Newsroom Notebook is a new monthly column written by one of our staff members.
The column explores what happens behind the scenes in the newsroom and in the field.
Everyone has things they love or hate about their jobs. Me, I love writing headlines. A headline can make or break a story, which is to say it can make a reader pause to read a story or pass it by.
Just because I love writing headlines doesn’t mean I write great headlines all the time — as readers of this paper well know. I’m as capable as the next editor of writing tepid, merely descriptive headlines, but every now and then, a story just begs for a more interesting title.
A few months ago, we ran a story about a proposal by the Barlow to build housing on the site that just a few months before had been standing in five feet of water. That was too good to pass up. The Barlow held a meeting to test the idea with the community, so I toyed with “testing the waters,” but ultimately landed on the more elegant “Barlow floats housing plan.”
Sometimes — rarely — a great headline suggests itself, but usually it’s a last-minute decision, and there are certain common approaches to coming up with a better headline.
Even though Samuel Johnson called punning “the lowest form of humor,” puns are a natural when it comes to headlining. Our managing editor Andrew Pardiac actually won a newspaper award for his headline for a story about skunks, called “For Scent-imental Reasons.” (Yes, there are actually awards for headlines.)
This headline is particularly nice because it involves both a pun and a play on words, taking its title from the old jazz standard. Headlines that play off movie or song titles are great, but you have to be careful with them as I recently discovered when I titled a story about Sebastopol Meadowfoam, a rare and endangered plant, “Where have all the flowers gone?”
You may get that reference, but there were blank stares all around from the under-35 crew in the newsroom. They had never heard (or even heard of) the iconic 1960s ballad (which makes one think, “How iconic can it be?”) Knowing the average age of our readership (over 35 to put it delicately), I decided to go with it and risk puzzling younger readers, of which, yes, we do have some. Twenty percent of our readers are under 35, according to Google Analytics.
And of course, when you’re staring down the barrel of a deadline, there’s always alliteration. Andrew won another award for “Rector resolves Rotary riddle.”
Rhyming is a lot rarer in headlines, which is why I was fond of a recent headline about a local builder who works with cob, a claylike building material. He was giving a tour of local cob sites in west county, so I headlined the story “Hob nob with cob.” A lot of people liked this headline, but I was disappointed to discover after the fact that I had misspelled it. Hobnob is actually one word. Normally, I tear my hair out and rend my garments over misspellings (this is what people did before cutting became popular), but as I wrote to Andrew, “Hobnob is such a silly word, I really don’t care.”
You’re hearing a lot about Andrew in this piece, and that’s because we’re co-conspirators in the title wars at Sonoma West Publishers. Though we’re a good generation apart, both of us feel that the titles in our little newspaper group could use some goosing up.
Working at a newspaper during deadline can be stressful, with everyone going full bore, but at least once a news cycle one of us will plop themselves down on the other’s desk and say, “I need help with a title” and then we’ll be off, spending a good 10 minutes coming up with a dozen crazy ideas, most of which are unusable and sometimes unprintable. (Sometimes I worry I’ll have to sue myself for sexual harassment based solely on some of my headline suggestions.)
Coming from the alternative press where you never put a headline on a story that isn’t hilarious and preferably risqué, I have sometimes struggled with the strait-laced, straight news approach to titles that Sonoma West and its sister publications, The Healdsburg Tribune, The Windsor Times and the Cloverdale Reveille use.
Life’s short — why not be funny? Because, as another managing editor once told me sternly, the news is not funny. The news is serious business. We have a reputation to protect.
Of course, headlines can go badly astray. There’s an entire column in the Columbia Journalism Review called “The Lower Case: Headlines editors probably wish they could take back.” The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier recently came out with this one: “Campaign Almanac: Booker lays out plans for white supremacy.” Or the classic AP blooper “Missippi literacy program shows improvement.” Then there’s this headline from The Independent: “Sex robots will come a lot sooner than you think, scientists claim.”
Sometimes a headline blooper comes by way of juxtaposition with another story. I was laying out The Windsor Times and put these two stories side by side: “Woman found dead at local resort” and “Whodunit? Ask the Windsor Mystery Book Club,” which made me fear for the safety of the octogenarian book club members lest the killer decide to hunt them down one by one. (Turns out there was no killer, but I didn’t know that at the time.)
We understand that a well-written headline — whether clever or merely informative — is a reader’s entryway into a story. We’ll continue to strive to make each and every one the very best it can be.
Laura Hagar Rush is the editor of Sonoma West Times & News.