticed I was struggling and gave me some help. “Read your headline out loud,” he said. “If you sound like a tool when you read it, try writing it again.”

It was then I realized that I was trying to make each headline sound like one for some country-shaping event. I needed to relax, and I did. It helped.

Good headline writing takes time and experience. Thinking outside the box is mandatory in order to learn quickly. That sounds clichéd (if everyone could think outside the box at will, we’d be colonizing other galaxies by now), but it’s not as hard as it seems.

For example, my headline for this year’s Krispy Kreme Challenge read: “Racers finish Krispy Kreme run.” It was gaudy and clunky, and not entirely accurate (they weren’t racing, just running), but what was worse was I couldn’t think of anything else. I looked online the next day and found the story on the paper’s Web site. It sported the headline “6,000 people make doughnut run.”

Short, sweet and to the point. I’m sure there was some white space left in the headline box, but this business is about conveying information in the best way possible. It succeeded more than I did to that extent.

Headlines are about finding synonyms. Krispy Kreme becomes doughnut. Hollywood Video becomes video store. Rockstar Energy + Recovery Energy Supplement (with 3 percent lemon juice!) becomes energy drink. (Still with 3 percent lemon juice!)

It’s less about which words mean the same thing and more about what the words in question are. If I’m having a problem with a word in a headline, I now try to categorize it and use a broader, shorter term. It might not be specific, but it’s more or less the same thing. And while it’s not the solution to every headline problem, it’s enough to get out of a few jams until the experience kicks in.

So if you’re having headline problems, here’s my advice: Take a deep breath and relax. First, check to see if there are any obvious synonyms, such as “run” instead of “sprint.” Then, instead of looking sideways for synonyms, look upward to the broader category that encompasses the word.

If nothing else, it will expand your thinking. And that’s always a good thing.