Be kind to the frustrated headline writer, please

Reckonings column by Della Mallette, Sept. 16 Grand Forks Gazette.

Poorly written headlines have long been the butt of jokes by comedians the world over—but not all headlines that become the news themselves were poorly written. Some were intentional and have become the stuff of pop-culture legend.

“Headlines body found in topless bar” ran on the New York Post front page on April 15, 1983. Vincent A. Musetto is the author of that headline and according to a Post story following his death this summer, he had to fight to get the headline into the paper.

It was an appalling crime. A psycho had invaded a Queens after-hours joint, shot the owner to death and then—on learning a female customer was a mortician—ordered her to cut off the victim’s head, which cops later found in the madman’s car.

Musetto, a managing editor, argued with then-executive editor Roger Wood that the headline “expressed with unflinching precision the city’s accelerating tailspin into an abyss of atrocious crime and chaos.”

Here’s a few other “inappropriate” headlines I found trolling the Internet. Intentional or not? Who knows.

Considered an all-time classic from the L.A. Times ca. 1968-70: “High Court Rules on Marijuana.”

Or, “Missippi’s literacy program shows improvement.”

And, “Republicans turned off by size of Obama’s package.”

“Man accused of killing lawyer receives a new attorney.” I don’t know if that was intentional but I do figure lawyers weren’t lining up for the job.

And a B.C. headline: “Nudists fight erection of towers near Wreck Beach.”

“Chick accuses some of her male colleagues of sexism.” Certainly an eye-catching headline; I’m sure readers were almost disappointed to read that LAURA CHICK was making accusations.

“City unsure why the sewer smells.”

“Slowdown continues to accelerate.”

“Miracle cure kills fifth patient.”

Now this one I know for sure is unintentional. When laying up the paper, the person importing the stories will make room for a headline, and if none immediately comes to mind, will put in some words to set the space: “Think of a headline, 56 pt bold headline.”

I’ve learned to simply type a “g” to set the maximum space, so if that’s a Gazette headline, you know now what’s happened!

Headlines are definitely written completely for effect, to dramatize, to virtually dare you not to read the story.

“How Beethoven ruined classical music.”

This headline sounds like it came from the National Enquirer, but in fact, it came from a magazine called Mental Floss.

Of course I had to read the story! But I regularly read this magazine and know this headline is exactly what the story is about.

“Thumbing his nose at authority and whipping crowds into a frenzy, he changed music forever,” reads the subtitle. So he did in effect “ruin” classical music of the day and reshaped the course of the genre.

Seriously, a good headline is extremely hard to write. The writer needs to grab the reader’s attention—sometimes with only a few words. Add to that the fact that a headline should be a phrase, not a title. Action needs to be implied.

I admit that sometimes with a “stand-alone photo” I give up and use a title. (A stand-alone photo means there’s no story, just a caption—known in the newspaper business as a cutline).

I hope you give headlines a bit of thought, because I reckon they’re what I struggle with most—all on the pressure of deadline.

I just hope I don’t find one of my headlines on the Tonight Show or Late Night.