Monday, March 31, 2008

Copy Editing: The All-Purpose Headline

I hated that our paper ran Art Buchwald's column, because it was his tradition -- perhaps simply as a way of getting an extra day off -- to publish every year the Thanksgiving column that apparently solidified his reputation as a humorist. I didn't find it that funny, but I didn't get Bob and Ray, either. If you've never read the famous story of Kilometres Deboutish, here it is. If you find yourself rolling on the floor, don't tell me.

Our real problem was that every year, we had to write a new headline for the same column. I spent five years as a Features slot and every Thanksgiving, here came le Jour de Merci Donnant again. Whatever clever headlines begged to be written on this story had appeared in the 1960s, in its first, fifth, 10th, whatever incarnations. By now it was stale turkey -- excuse me, dinde. One year I even offered money to the rim if anyone could create a headline that was new and funny. I did not have to pay.

Headline writing offers few challenges on the level of le Grande Thanksgiving -- the annual story on Fourth of July fireworks comes closest -- but even so, most stories are simply variations on a theme. "Man dies in car crash" is the obvious example. But those 2-30-2s are easily kicked out. The problem is that most stories purport to be about something more subtle than that.

One of the more challenging is the always-popular story of a developer planning to build something, anything, near some people who already live there. The developer always comes with photos and charts and is always met by hundreds of angry residents who vehemently oppose his plans, citing increased traffic and congestion, and the negative effect on their quality of life. (If they're not angry and vehement, he may get the plan through in less than a year, once an agreement has been hammered out, which is the only way agreement can be reached, particularly in labor contracts.)

These are usually accompanied by photos of sober-looking residents standing on a wooded knoll mourning the loss of the last significant open space in their community. (Of course, if it is lost, whatever is left will then become the last significant open space.)

Doing these headlines can be a challenge, so I was pleased to see that the Trenton Times recently wrote an A1 headline that we can all simply use by changing the first word, because it really sums up -- which a good headline should do -- what these stories are about:

"City residents fear change could be a bad thing"

There you go. Save it somewhere in your ocmputer and when you're stuck for a headline, just insert this and change "City" to "Township" or "Abilene" or whatever you need. Forget the quality of life and open space and such. "Change could be a bad thing" is an all-purpose headline.

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