Wick Communications

Toss out headline rules

In journalism on July 15, 2011 at 9:20 am

Recently, Argus Observer and Independent-Enterprise Editor Larry Hurrle listened in on a webinar focused on better headline writing. It was conducted by Inland Press Association. Since then, he has been kind enough to share what he learned with some of his colleagues in the company. I asked him to hold forth here for the benefit of the rest of us. Take it away, Larry.

The rules for headline writing have been around for more than half a century and, in most newsrooms, we are still using those same rules to guide our ability to put headlines on stories.

Rule No. 1: Throw out the rules.

Grumpy, old editors in a smoke-filled newsroom, who took copy to the linotype operator and told him or her to make a headline for the story, put those rules in place. To make sure those linotype operators didn’t get lazy, rules were made. Never use questions in headlines. Never use the word “you” in a headline. The list goes on and on. …

To be sure, there are rules that need to be considered when headline writing. Those rules need to be revised to fit into a world that is fast-paced and competing for the attention of the reader.

Americans today are exposed to thousands of media messages of some type every day. Experts say we see four times as many as we did 20 years ago. That means you have a very limited amount of time to capture the reader’s attention. In fact, studies show you have three words in which to capture that attention. So what do you do?

Make the headline about the reader: Focus on me. Why should I care? Make it about my life, not someone else’s life.

People want to feel smart because they read the newspaper. Make them feel smart with fast and interactive headlines.

Too many words spoil a good headline. The head must work visually with the photo and must be clear what is contained below the headline. Take up the topic at budget meetings. Ask the reporter and/or photographer what the photo is and what the headline should say. Never write a lead headline without seeing the photo. Write the headline for the photo, not solely for the story. The headline and photo are the first two things the reader sees and glues the story together.

Think of the combination of the headline and photo as the first and second paragraph of the story. The deck and caption are the third and fourth paragraphs of the story. Avoid repetition at all costs. Repeating what was already said will immediately turn away the reader.

Too many times we have heard people say, “The newspaper is full of stuff I already know.” Headlines need to excite the reader. They need to put information at the reader’s fingertips and engage the reader.

Above all, don’t just slam the pages out the door. Give headlines the same thought that went into the rest of the story.

Be fast, be brief and be specific. Get the maximum amount of information into the maximum amount of brains in the minimum amount of time.

Larry Hurrle

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  1. Great guidelines and good reminders for those who have to break from old ways. One bit of encouragement should be that reporters could be encouraged to put suggested headlines to their stories. Although it doesn’t mean editors will use them, it could get us old-timers thinking about other possibilities and dare to deviate from our set ways.

  2. I use the question headlines occaisionally, and seem to get a good response if it pertains to an issue in the community. This week, we ran the headline: “Food for thought: Should mobile eateries be allowed on Williston’s streets?”
    The story drew about 50 web comments in the first 24 hours, and at least one walk-in. We’re in a community with a growing population, who are hungry for more restuarants.
    Short headlines, while they can be big and catch readers’ attention, can be tough to write. To convey what the whole story is about in just a couple of words is not easy, especially the one-word headline. And then I ask myself: “Is that the best possible word?”
    Still, we always try to go big on our main story of the day. Larry is right, we are competing with a lot of stuff to get a reader’s attention. A headline that someone sees for a split second can make all the difference.

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