As often as possible, we strive to post content from a guest blogger with an expertise in an area of the field. Today, we are fortunate to have veteran journalist and student media adviser Michael Koretzky, who is explaining his experiences dealing with headline hell. He is the editor of Debt.com, regional coordinator for the Society of Professional Journalists and a volunteer adviser for the student newspaper at Florida Atlantic University. Interested in being our next guest blogger? Contact us here.
As a professional editor and volunteer adviser, I’ve never said this before: Brevity is not a virtue.
Then I was asked to review nearly 50 college headlines.
February and March is judging season for college journalism awards, and I’m currently saddled with “Best Headlines” for two state contests. You’d think this category would be easier to handle than, say, investigative reporting or best overall publication. But you’d be wrong.
The problem with judging headlines is the same as writing them: There’s not a lot of room to get the job done right. That’s why college journalists hate writing headlines. Here’s something I’ve never heard in 22 years as a college newspaper adviser: “Hey, back off! I’M writing that headline! Not you!”
But college journalists make headline writing harder than it has to be. For starters, they seem allergic to decks, scared of space, and obsessed with puns. Here’s an entry I just torpedoed…
Hurdling towards nationals
It’s atop an uplifting story about a first-year track team sending two athletes to a national competition – and one is a freshman. Except you know none of that from the four-word headline, which had no deck. Even worse, only one student runs the hurdles, and it’s one of seven races in which she’ll compete at nationals.
Then there’s this entry…
New ‘Path’ emerges into Butler
…and that’s all you know before the lede begins, “For the 2018-2019 school year, changes were made regarding courses and how students are set to succeed in receiving associate degrees. All Butler freshmen are required to enroll in and pass a first year seminar course in order to graduate.” You later find out this course is called Pathways. So why is “Path” in quotes? Who knows.
Something better (although still not great) would include a deck to give readers a clue…
Pathway to progress
Seeking a two-year degree? New course helps you stick to your timetable
For some reason, more than half of the entries in these two state contests are six words or less, with no decks…
Harvest was a party
Too Early For Christmas?
Inkling for Inkings
…and if you have no idea what’s going on with any of these, then neither did the readers. But here’s the really depressing part: The newspaper staff probably doesn’t have a clue, either.
Whenever I visit student newsrooms, I play a little game. I put up on a screen some old stories and ask staffers what the story was about. They can only see the headlines, so they usually squint at the vague words and answer, “I think it’s about…”
When I point out the irony of a newspaper publishing content its staff doesn’t understand, that’s when it usually sinks in: “Damn, no wonder we don’t have better readership.’
Then I recommend the editors hug their newest, greenest staffers.
These individuals are usually considered a burden, since they don’t yet possess the experience necessary to write, shoot, or design well. But they can certainly read. I urge editors to ask these newbies to bluntly review all headlines and even leads. If they can’t grasp what’s happening with their fresh set of eyes, it’s a fair bet readers won’t, either.
OK, enough chatter. I need to get back to judging. Here’s the headline on my screen right now…
‘Walking dynamite’ lights up community
…and I don’t know what the hell is going on. But I know this entry won’t win.
Shakespeare famously said, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” But the bard never judged a college headline contest.