Headlines can be pretty terrible.
Look, I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes they get mangled. I’ve botched one or two in my day.
There are plenty of opportunities for problems to arise. Reporters will often pen a headline suggestion when they turn in a story. The editor will try to punch it up. And then the page designers will change it to squeeze into the space allotted.
By the time it hits print, it’s often a strange mutant version of the original.
No fewer than eight of my friends emailed, tweeted, and Facebooked me this past week with an hilarious example of a headline-gone-wrong: “Amphibious pitcher makes debut” was stretched across an AP story about Pat Venditte of the Oakland A’s that appeared in the East Oregonian.
Clearly the desk editor meant “ambidextrous,” because the article described how Venditte began the seventh inning against the Boston Red Sox winding up with his right arm, then switched to his left.
Of course it got passed around. It’s funny, though I’m sure somewhere in Oregon that editor is self-flagellating.
Mistakes happen. I’m as red in the face as anybody. Many years ago, I wrote a story about Amherst’s budget being zeroed out, empty, dry, the city coffers dusty and cobweb-filled. An editor slapped a headline on it saying the city had declared bankruptcy — which would have been something altogether different.
Then-mayor John Higgins, who has since passed on, was none too happy. Neither was I.
Former editor Kathleen Willbond loved wordplay in her headlines. I recall resisting it at the time, but “A humongous fungus among us” was a clever tag for a fluffy feature about a giant mushroom that looked like it could house a family.
Editors are well-known for going with groan-worthy puns. Sometimes it seems there’s an informal game being played across the country where the goal is to come up with the funniest headline take.
Back in the early 2000s, when Oberlin College freshmen descended on Plum Creek to remove ecologically-harmful plant species that came from outside Ohio, I penned “My big fat creek weeding” as a joke on “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” I’m still pretty proud of that one.
Headlines remain one of the toughest news elements to write. They have to be exciting while not sensationalizing, hint at what’s in the story without giving it all away, and avoid cliches. And since we write dozens upon dozens of headlines a week, we have to work hard not to fall into patterns or reuse the same words over and over.
It’s also true that headlines are more important today than ever. We’re a 140-character culture, thanks to Twitter. Attention spans are measured in seconds, not minutes. So a headline has to hook a reader.
As I was explaining to new reporter Kelsey Leyva just recently, it’s the biggest, best chance we have to billboard the story. We worked hard on those stories, so it’s our job to advertise for them with crafty headlines.
For the record, though, we’ll avoid using “amphibious” unless it’s absolutely called for.