Saturday, August 9, 2014


   To my way of thinking, a really well crafted newspaper headline is every bit as much a work of art as a fine painting or a melodic symphony. It's no easy feat to truly and accurately capture the essence of a story in a handful of words and many a copy editor who has tried has failed miserably.
   However, even though the well-craft-headline batting average for most copy editors would never land a baseball player in the hall of fame, I saw many rare gems over my nearly 45-year newspaper career. As an editor, I also saw many a headline that made me want to hide somewhere and not answer my telephone for the rest of the day.
   For an editor, headlines can be a source of great joy or agonizing consternation.
   To be honest, what got me thinking about this this morning was the "headline" someone put on a Twitter post regarding a Kansas City Star story about a Baptist official in Missouri who was arrested for soliciting -- via Craig's List -- sex with a dog or some other animal. It's not a joke, here's the link to the story:
   The Twitter wag posted the link and wrote this, which essential is a headline: "BAPTIST BUSTED FOR PROFFERING PAY TO PORK POOCH." It's exactly the sort of joke headline a newspaper copy editor might write and then pass around to newsroom buddies for a chuckle and delete before it accidentally makes it into print.
   However, it jogged my memories of one particular incident when a similarly inappropriate and, shall we say, bawdy headline did make it into print while I was editor of The Morning News in Florence, S.C., in 1998.
   The story involved an incident in which a man in a trench coat was standing outside the fence around the field where the West Florence High School girls' softball team was practicing. The trench coat, of course, is a dead give away. The man opened it, flashing the girls while he masturbated. When the coach charged the fence with a softball bat, the man fled and police were called to give chase, but the culprit got away.
   The story, which played on the back page of the Local section, was processed by one of our best copy editors, who, as it happens, also had a wicked, off-color sense of humor.
   When I picked up the paper from my front porch the next morning, I found that she had written, and our copy desk slot person had for some reason allowed to run, this headline: "MAN PULLS FOR HOME TEAM."
   Almost before I could stop choking on my sip of breakfast coffee, I got a less than pleasant telephone call from Publisher Tom Marschel inviting me to come to his office the moment I arrived at work. I got -- and then passed along -- a well-deserved butt chewing and had a devil of time trying to write the mea culpa we ran on the front page the next morning.
   Fortunately, a few weeks earlier a joke headline on another pretty racy story got passed around but didn't make it into the paper. The story was about an area hog farmer who was arrested on murder charge and incest charges after he killed his son when the lad walked in on him raping his daughter. That "suggested" headline was "PIG FARMER PORKS DAUGHTER, KILLS SON." I'm sure glad that I personally put the wooden stake through the heart of that one.
   For me, some of the hallmarks of great headlines are thought, creativity, humor and poignancy. However, sometimes any one, or even all, of those hallmarks can be carried to disturbing extremes.
   Such was the case involving one of the two headlines I remember best from my days as a reporter for The Louisville Times in Louisville, Ky. The story was an Associated Press report on the Aug. 24, 1970, bombing of science lab in Sterling Hall at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where research was being done for the U.S. military. Four anti-Vietnam War protesters were charged in the incident which resulted in the death of of one physics researcher and injuries to several others. As part of its report, AP noted that Aug. 24 also happened to be the birthday of the young son of the researcher who was killed. The Times copy editor who processed the story seized upon that fact and, in an effort at poignancy, came up with this headline: "HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CHRISTOPHER, YOUR DADDY'S BEEN KILLED BY A BOMB."
   Needless to say, irate callers by the hundreds telephoned Managing Editor Bob Clark to rage over the "insensitivity" of that one.
   But attempts at creativity and/or poignancy often do work and there was one Louisville Time copy editor whose ability to come up with great headlines on a regular basis always impressed me. He was an older fellow named Adrian A. Daugherty -- better known just as "Double A." In those days, most people didn't train specifically to be copy editors as they do today. Instead, most copy editors were long-time, former reporters whose legs had given out out them, but had street savvy they often used to both taunt and help educate young reporters.
   One of Double A's specialties was writing what was referred to in Times parlance as "flash lines," headlines that appeared above the cutlines on stand-alone photos.
   The Daugherty flash line the stands out most in my memory appeared with a photo of two soldiers in Vietnam, under fire, carrying a wounded buddy to safety. Daugherty's flash line: "TAKE TWO, CARRY ONE." It was creative. It was intelligent. It was respectful. It drew you into the photo.
   Of course, trying to inject some humor into a headline, particularly a headline on an otherwise serious story, can get you into real trouble. But sometimes it works. A headline by Pete Oliva, one of my former copy editors at The Monitor in McAllen, Texas, used humor that worked. In fact, it worked so well that it won him a headline writing award in the Texas Associate Press Managing Editors competition. The story involved the Campbell's Soup Co. which for years has used the line "Mmm...good" in its advertising. The story was about a dead rodent being found in can of one of Campbell's soups. Pete's headline: "MMM...MOUSE."
   Sometimes, just playing it totally straight with a headline can leave readers scratching their heads.
   While I was metro editor at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., in the late 1970s we and our afternoon sister paper, The Jackson Daily News, covered a store involving two late-night intruders who broke into a restaurant owned by a local policeman and his family. Two were killed by a hail of warning shots as they exited the eatery via the back window they'd broken in through. The police investigation that followed revealed that the two dead "burglars" were actually investigators for a Congressional committee who apparently broke into restaurant to gather evidence on the police officer/owner who was later arrested on federal charges. The Jackson Daily News' headline on their story about the post -shooting investigation: "POLICE PROBE ACTIVITY OF DEAD SUSPECTS."


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