I get what Will Oremus at Slate is saying here in terms of boring headlines versus more..interesting ones. But I can’t get over his tone of chiding some publications like they’re absolutely failing at their jobs by not going for the biggest OMG FAIL titles they could possibly think of. I just don’t think that’s true.

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Headlines are, at their core, an editorial tactic. The are an extension of the overall editorial mission and should be in-line with the general approach, tone and voice of the publication using them, whether they’re a hard news site, explainer site, general newspaper, brand outlet or anything else.

What Oremus seems to be saying is that the paper in question, by not racing to the edge of overly-descriptive salaciousness, is intentionally misserving its readers. Or at the very least it’s not doing everything it can to bring in readers. And I agree that the headline the Times-Union used is kind of poorly constructed and not all that alluring.

I feel strongly, though, that if we’re all going to become tabloid headline writers then we may as well give up the ghost now. I’m not saying we need to accept poorly written heds. But it’s not the responsibility of every headline writer/editor to pull out the most gory, ironic or sensational details in order to get readers. In fact I’d argue that doing so for a local paper like this is counter to their mission and may do more to annoy the audience than anything else.

The trend to be as outrageous as possible with headlines is, as Oremus points out, a symptom of our current social-first media culture. If you want to get people to share your story on Facebook you need to get their attention. But before throwing blanket statements of failure around it’s important to look at the context of the usage and in this case a slightly drier headline makes some sense. Let others embrace the irony, there’s still a place for plainly-stated news.

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  1. Headlines don’t seem to matter much in the digital age, they can be changed at will throughout the news cycle. Print media is different as Keith Waterhouse said: Deadline fever encourages taut, crisp writing with the maximum of facts and a minimum of frills…For a story about, say, an old lady who was flushed with embarrassment as a result of being locked in a town hall lavatory and the consequent chain reaction when the council tried to get to the bottom of it, at least four hours should be allowed. For a late-night train crash killing a hundred people, allow twenty minutes.

    Print media headlines should paint a picture and draw the reader into the story. The Brits tend to be the best at this. Guardian headline: Jack Straw and the laser-guided underpants. Two from the Sun: ‘Why a salesgirl tried to batter her flashing fishmonger’s codpiece’ with the sub-head: ‘Sex-mad boss put his willy on slab’. This from the Sun sports page about a football match: SUPER CALEY GO BALLISTIC, CELTIC ARE ATROCIOUS. Of course, a lot of stories in the tabloids are only there because some copy editor came up with a brilliant headline.

    The Economist have had great headlines for years. The head on a chart about falling share price at Polly Peck Hosiery: Sukey, take it off again. On a chart about the increase in Japanese rice production: Paddy whack. When Senator Rubio left the Presidential race on Super Tuesday the headline to the story was: Goodbye Rubio Tuesday. About animal husbandry: Ram-a-lamb-a-ding-dong. April second issue in the Science section with an article about animal extinction: Not an ex-parrot. This week’s edition with an article on space travel: Pump it up, Scotty.

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