In between forcing the college president to resign and kicking off the streaking fad, I did a brief stint as layout editor at my college newspaper back in the seventies. Part of the job involved writing the headlines.
The task was challenging for two reasons. One, you actually had to read what the reporters had written, understanding every nuance of whatever issue they were covering before coming up with the all-purpose standby, “Meeting Held”. (Journalism’s most flexible headline — use it to cover everything from the crucifixion of Christ to man’s first steps on the moon).
Secondly, you had very precise parameters to work with in constructing a heading that would fit into the space allotted. There was a character count posted above my desk, telling how many letters I could use per column inch. Each lower-case letter counted as one character, except that the “m” and “w” counted as one-and-a-half, and the “f,” “l,” “i” and “t” counted as half letters.
Usually, we were extremely tight on space, and had to get very creative in our word choice. My proudest day in this position was when the Gay Student Union went to the state capitol to speak with legislators, and I got to use the word “flit” to describe their angry protest march down College Avenue. Likewise, I lived in dread of the day a story might cross the AP Wire reporting that “Wham-O Wows Moms” or “Woman’s Womb Meows”.
So I have some sympathy for modern-day newspaper editors as they go about this task. It’s tough enough to succinctly craft a headline that draws the reader in; plus, you have to worry about the fact that you’re probably going to get laid off next week.
The following is a brief sampling of headlines lifted (there’s another good headline word) from local newspapers in my area. Most of these examples hint at a story entirely different from what was being reported, a story that would’ve been far more interesting than what the reality turned out to be.
Player’s death makes words hard
Emergency personnel worked feverishly to pump air into his lungs, but still he refused to comment on what had happened to him.
Wisconsin looking for another stop
This heading hints at an exciting tale of how state officials are trying to locate a pipe organ component that admits pressurized air to the instrument, or perhaps how a small town is dealing with the theft of its single stop sign. Unfortunately, it was far less interesting: tourism officials are hoping to land a golf tournament on the PGA Men’s Tour.
Hootie and the Blowfish help to round up school supplies
It’s good to see they’ve found productive volunteer work ever since the concert bookings stopped coming.
Wanted: ‘People person’ for animal control post
The previous holder of the position, an “animal animal,” was too sympathetic to the wild tendencies of the captured creatures and allowed them to have parties and stay up way past their bedtime.
Host of cockfights too sick for prison
There are two possible meanings here: (1) a multitude (or “host”) of chicken-on-chicken bouts were judged too tasteless to be staged for the entertainment of convicts; or (2) an impresario of animal blood sports felt just fine while he was allowing poultry to be mutilated on his property, but now that he’s been sentenced for the crime, the thought of the whole gory sham makes him ill.
Money could be available as early as October
This could go a long way to preventing that much-feared double-dip recession.
John surgery advances
Plumbers are using medical techniques honed in the operating room to perform less-invasive repair on the stopped-up toilet.
Stabbing suspect wanted in Israel
The Israelis have such a difficult time dealing with life-and-death security matters and the constant threat of external terrorist attack or internal uprising from Palestinians. They would just die for the opportunity to solve a simple knifing case.
Ke$ha brings inner ‘Animal’ to ‘Today Show’
I just hope it’s a tapeworm and not some kind of exotic badger that she’s attempting to smuggle in a body cavity following her recent smash tour of South America.
Does language matter?
I’d say “yes” but then I’d be using language which would prejudice the whole discussion.
Mom’s beloved bike rolls on to daughter
The actual story was about a mother who was passing on to her college-bound daughter the old Schwinn they had ridden together for years. The only reason I learned that, however, is because I’d hoped there’d be a lurid description of a crush injury.
Two trapped men rescued from clothes dryer
Were they trapped in wet clothing and became much dryer after they were rescued from the sodden duds? Or — surely this can’t be the case — did the two of them become so entwined in the Maytag during whatever God-forsaken thing they were doing in there, and become somehow entrapped?
Man injured after he falls in front of bus
The ankle sprain would’ve healed on its own but the being-hit-by-a-bus part of the accident is not so easily treated.
N.C. State plan targets athletes who miss class
Football and basketball stars alike fondly recall the challenge of the collegiate classroom. Some, however, develop a deep depression once they’ve left their studies behind and land a multi-million dollar pro sports contract. So their alma mater is offering a counseling program to help those who simply can’t deal with the loss of scholarly studies on their own.
China to remember 1,200 killed in flood
They almost forgot, what with the landslide that killed 1,500, the typhoon that left tens of thousands homeless, and the earthquake that decimated an entire province. Someone in the government should write these things down, so they don’t have so much to remember.
Barbecue to be held
Be careful. It’s still pretty hot.