Tuesday, August 22, 2017

headlines

The story that landed on Arlene Schneider’s desk was a Frugal Traveler column about the bars and clubs of South Beach, Fla., and her job was to write the headline that would appear in print.
Her solution? “Tonight I’m Gonna Party Like It’s $19.99.”

“That one took me no time at all,” said Ms. Schneider, who has spent most of her 18-year tenure at The Times as a copy editor. “It was a gift. I just typed it out.” ]

Readers often assume that reporters write their own headlines. In fact, they rarely do.

Most headlines at The Times, print headlines in particular, are written by editors experienced in the task.

“I think of it as a puzzle,” Ms. Schneider said. “You have to condense the essence of a story into a very finite space, and you’re governed by — well, by a laundry list of rules.”


The guidelines are daunting: Get at the crux of the story, but don’t give away the ending. Use slang sparingly, and always avoid tabloid-like provocation. If a headline runs more than a single line, don’t end a line with a preposition, an adjective or an article (“a” or “the”) — and, while you’re at it, make the lines roughly equal in length. Also, don’t pilfer (“step on”) a savory nugget from the “lede” (the top) or the “kicker” (the bottom) of the story.


(The Times’s style guide offers a colorful elucidation: Obvious wordplay, such as Rubber Industry Bounces Back, “should be tested on a trusted colleague the way mine shaft air is tested on a canary. When no song bursts forth, start rewriting.”)


Instead, The Times aims for something more restrained. And humor, when it surfaces, is often of the wry, witty variety. “Finding the right tone is one of the most important things,” said Sean Ernst, who, as an assistant news editor, often writes headlines, captions and other display type for the printed paper. “It’s a disservice to both the reader and the reporter if a serious news article is accompanied by a headline that’s too flippant. On the other hand, if a story is light or offbeat, you don’t want a headline that’s stiff or boring.” (For an especially cold N.F.L. playoff game, Mr. Ernst penned the following: “49ers Feel Joy, if Not Their Toes.”)
Using a startling quotation can be effective, as can singling out a particularly salient number or fact, said Mark Bulik, a senior editor who writes a weekly in-house report on successful headlines. Personalizing a story can also be helpful, he added.
“But the main things are simply vivid wording, a conversational tone and internal tension,” he said. (“Internal tension,” he explained, “is when two elements of the headline are at odds, creating a mystery that can only be solved by reading further.” An example from a recent business story: “Meet the Shareholders? Not at These Shareholder Meetings.”)
Contextual considerations matter too. “We try to work with the accompanying photos,” Ms. Schneider said, “to make everything fit together as a package.”
The context a printed paper provides is a big part of what separates print headlines from digital ones. Unless an obituary is the top one on a page, for example, its print headline should not state that the subject has died; a reader can infer as much, given where the article appears. Its digital headline, however, invariably includes explicit mention of the death.
Optimizing digital headlines for search results also accounts for differences. Editors try to incorporate key terms, including the names of some people who might be too obscure to land in a print headline.
But the goal for both platforms is the same: headlines that will reach and draw in as many people as possible. And that often requires hard work.
Except, of course, when it doesn’t.
“Many of my memorable headlines simply came to me in a flash,” Ms. Schneider said. “I could have thought all day about them, and it wouldn’t have done me any good at all.”

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