Friday, January 11, 2008

FAQ, Part 4 (Headlines)

Fourth in a series of frequently asked questions about the Freeman:

Who writes the headlines?

I'll back into the answer: Not the reporters.

All of us who started in this business as reporters have experienced angry phone calls or letters to the editor complaining about a sensational and/or inaccurate headline atop our stories. "Your story is OK," we'll hear, "but you screwed up the headline," they'll declare.

But reporters don't write headlines, copy editors do. And fortunately, those "screwed up" headlines are few and far in between.

Depending on the size of a newspaper, a story might be edited by several people before it's ready for print. Others then might team up to determine the "head," especially if it's the top story on the front page.

At smaller newspapers like ours, it's typical for the editor who copyreads a story to also write the headline and place it on the page. But depending on the importance and/or sensitivity of a story -- again, especially if it "leads" the paper -- more than one editor could have a hand in it.

Headlines obviously are important. They're what draws readers into a story. The headline on the top of Page 1 could make someone decide to buy the paper.

The goal of the headline writer is to be accurate, interesting and brief. It's not always easy, particularly when you have to write one on deadline. If there are errors, that's when they're more likely to occur.

Want to see how it works at a big city tabloid? Catch the movie "The Paper" with Michael Keaton and Glenn Close. The characters and publication are fictional, but the procedure rings true as editors gather around a computer screen to write "the wood," as top headline of the day is called in the business.

So if you see a bad headline in a newspaper, save the reporter some grief and complain to the editors.
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