Whenever someone screws up a headline in the worst of all ways, it doesn’t take long before people I know are shining the Bat Signal in my direction:
The headline in question is a little easier to see here along with some context for the story:
The story about Amelia Benjamin winning the Miss Kansas Outstanding Teen carried the double entendre headline “Definitely Doable,” which includes a term that is that at the heart of this classic SNL skit. When I initially saw the headline, I told the person who asked me about it that this was likely a case of one of two things:
- The phrase was in the story somewhere and it made sense there, but out of context, it’s truly horrifying.
- Someone in the newsroom did the “I’d do her” joke, wrote the headline as a spoof and said, “We’ll change that before it presses” and never did.
Turns out, it was the first issue, as the story (which has a more appropriate headline on its web version) included this quote:
In Pratt last week, Benjamin said she wasn’t quite sure what to expect because this was her first time participating in the Miss America organization teen pageant.
“It was really hard for me to be away from my family for a week because we are have always been so close, but it was good for me coming here,” she said. “This week taught me that this is definitely doable.“
There are about 93 problems with all this, including that this young woman will be the “definitely doable girl” for a long time, but here’s the worst one: This isn’t the first time the Pratt Tribune has landed in the headlines for a headline. This classic was the Tribune’s as well:
We talked about this when it happened, along with a series of other headlines that went awry, and provided some advice to the Trib and other folks who want to avoid these problems. The best advice I can give them after this screw up is to find out what went wrong and do one of two things:
- If the same person keeps writing these headlines, fire the pervert before he or she (OK, if I had to put money on it, it’s a he) gets you into even bigger trouble.
- If it truly is a situation where nobody really saw either of these headlines as being potentially sexual, hire a pervert to read everything you write and have him or her (probably a him) try to turn anything you type into something dirty.
For the rest of us, here are a couple other headline helpers beyond what we covered last time:
- Create better headline specs: One of the reasons I’m sure “Definitely Doable” ended up in the paper was because the space left for the headline didn’t give the writer a lot of options. One basic rule we used to have at a paper I worked on was, “If you cut the hole, you need to know how to fill it.” In other words, you can’t give someone a one-column head space for a story about California kindergarten rules under then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, unless you can suggest a decent headline for that space.
- Do a headline throw-down: When you get into a jam with a headline, get away from the computer and do a throw-down session that will give you a fighting chance of coming up with something decent. Create a list of potential nouns, verbs and objects that could tell the story, based on what you read. List everything you can think about and empty your head. If you have some colleagues around, get those folks involved as well. This will provide you with a potential word bank for the headline and a chance to see how certain words might fit that space. If you find a pairing or an NVO structure you like, see if it fits. If it doesn’t, try swapping longer words for shorter ones on your list. Get close and see if some minor tracking or a small reduction in point size would help.
- Consider a deck: This headline probably wouldn’t have been helped by a deck but other versions might have. If you don’t have the width for a good noun-verb-object headline, see if you have a punchy word or phrase that could be explained well with a deck head, conversation deck, c-deck or whatever else people are calling that secondary headline these days. If you don’t have to win the day with a single headline, you can make the deck head carry the load for you.
And, it goes without saying, think like a 12-year-old boy before you publish something. If that kid can turn your head into a “head” joke, get rid of it. You could always ask for different headline space or simply ask someone else to give it a try. When all is said and done, that headline should be “definitely doable.”