Home > editing, guest posts, headlines > When writing headlines, there’s not just one way to do it right

When writing headlines, there’s not just one way to do it right

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It’s not news that the 2012 presidential debate happened Wednesday night. But it’s still something people expect to see on the front page when they pick up their papers the next morning. What the candidates said and how they did is big news. The question then falls to the editor: “How do we best present this?” That presentation includes the layout and the photo, along with any graphics. It also includes the headline.

Nearly every newspaper on Wednesday had some kind of package for the debate on its front pages. Most of the major papers had decent, if not great, headlines. And most of them take the “direct headline” approach, which just tells people the news without any funny business. This is very appropriate considering the topic. Because of that basic newsy headline approach, most of the headlines do their jobs efficiently, yet they are all slightly different from each other.

The headline that stood out to me most in my search was The Virginian-Pilot’s “First face-off.” It’s short and sweet, and it’s also alliterative without being over the top. The newspaper also included some eye-catching graphics and had an interesting layout. Overall, it creates a nice package that stands out above some of the rest of the newspapers.

Several of the other papers had straightforward headlines that get the point across and certainly wouldn’t deter people at the newsstand. The Wall Street Journal went with the basic “Candidates Spar Over Taxes.” Another example of a simple, but effective headline is The Detroit News’ “Obama, Romney clash on economy in first debate.”

The Lincoln Journal Star went with “Economy clash.” This is an example of a “hammer headline,” a headline that uses just a few words to attract the reader. This headline (while definitely not the greatest headline ever) is accompanied by a deck that explains what happened in the debate more in depth. The Omaha World-Herald goes with a different approach using”Romney steps up,” displayed tastefully in all caps. This headline refers to the fact that most people around the country think Republican nominee Mitt Romney came out on top of President Barack Obama, something that might be more interesting than a generic “the debate happened last night” headline. The World-Herald also accompanies this with a nice layout and a deck. The Denver Post also went with the Romney angle with “Round 1: Romney.” While some people might perceive this as biased, I think it’s a lot more interesting than some of the other headlines.

The Los Angeles Times did something a little different, but something I think also was successful. Instead of putting debate coverage on its front page, it had a photo with a cutline and a small headline, “Showdown in Denver.” This is different from most of the other newspapers (and it makes me wonder why the people at that paper made that decision), but it still works, and I think it looks nice enough to get people to that jump page.

One headline that fell below the bar set by these other headlines was the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s “2 clash over who’s best for economy.” This one just reads funny for me, it it doesn’t have the same nice rhythm some of the others had. It’s not wrong, but it doesn’t feel right, either.

As displayed by this wide array of headlines on one topic, there’s no one way to do a headline right. Different people have written different headlines for essentially the same story, and most of them turned out just fine. If you find yourself freaking out about a headline, just remember that while you can definitely write a headline wrong, there’s not just one way to get it right.

Categories: editing, guest posts, headlines
  1. December 6, 2012 at 10:35 am

    I agree that headlines for a major news event are difficult, especially when considering they need to be fair. Debates increase the difficultly because every newspaper in the country will be covering it.

    The Virginian Pilot shined here. Not only is the headline original, but it works really well with the content of the debate. The photo and design compliment the headline making it seem less like a last-second addition. I think the quotes from the candidates is a great addition. It gives readers a slice of the debate without having to delve into the story.

    Of the “Round 1” headlines, I think the Detroit Free-Press did it better than the Denver Post. The Free-Press seems less biased and provides a better overall picture of the debate. However, I think the design of the Post is much simpler.

    Headlines for these events are challenging. They have to be informative, unique and interesting. But they can’t be cliched or vague. I think they’re are definite winners and losers, but all of them serve the purpose of informing their readers.

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