PAINTER: Headline writing an art not easy to master

He was sitting in the back of the plane smoking a cigar. The year was 1982 and smoking was allowed then in certain parts of the plane.
May 29, 2013


I recognized him immediately. Joe Falls, a sports columnist for the Detroit News, and I were on the same flight. I had a hard time containing my excitement.

Joe Falls was one of my journalistic heroes. I loved reading his columns when I lived in the Detroit area.

Our flight was headed for St. Louis, Mo., where I would catch a connecting flight to Austin, Texas. I was returning to Texas after attending my mother’s funeral in Trenton, Mich.

After our plane landed, I bravely approached Falls and introduced myself. He was friendly. Falls told me he had a meeting scheduled with editors of the Sporting News, considered the bible of baseball. He wrote a weekly column for them as well.

I told Falls how much I enjoyed his columns, particularly his most recent one in which he took some Detroit Tigers players to task for not being serious enough in the locker room following a loss.

Anyone who saw the movie “Money Ball” will know what Falls was talking about. In the movie, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) took a baseball bat to a blaring music box following an Oakland A’s loss because he was upset that his players weren’t taking losing seriously enough.       

Falls then proceeded to tell me that he was upset with the headline that accompanied his column. The headline writer referred to the guilty players as clowns. Falls said that making fun of the players wasn’t the intent of his column.

I was taken aback. Don’t sports columnists write their own headlines? In this case, the headline was written by someone whose sole job was to edit copy and write headlines.

Falls’ complaint is a common one in the newspaper business. The headline (the large type that accompanies a news story) is supposed to pull readers into a story. Good headlines will entice you to a read story. But sometimes those headlines can be misleading, as Falls pointed out to me.

I remember on several occasions overhearing a reporter telling an irate caller, “But I didn’t write the headline.” Often readers don’t take issue with the content of a story as much as they do with the headline that accompanies the story.

             Headline writing isn’t easy. It is an art. You have to accurately reflect what a story is about in just a few words. Some journalists, of course, are better at it than others.

            I have to admit that I was never a great headline writer, but I tried to be as accurate as possible. I always asked reporters to write a suggested headline so that I had an idea of the message they were trying to get across in their stories.

The art of headline writing has changed through the years due to technological advances.

Early in my career, we were required to count characters to make a headline fit a story. If we incorrectly counted the headline, we would have to rewrite it. That would sometimes play havoc with deadlines. You also needed to develop a pretty good vocabulary.

Now that newspapers are designed on computer, headline writing (at least making the headline fit the story, has become easier. Headline type can be smaller and condensed.

But the same rules apply. You don’t want to write headlines with double meanings. For example: “Teacher strikes idle kids” or “Lawyers give poor free legal advice.”

For the most part, in my opinion, newspapers do a pretty good job of writing headlines. They want to draw you into their stories and they do it with the intention of accurately reflecting what the story is all about.

Studies have shown that many newspaper readers glance at headlines before deciding if they want to read the story. The headline can be the determining factor in a reader’s decision to read a story.

Sometimes those headlines do go awry, as was the case with Joe Falls' column.




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