In today’s world of ever-shrinking attention spans, using a catchy headline to draw in readers is very important. Of course, headlines have always played a major role in newspapering, which as I have learned in recent years is equal parts journalism and business. When composing headlines, I have to think both about conveying a message and tempting people to part with their loose change at the newsstand or, in keeping with the times, click their mouse button. Either way it leads to money in the bank for the paper, and ultimately in my bank account.
So, what is it that grabs people’s attention? Large type, for one, preferably in thick letters. This screams, “Hey! We used a lot of ink here so you better read this!” Creative colors and design also put the hook in readers’ corneas and drag them by the skull to take a closer look. Beyond the aesthetics, the words themselves need to be compelling enough to substantiate the superficial stimuli and appeal to something deeper. It needs to make people laugh or cry, make them feel hope or despair, make them intensely happy or uncontrollably angry.
Now, just because the 500 or so words of the accompanying article don’t evoke much emotionally, why can’t the headline? Can’t a headline embellish a little bit for the sake of drawing attention? Yes and no.
A week or two ago, the Tribune covered the annual State of the City address given by the mayor. It’s no secret that 2011 had its share of tragedies, from the big train crash east of Sparks to the shooting in Carson City at IHOP to the spectators killed and hurt by a downed plane at the Reno National Championship Air Races. Mayor Martini’s speech touched on those things and praised emergency responders’ effort in the face of these disasters. Then our dear mayor went on to talk about the challenges of the economy how he and the city are optimistic that things will get better, yadda yadda.
All in all, based on my reporter’s account it was a pretty typical speech. Then it came time for me to write a headline. How was I going to get people’s attention with a headline that read, “Mayor gives cookie-cutter State of the City speech”? I wanted to pull some element that made it unique. In the end, I went with “Mayor: Rail City got off track in 2011.” I know I tend to get carried away with puns sometimes, but I was trying to use the train metaphor while highlighting the part of his speech talking about all the bad stuff that happened the prior year. The subheadline — in much smaller type — then said the mayor thought things would get better in 2012.
My headline focusing on a “negative” elicited a few comments, which got me to thinking about what headlines are and what I do with them. From the first days of journalism school, reporters are taught to communicate their ideas with as few words as possible. Nowhere is this more applicable than in the headline. Journalists also know that the topics they cover are more complex than that, which is why headlines are followed by hundreds, possibly thousands of words explaining what the 10 words of the headline are all about.
This is not an impossible task, but many articles can’t be both summarized and balanced at the same time. That’s where a headline writer’s personal choice comes into play. As a headline writer, do I excite the reader’s senses or lull them to sleep? Sometimes I make the correct call, sometimes not.
In the case of the State of the City address, I should have said something like, “Mayor: 2011 wasn’t the best year by any means but no doubt things will get better in 2012, we promise, just you wait and see.” If I did that, I’d have a paper full of headlines and no articles (not a completely terrible idea). I know I could have chosen a happier spin on that headline, and maybe I should have. Luckily for me, a newspaper comes out every day so I have plenty of chances to balance out my karma.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to come up with tomorrow’s headlines. I’ll try to keep them positive.
Nathan Orme is the editor of the Sparks Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.