Some really kick-ass headline that will make people read this thing goes here and here and here

(I wonder how many people clicked on that headline because it looked like a stupid mistake.)

Headlines like the one I (purposefully) wrote above are known as placeholders or dummy text. Journalists tend to use them to fill in blank spaces or show where content is supposed to be when the real content eventually comes around.

The perils of dummy text showed up a lot for me this weekend, when cruising through my various news sources.  A couple came from my old newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal, like this social media post:

And this one via email blast…

A former student chimed in with this one he’d seen recently as well:

A good friend who works at the paper mentioned on social media that in a lot of cases, things are set up on templates and that occasionally, someone pushes the wrong button and the template gets published instead of the story. Or the template gets published before the story shows up.

Although this is the peril of playing with live ammo in a digital world where a click of the mouse can lead to a nuclear launch, these kinds of mistakes have occurred in a number of print publications over the years, like this photo caption that just got passed along without an edit:

(Poor lady. First she dies and now she gets cropped…)

The internet has no shortage of fun moments with things like this, with one site even collecting the shortcomings of our editorial colleagues. As my friend pointed out when everyone was piling on about the headline errors at the State Journal, it’s not the end of the world. We are going to make mistakes, run stuff that’s not ready and fail at so many levels it’s not even funny. With that in mind, here are a few helpful hints to prevent these errors going from bad to worse:

DUMMY, NOT STUPID, TEXT FOR PLACEHOLDERS: You might notice the “lorem ipsum” stuff in some of these placeholder pieces, as this is a good way to catch content that shouldn’t be there. (We rarely write a lot in Latin these days, although the back story for this filler text is pretty cool..) When it does run, we do look dumb, but at least we don’t look stupid, or worse.

If you plan to run placeholder text, the XXXXXX route is fine, but X-rated isn’t. I’ve seen people use F-bombs to fill in space at student media outlets, thinking it’s pretty funny or that it’s the easiest thing to catch. Well, it’s probably not funny if you don’t catch ALL of the F-bombs, so it’s probably best not to do that.

The “blah blah blah” example on the linked example looks like people don’t care about the person, place or thing the paper is covering in those refer boxes, so that’s not a good outcome. Also, you don’t want to have people wondering if that’s what you think about them behind their backs while you’re working in the newsroom.

If you plan to have “filler copy” in the space, make it as benign as possible.

IF YOU WOULDN’T RUN IT, DON’T TYPE IT: Broadcast has a similar rule about treating every microphone like it’s broadcasting live to the world. The basic concept is to make sure that you never put yourself in harm’s way by being funny, angry or just plain “ugh.”

Journalists have an odd sense of humor, to be sure, and quite often, pressure, writer’s block and other forces can lead to some harsh moments. The last thing you want is for those momentary lapses to become marks against you on your permanent record.

I have seen more than a few times where a writer is frustrated by a headline’s specs, and thus they write something like “Dick/Head/Todd/Specs” to pick on the person who gave them a 1-32-4 set of specs. I’ve seen something where people write the headline with about four F-bombs in it because they are so upset that they can’t come up with a good headline. I’ve also seen joking heads playing off of a story, with the idea that “we’ll get back to it” only not to do so.

(This might be my brain breaking, but I remember seeing either a proof page or a failed attempt at a headline or something related to the Bill Cosby rape trials that had the headline “Hey… Hey… HEY!” That’s definitely a “no-go” headline. If someone actually knows of this example, please send me a message so I at least know I’m not losing my mind.)

This also goes for randomly dashed off alt-text for photos or file names for stories. We almost had a crisis one year when we had a story about a priest accused of molestation and the reporter named the file “FatherBadTouch.” Alt-text can be seen as well, so don’t do a “Photo of three dipshits” alt for a picture of a group of fishing tournament winners.

Always imagine that the worst happens and what you wrote gets sent everywhere. If you might be uncomfortable with that, don’t type it.

BE CONSISTENT WITH YOUR DUMMIES: You might not catch every instance of dummy text, but a good way to up your odds is to use the same stuff all the time.

It might feel good to be “creative” each time you decide to fill in some space, but that only makes it more likely that the content will blend into the rest of the publication. The “lorem ipsum” stuff stands out because a) It’s weird and b) people always use it so they usually know to look for it.

Simply running one more set of “find” searchers for a couple words common in your dummy type can help you locate any missed elements, like fake pull quotes, fake graphics chatter or fake captions.

In the end, you won’t be perfect, but at least it won’t be the end of the world.



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