Gene? Therapy

The WaPo’s Gene Weingarten laments the decline of the headline:

In old newsrooms, headline writing was considered an art. This might seem like a stretch to you, but not to copy editors, who graduated from college with a degree in English literature, did their master’s thesis on intimations of mortality in the early works of Molière, and then spent the next 20 years making sure to change commas to semicolons in the absence of a conjunction.

The only really creative opportunity copy editors had was writing headlines, and they took it seriously. This gave the American press some brilliant and memorable moments, including this one, when the Senate failed to convict President Clinton: CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR; and this one, when a meteor missed Earth: KISS YOUR ASTEROID GOODBYE. There were also memorably wonderful flops, like the famous one on a food story about home canning: YOU CAN PUT PICKLES UP YOURSELF.

Newspapers still have headlines, of course, but they don’t seem to strive for greatness or to risk flopping anymore, because editors know that when the stories arrive on the Web, even the best headlines will be changed to something dull but utilitarian. That’s because, on the Web, headlines aren’t designed to catch readers’ eyes. They are designed for “search engine optimization,” meaning that readers who are looking for information about something will find the story, giving the newspaper a coveted “eyeball.” Putting well-known names in headlines is considered shrewd, even if creativity suffers.

It appears that former copy editor Dawn Eden got out of the business just in time.

And I may as well get this out of my system: “Search engine optimization” is the 21st-century version of phrenology. Everybody and his brother-in-law has some scheme to game the system; every other month or so, Google, which owns half the search market, duly upsets the system and thus all the games. Blather, rinse, repeat. Were I more desperate for traffic, and had I money to lavish on this site, I would be better served by simply hiring a practitioner of vodou; at worst, I’d only have to clean the chicken blood out of the database once in a while.

Meanwhile, I will continue to come up with the worst post (as distinguished from Post) titles around, and I hope Gene Weingarten gets to feeling better.

(Via Population Statistic.)







6 comments

  1. KingShamus »

    22 July 2010 · 7:25 am

    The web has changed the news game.

    Sure we’ve lost headlines, but we’ve gained JournoList.

  2. CT »

    22 July 2010 · 9:17 am

    “Worst” nothing, you’ve got a distinct flair for the hed, as evidenced on this post. Any dwindling daily would be proud to set them in 14-point type.

  3. Brett »

    22 July 2010 · 10:09 am

    In J school, one of my instructors — an employee of the Chicago Tribune — made certain to tell every class that he was responsible for the hed on this theft from a Chicago museum: “Art Thieves Take Manet and Run.”

  4. Francis W. Porretto »

    23 July 2010 · 5:24 am

    Some old favorites that actually appeared on newspapers’ front pages:
    IRAQI HEAD SEEKS ARMS

    INCLUDE YOUR CHILDREN WHEN BAKING COOKIES

    IF STRIKE ISN’T SETTLED QUICKLY, IT MAY LAST AWHILE

    RED TAPE HOLDS UP NEW BRIDGE

    PROSTITUTES APPEAL TO POPE

    MAN STRUCK BY LIGHTNING FACES BATTERY CHARGE

    TYPHOON RIPS THROUGH CEMETERY; HUNDREDS DEAD

    POLICE BEGIN CAMPAIGN TO RUN DOWN JAYWALKERS

    PLANE TOO CLOSE TO GROUND, CRASH PROBE TOLD

    WAR DIMS HOPE FOR PEACE

    Errare humanum est, friends.

  5. Woody »

    23 July 2010 · 6:59 am

    Oonly this morning, the BBC website had the link “Man sexually assaulted by canal”. Unfortunately, I can’t find it now…doh!

  6. Baby M »

    23 July 2010 · 8:07 am

    There’s always that old classic: HEADLESS BODY FOUND IN TOPLESS BAR

    I remember seeing a collection of newspaper bloopers that included a headline on an editorial supporting a veto of state legislation: GOVERNOR’S PEN IS A MIGHTY SWORD–‘cept the typesetter didn’t put enough of a space between “PEN” and “IS.” (And no, it wasn’t about Elliot Spitzer.)

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