From the editor: Headlines give me headaches

2014-07-27T00:00:00Z From the editor: Headlines give me headachesBY DARRELL EHRLICK dehrlick@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Headlines give me headaches.

That's about the easiest way to say it. I love my job. I love this community. And I enjoy being a journalist.

You'd think crime coverage, or deadlines or even dealing with the Sudoku puzzles would cause a more dramatic rise in my blood pressure. 

Nope.

Headlines.

Of the hundreds of calls dealing with angry readers or those just offering feedback, headlines are the most challenging and among the most frequent.

Let me explain why by asking a question: Can you tell me any story in 4-1/2 words?

That's the length of the average newspaper headline — 4-1/2 words.

And no matter how precisely we use those 4-1/2 words — heck, double to nine — it's hard to summarize a story perfectly in just those few words. 

Nothing is more obvious when it's wrong in big, black, bold type. 

The problem boils down to nuance and details. No matter what story we cover (the average story length is around 325 words), the causes, the issues or the background shade the story in such a way that writing a succinct, completely encompassing headline is darn near impossible.

But that doesn't stop the folks at The Gazette, or any paper for that matter, from trying.

If you go through and count headlines on stories, briefs and text that points readers to different parts of the newspaper, an average edition will contain more than 200. A Sunday edition may contain triple that number.

I can sit here and point out that 598 of 600 is a 99.7 percent accuracy rate. And, most folks would say that if they could be successful in business in 99.7 percent of their endeavors, it would be an overwhelming success.

In the newspaper business, if you blow two headlines in one edition, it's a very bad day for the page designer and the editor.

But headlines are also a great exercise in describing what really matters. In some cases, when a writer is struggling to put together a story, I ask, "What's your headline?"

There's a near-perfect correlation between struggling to find a story's point and not being able to write a headline. Writers who know what the story is about usually come up with a headline instantly. If they can't write a headline, it usually means they haven't crystallized the heart of their story.

The beauty and art of headline writing, though, is in making each word count. Every word has to be so much more important.

The art of headline writing ultimately comes down to a clever quip by Blaise Pascal (although it's often attributed to Mark Twain): "I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn't have the time."

When you're given a lot of space to write plenty of words, you become less worried about making each one count.

I can't begin to tell you how many conversations I've had with readers that begin something like this, "Your story is fine, but the headline is wrong."

That shouldn't mean that we should be given a free pass on headlines that don't quite measure up. Every business and industry has its challenges. It's kind of like a baker complaining that it's hard to make great cake. 

Some readers wonder if we have copy editors who are asleep. They often wonder: "How could something like this slip through?" 

And it would be easy to wonder if they're not sleeping or tuned out. But, just the opposite is true. The Gazette prints three editions every night. That means we have three different deadlines, each requiring new headlines to be written and new stories to placed on the page. In other words, new opportunities for mistakes.

It's often so crammed at the end, that there's just enough time to make a few headline wording decisions, that's about it.

As one copy editor recently told me, "We plan our pee breaks based on what time the presses start."

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