Before, reporters could say to someone who complained about a headline in The Day, “I don’t write the headlines.”
As a longtime writer, I admit it was a relief to be able to “blame” a publisher for a title that a reader found offensive.
Today, it’s no longer true that only editors write headlines, especially when it comes to breaking news and articles that we post online during the day. Journalists put a suggested title on their stories, and if appropriate, whoever edits and publishes the story often leaves it there.
Do not worry. The art of professional headline writing is alive and well.
We have a copy office staff with award winning headline writers, but they come in later in the day to prepare the paper for printing and finalize the articles for the web. In many cases, they don’t see a story until it has been posted online for hours with the suggested title.
Copy bureau chief John Ruddy has been creating titles for The Day since the 1990s and regularly winning awards for them. He teaches art to future editors in his copy editing course at UConn.
“My aim is to summarize the content and tone of the story as accurately as possible, to be funny when I can and to avoid being funny when it is not appropriate,” he told me. he said this week.
“Nobody starts by writing great headlines,” Ruddy said. “It’s a skill and an art, and like anything else, it takes practice. I’m pretty good at it now just by sheer repetition. do it five minutes before the deadline, but that’s part of it. “
As we prepared for our coverage of the upcoming anniversary of September 11, we looked back at the front page we published on September 12, 2001, as the nation was reeling from the terrorist attacks. Ruddy wrote the simple and terribly effective headline which was written in large, bold and all caps on a photo of a bursting fireball from the South Tower of the World Trade Center: ACTS OF WAR. Underneath, the playhead read: ATTACKS ON THE WORLD TRADE CENTER, PENTAGON STUN WORLD; DEATHS ARE EXPECTED TO REACH THOUSANDS.
“I think it held up pretty well,” Ruddy said, noting that other newspapers used the same title. “Based on what we knew at the time, we certainly didn’t exaggerate it. There was no way to overstate it. A war followed, almost immediately. She had the right tone. Everyone’s title the next day did not hit the target. “
Last Tuesday, Ruddy rewrote the title of an Associated Press article on the last US troops to leave Afghanistan.
“I felt it was one for the history books and wrote, ‘America’s longest war is over,’” Ruddy said.
Writing titles for the web is easier than creating print titles because the writer is not limited by space. In the newspaper, the headline cannot be as long as the space allows and as smart as the time permits. Writing headlines is often a group effort on the copy desk as editors scramble to put the pages together on time.
“The later it comes in, the more time restriction becomes a factor,” Ruddy said. “When I write for print, I focus on what’s right, but I also think about what will be typographically good, what will be best for the page, and what will be best for the local audience.”
Our print edition is primarily read by a local audience, while our web stories go a long way.
Some other nuggets Ruddy shared with me:
- We try to write headlines online that people can find through a search engine. This is called search engine optimization, but “if people think our titles are click traps, we don’t try to do it”.
- Long-time readers come to understand the rules of writing headlines without ever having learned them. Rather than using precious space to attribute a quote to someone, we often use a colon (Biden 🙂 to indicate that someone is speaking. Rather than saying “Biden and Harris” we say “Biden, Harris” and readers know what we mean.
- Editors are thankful that we haven’t had a president with a long name, like Eisenhower, in a long time, Ruddy joked. Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden are all easier to fit on the page.
Hope you enjoyed reading the headlines this week and also read beyond them when you take The Day.
Karen Florin is the engagement writer for The Day. She can be reached at [email protected] or (860) 701-4217.