By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Caught in a Web of bad headlines

By Adam Smith

After working too long at tiny newspapers around Boston, I finally got
 my break — a job as a copy editor in the Boston Herald’s business 
section. It was 2008, just as smartphones were about to change how we 
present and get the news, and years after the creations of YouTube,
Twitter and Facebook.

Yet, at the Herald, Atex computer terminals still dominated the newsroom.

For those who don’t know what Atex machines are, I’ll explain. They were cruel, crude and unforgiving computers, with one-color screens, usually green on black. They had no spell-check capabilities, no ability to browse the Web — save for wire feeds — and they crashed nearly every night before deadline. They were also efficient for producing print newspapers, which was probably why decades after they were installed in the Herald’s desks, they were still in use.

I would have to use these machines not only for copy editing, but for writing headlines. If there was a good reason to have a panic attack the first day on the job, this was it.

The Herald has been long known for its headlines. We believed that a certain other newspaper’s were mostly long and boring, and ours were short and sparky. For the paper to sell, and at the same time for people 
to read it with ease, the headlines had to be witty and well written. It 
was to be a big part of the job, and I still don’t know how I made it
 through the paper’s probation period, but I did. As it turned out, 
writing on Atex would prove good training, in the same kind way that
 learning how to ride a bicycle with no helmet or training wheels down 
Comm. Ave. at rush hour would: If you mess up, you’re screwed.

No one ever told me how to pen headlines at the Herald, but they guided me and led by example. The expectations were always high. These headlines had to, first, be true to the story, giving the reader an accurate set of clues as to what he would be reading about. Second, they had to be clear and concise. Third, they had to be fun to read, or, better, clever.

But, equally as critical, they had to fit the space of the tabloid. This often meant they were limited to five or six words, sometimes only four.

The last part is where the beauty of Atex came in. You were given a set of requirements for what your headline would be — number of letters, size and typeface — and you had no choice but to meet them. Atex wouldn’t let you tinker around by writing too long or too short. And even if it did, the head copy editor would make sure the headline went right back to you for a rewrite, or worse, he just rewrote the damn 
thing for you. It was a tough but efficient way to learn how to write good headlines. I came to appreciate that headline writing should be a painful, practical art, just as the rest of journalism is. And constraints are part of what make it an art. It’s just like a haiku — it wouldn’t be a haiku if the poem could be 30 lines long.

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 8.55.05 AMYears later, I got a Web writing gig elsewhere and received a memo on so-called “social” headline writing tips. They were all things I would 
have avoided at the Herald, and probably things that would have gotten
 me made fun of there, too. The list encouraged writing lists, using
odd-numbered lists, and including words such as “smart,” “surprising,”
 “huge,” “doing” and “saying.” It advised against being too clever.

The advice was no doubt based on some type of Web-headline writing formula, as I see these types of titles all over the Internet. These headlines are usually lists (like “19 Male Characters Who Are Obviously 
Hufflepuffs” from BuzzFeed), questions (like “Is Rand Paul Sexist or
 just a Jerk?” from Slate) or writing that’s too long and tries to 
sound conversational (like “Rick Porcello Didn’t Have to Be an Ace to Do
 His Job in the Red Sox Home Opener” from Then there’s the 
CNN favorite: “Here’s What We Know About…” or “Here’s What We Don’t Know About…” headlines. How many question headlines will lure us into
 a story? How many lists can we take before realize our lives have too 
many lists and they start to seem like work?

While headlines based on the best of the newspaper model tease at our curiosity and or compel us to read, especially if their stories are also compelling, these increasingly popular made-for-Web headlines were interesting when they first appeared, but now are mostly just tiring 
and, often worse, biased and misleading.

As the Rand Paul headline shows, how can journalists expect to keep credibility when headlines (and stories) like these are written? Question headlines can even be misleadingly dangerous, which is I why I was told at the Herald to avoid writing them. By asking something you cannot assert, you plant an idea, possibly a biased or incorrect one, into readers’ minds.

I remember when living in Japan last year, I was struck by such reckless headlines from respectable online publications. “Will Japan and China Go to War?” was written by Time, and “Will Japan Abandon Pacifism?” was 
written by The Atlantic. Why not write something more exact such as 
“China and Japan Edge Closer to War” or “Japan to Shed Pacifist Past”?
 Probably because neither is true. But yet those are the impressions I
 got when reading the two headlines. Those kinds of headlines are like if your co-worker asks you, “Do you think Jim is a pervert?” Of course! Jim must be a perv! Because now that you asked I can’t shake that image from my head!

Question headlines were rare at the Herald, and usually when we used them, they weren’t really questions. I still remember one I wrote for a story by the awesomely prolific Laurel Sweet. It read: “Dying for a Snack?” The subhead, I think, explained the rest: “Bill Would Allow Munchies at Funerals.”

While we run to embrace all that we’re told we should do in the brave new world of electronic journalism — often with the promise it will bring back readers and their money — we shouldn’t forget what got us here in the first place: Journalism as it has been practiced — and refined — for the past many decades.

And, in case you’re wondering, no, we should not bring back the Atex machines.

Adam Smith worked as a staff copy editor at the Boston Herald from 2008 to 2013 and occasionally freelances for the newspaper as well as other publications, online and in print. He can be reached at smith_dam {at} neomailbox {dot} ch.

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  1. I will go to my grave with the “Hinck’s Shrink Stinks” headline engraved on my brain.

  2. Nice summary of real-world journalism.

  3. Andy Koppel

    I’m sorry, but this post reveals a remarkable lack of understanding of the evolution of technology in the newspaper industry. To reprise the bicycle metaphor, it’s like criticizing someone for having a three-speed bicycle after 10-speeds became available. It sidesteps the point that the three-speed represented a remarkable step forward from single-speeds at the time of its introduction.

    The Atex system was justifiably viewed as the premier publishing solution from the mid 70s until the late 80s. It performed tasks that no other system could match and dominated many publishing segments, especially newspapers and magazines.

    There is no question that once desktop publishing was introduced in the late 80s, Atex fell behind and has never caught up. The problem at the Herald was not its acquisition of the system, but its decision to keep it. Unfortunately, anyone reading this post with no knowledge of Atex’s past would emerge without the slightest notion of its ground-breaking success, remarkable functionality, and enduring influence. What is equally unfortunate is that the post did not need those comments to support its overall point about headline writing.

  4. Jim Keogh

    Andy K, this writer experienced the Atex system 20 years past its prime, and his reaction to it is quite reasonable. Expecting him to appreciate its late-80s hey day would be like asking someone from that era to extol the virtues of typewriters.

  5. Mike Benedict

    I’m not sure if this line is intended as an in-the-know joke or not (“For those who don’t ow aboutow what Atex machines are, I’ll explain.”), but I did laugh at the irony of a blatant typo in the middle of a copy editor’s story about copy editing.

    More ironies: The Droid version contained a number of hieroglyphics in the grafs about writing for the web.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Mike: That typo was totally my fault, and I’ve now fixed it.

  6. Brendan P. Myers

    “Bouncing Baby Falls to Death” will forever be my Herald headline guilty pleasure. (Entertaining read, Adam. Thanks.)

  7. This piece brought back memories of late-1980s Portland Press Herald slot man “Snake” Hannon prodding various rim editors for the “total smackage” of a given headline. I also seem to remember a crude-yet-effective feature that would let you quickly split the screen or flip back and forth between pages with a touch of one key, which was helpful in compiling sports agate, high school hoops roundups and such.

    But it has been many years, so I could have dreamt the whole thing.

  8. Dave G

    Someone in my neighborhood gets the Herald delivered and I always stop to glance at the headline. My favorite was from years ago – some Russian nanny almost ran down some people driving – and, yes, it was “What’s the Russia?”

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