Read This! / 16 октября 2007 г.

Enticing headlines and informative cutlines are two of the most basic ingredients in the creation of a readable newspaper. So, why do we ignore them so often? asks Martin Gibson.

Copyright © News Design Associates Inc.

NEWSPAPER people have the right idea, of course. That is, they know people ought to spend an hour getting news from our product. Readers ought to go beyond headlines. They ought to read cutlines carefully. They ought to go through the lead to the meat of the story. Trouble is: They don’t.

Indeed, an interesting new piece of research indicates that headlines, cutlines and leads too often form barriers to readers.

Readers don’t cross those barriers; they turn to the TV or some other diversion. Publisher John Ginn, writing in the Harte- Hanks Editorial Focus, tells about research done at his newspaper, the Anderson Independent- Mail of South Carolina. We need to listen.

His researchers, using groups of people brought in to discuss problems at length, found headlines, cutlines and leads to be the main sources of complaint. The top gripe about headlines: Being misled. “Just give me the information in the headline and don’t play games with me,” one reader said.

This led Grinn, and thus the Independent- Mail, to rethink their position on clever teaser headlines for features and their position on big one-column headlines. We ought not to abandon cleverness, but we must not strive for it at the expense of our ability to give the reader full information.

A busy reader must have an idea of the subject before going into a story. Otherwise, he or she is likely to consider that story one of many that will go unread. And all readers are busy readers.

Headline problems go beyond blind heads on features. Some readers look at almost nothing but headlines, and they want to get news from them. You and I want to read the whole newspaper. Readers don’t have time. Really. Some can be satisfied by a check of the headlines.

Ginn says he was at first offended by that view. “What right does a reader have to ignore all of our stories and just read the headlines?” he asked.

Then he realized that the reader has “a right to do as he pleases” once he gets the paper. (For an eye-opener, Ginn suggests reading one copy of your own newspaper that way — going through and reading nothing but headlines to see whether you get a full picture of the news.)

One final thought on headlines: Independent- Mail readers wanted all important parts of the story cited in the head. They did not like finding good material buried. Perhaps that means the old-timers were right when they added decks, kickers, underlines and other ways to run more information in big type.

Years of research show that readers look at photos before anything else on a newspaper page. Then they read the cutlines. Or try to. If we give them only snippets — a name with no ID, for instance — we irritate them.

A partial quote with the name does little more for readers, because they have to check the full story before the quote makes sense. I can support the use of a single line of type on a photo that accompanies a story. But that line must carry enough useful information to make the reader understand the picture.

I was really happy to see that the research supports my view on the time element in cutlines. Readers were puzzled by a present-tense sentence that had a date. To wit: Bobby Unser smashes into the wall Friday.

Drop the time element from that sentence; it belongs in the second or third sentence.

Cutlines and leads get bad marks for wordiness. Ginn narrowed the problem. He went past the number of words to the number of ideas. Readers could follow fairly long sentences that contained only one basic idea. Extra clauses that brought in tangential ideas left readers floundering.

The Independent-Mail found one other big problem — inaccuracy. Readers said they put down the newspaper when they run into something they know is wrong. Not only do they put it down, but they don’t pick it back up. Not only do they not pick it back up, but they let their subscriptions lapse, too. And now we are getting close to home. We’re talking money. We’re talking livelihood.

We’re talking about the influence a newspaper can have. Or not have. Every newspaper — weekly, small daily, metro monster — should have an error-elimination program. First you identify errors. Then you go after them.

John Ginn suggests you have this point of view as you examine copy. “I know there are some errors here; I wonder how many I can find and eliminate.”


I do not have to sell you on the importance of headlines. You have moved along in your career far enough to have learned that lesson. So I offer one guideline to help you write headlines: Find the key word in the story and use it in the headline.

Every story has a key word — synonyms count — that must be in the headline. For example, a headline said this: Inmate accused of murder. Prison murder happens so often, I regret to say, that it isn’t startling news. But the key word would would have made this more interesting. The inmate was accused of killing the warden. That word, warden, lifted this out of the ordinary into an unusual story. The headline should tell us so.

You must start by finding the key word. Then you must try to be as specific as you can. Take this one: Accident kills 4 at construction site.We readers have no way to know precisely what happened. Perhaps a trench collapsed. A building fell on the workers. Paint blew up. They were gassed. Or burned. We don’t know. Actually, this appeared on a story about four men who died when a crane’s cable broke and fell 165 feet. So we say: 4 workers fall 165 feet to death. Or you can skip the height and say: Cable snaps; fall kills 4 workers.

After that, you have nothing to do but find strong verbs and telling adjectives that fit. Headline writers must cultivate the habit of using strong verbs, lively verbs, illuminating verbs.

I do not mean words like blast, flay and hit, the standbys of headlines. I simply mean you want a precise verb that conveys an image of a specific action. You need a list for future reference? None exists. Make your own this way:

  1. Attack the next edition of your newspaper with a grease pencil.
  2. Write in a stronger verb for every headline, even the good ones, in the first 12 pages. Do not worry about the length of your verb; you can struggle with fitting it into the headline some other time.
  3. Do the same thing every day for a week, with your own newspaper or some other.
  4. After a week, skip the grease pencil and do the exercise only in your mind.
  5. After another week, use verbs that fit in the holes left by the verbs you changed. Alternatively, you can adjust the wording in the rest of your practice headline to allow room for your new, muscular verbs.

You wonder whether grown people would do this sort of thing? Yes. Name a baseball hitting star. He probably makes a million dollars a year. He also takes batting practice.

Yes, he gets $1-million dollars a year, and he’s a superior batter already, but he still practices. He gets to bat three to six times every game, but he practices anyway. Why wouldn’t a journalist practice?

Why wouldn’t a journalist be willing to do something for self improvement?

You have no deadline when you wield the grease pencil. You can take your time and hit only the pitches that come right over the plate.

If you don’t like the word you choose at first, you get to choose another. Eventually, you get a home-run word. And the more you try this practice, the more likely you are to produce a prize headline at deadline time.


While you have the grease pencil out, perhaps you can use it to circle all the useless words you find in headlines. Elimination of padding will give you more room to be specific. Example of padding: President Bush going home to Texas for Thanksgiving holidays. I fudged on that one to give you plenty of sinners. You need only one word to identify the person involved; either President or Bush will handle it.

No matter who we have as president, the name alone adequately identifies the person. Then we have home to Texas. If we want to emphasize the home angle, we can drop to Texas. Otherwise, we can refer to all of that as just Texas. (We have a major problem here, in that Bush grew up in Maine. However, he called Texas home in his political campaigns.) Then we have Thanksgiving holidays.

This story would run just before the trip, no doubt, so we could use either of the words; we would not need both. All readers would know which holidays we meant. If we just used the word Thanksgiving, readers would know we had holidays in mind.

The point: You receive a specified amount of space in which to fit information of great value to readers. You cannot waste any of that room.

You have to tell as much as you can as specifically as you can. You have to fashion a lively string of words that will accurately tell people about something of interest to them in the story your headline covers.

And you don’t think you ought to practice?

This article is extracted from Martin Gibson’s book, The Writer’s Friend, published by Iowa State University Press. Mr Gibson, regents professor of communication at the University of Texas at Austin until his death in 1993, |was also the author of Editing in the Electronic Era, which is also available from Iowa State University Press, 2121 S. State Ave., Ames, Iowa 50010

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