Thursday, July 30, 2009

Heads Up

Writing newspaper headlines can be a high art, but also a risky business. The story labels must fit in a precise space in a style specified by the publisher, and be written in a minute or two. Trying to quickly capture the gist of a story in an appealing way doesn’t always work out.

Almost anything can result in a headline gaffe. The classic example used in journalism school in the 50s stemmed from the fact that Manly and Fertile are two small towns in Iowa. A newspaper serving both communities announced a wedding thus: Manly Man Weds Fertile Miss. Wonder how many offspring resulted?

A headline blunder ruined my first attempt to cover a basketball game as sports editor of the Daily Tribune in Wisconsin Rapids in 1964. The home team scored an important win, and I affixed a rather large headline to my story. It said something like: Dempsey Scores 19 as Raiders Win. Seems ok, however, the young man’s name was Dempze, not Dempsey. Dempze was a well-known family name around Wisconsin Rapids, and Chief Editor Carl Otto blistered me with a commentary on my headline writing abilities when he saw my version.

Otto skewered me so thoroughly that I greeted his comeuppance with relish a few months later. He had a special red phone in his office available for a “stop the presses” command just like those in the movies. Every day, just before the presses were turned on, the printing plant superintendent hustled into Otto’s office with a proof of the front page. He and Otto sat side-by-side checking Page One to ferret out any errors needing last minute corrections. One day they somehow missed a badly misspelled word in the biggest headline on the page. When he found out (after thousands of copies had been printed), Otto turned redder than the phone he had failed to use that day. Playing dumb, I observed he didn’t appear to be feeling well, and offered any help I could give. That turned him purple.

My headline recollections were inspired by an internet message forwarded by Ray Brown, retired Intermountain Research Station scientist, and Dave Tippets, public affairs officer at the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Fort Collins, CO. The message showed strange headlines published by papers around the world Here they are, with comments:

Alton Attorney Accidentally Sues Himself (Wonder which of him won)

County to pay $250,000 to advertise lack of funds (That’ll help)

Volunteers search for old Civil War planes (Difficult task. Didn't the first plane fly in 1903?)

Army vehicle disappears (Story was about an Australian Army vehicle with camouflage paint that mysteriously vanished)

Caskets found as workers demolish mausoleum (Probably were bodies in them, too)

Ten Commandments: Supreme Court says some OK, some not (Now, there’s a choice?)

Utah Poison Control Center reminds everyone not to take poison (Duh)

Federal Agents Raid Gun Shop, Find Weapons (Surprise!)

Statistics show that teen pregnancy drops off significantly after age 25 (I would have guessed 20)

One-armed man applauds the kindness of strangers (Oh come on, we know what the headline writer meant)


Anonymous said...

Now that Mr. Cronkite is gone, who is left to lead our "edutainment' specialists in proper broadcast journalism? Local news is the worst. It's chock-full of incomplete sentences, questions to viewers (cheap trick of pathos), teaser after teaser after commercial after teaser, and the disgusting use of segue. NEWS stands for Numbing Edutainment Without Seriousness.

Better get your 'beat' shoes on, Dick. We need ya out there.


Dick Klade said...

Thus are new words formed. Way to go, 58