So Many Headlines, So Few Zingers
One of the best ways to improve your headline writing is to compare how different papers handled headlines for essentially the same news, and learn from the good, the bad, and the mediocre.
Here's a sampling of headlines from the day President Bush unveiled his budget for the next fiscal year. These headlines were collected from front pages on Newseum.org. I've broken them down into headline approaches, with some reflections of my own on how effective each approach was in telling the story and selling the story.
The plurality of papers used this approach, focusing on who came out on top and on bottom.
Some focused on the winners:
- "Budget favors military, security" (Anchorage)
- "Budget favors defense" (Colorado Gazette)
- "Pentagon big winner in budget" (Port Huron Times Herald)
- "Defense, security spared the knife" (Arizona Star)
- "Bush budget plan focuses on tax cuts, defense" (Los Angeles Times)
- "Bush's budget wouldn't scrimp on defense" (Morning Call, Allentown, Pa.)
- "Budget pads defense, trims services" (Great Falls Tribune)
Others gave both sides:
- "Bush's 'lean budget' would cut social programs, boost defense" (San Diego Tribune)
- "A 'lean budget' from Bush cuts mainly at home" (Wall Street Journal)
- "'Lean budget' fattens defense" (Miami Herald) ... Very nice rhythmic effective pun
- "Big cuts, bulky deficit" (Akron Beacon Journal)
- "Bush budget cuts programs, worsens deficit" (New London Day)
And most went with the losers:
- "Bush budget strips social programs" (Wilmington News Journal)
- "Bush: Cut domestic programs" (Springfield Journal Register)
- "Bush: Freeze domestic spending" (Seattle Times)
- "Bush budget to target domestic programs" (Ventura County Star)
- "War costs to offset domestic cuts" (Vancouver Columbian)
- "Domestic programs face trims" (Abilene Reporter News)
- "Budget batters domestic programs" (Plain Dealer) ... A spousal abuse pun? Ick.
- "Popular programs lose out to defense" (Seattle Post Intelligencer)
The best of that lot homed in on key details, like the number of programs cut (Charleston had a great headline there), or specific programs cut:
- "Bush budget plan kills 150 programs" (Charleston Gazette)
- "Job training, education fall under Bush's knife" (Wichita Eagle)
- "Bush budget cuts Medicaid, housing for disabled" (Nevada Appeal)
Some of the biggest papers, including the Washington Post, New York Times, and USA Today, played it straight:
- "Bush presents budget" (Las Vegas Review Journal)
- "President sends 06 budget to Congress" (Washington Post)
- "Bush offers budget that 'sets priorities'" (Washington Times)
- "Budget's focus: 'Results'" (Daytona News Journal)
- "Bush aims to tighten belt" (Chicago Tribune)
- "President offers budget proposal with broad cuts" (New York Times)
- "Bush budget calls for big cuts" (USA Today)
The best of these was the Kansas City Star, which told the news while picking up on a telling comparison:
- "Budget has biggest cuts since Reagan" (Kansas City Star)
Painfully obvious straight news
On these next two, you have to ask, "Well, what did you expect?" I mean, it is the president's budget, right? Is Bush supposed to have someone else write it for him? Maybe Ted Kennedy?
- "Bush priorities drive budget" (Baltimore Sun)
- "Budget carries Bush stamp" (Hartford Courant)
And then you have the obvious effect headlines. In these cases, you can hear the mind of the copy editor whirling on deadline, trying to come up with a head that captures the focus of the story, and that focus is probably on the effects of the cuts on the average American. But in trying to capture that focus, you can end up saying something that's not really news:
- "Cuts come with a cost" (Virginia Pilot)
- "Bush budget cuts affect many Americans" (Casper, Wyo., Star-Tribune)
The best next-day journalism gave readers what they really needed to know: How does this affect me. And the way to do that is with solid, quick localization. These papers played up their localizations. Some of them, though, kept the headlines vague:
- "Bush plan cuts deep at home" (Oakland Tribune)
- "Budget slashes close to home" (Sacramento Bee)
- "Bush budget deals blow to area" (Norwich Bulletin)
Others stayed vague, but drew attention to their particular state or area:
- "State's funding at risk" (Arizona Republic)
- "La. feels squeeze of Bush's budget" (New Orleans Times Picayune)
- "Bush plan gives edge to Florida" (Orlando Sun Sentinel)
- "Bush spending plan may cost Michigan" (Detroit News)
- "Dems warn Bush budget devastating to Jersey" (Courier News)
- "Bush budget swings ax at NJ programs" (Record, Hackensack)
- "Funding ideas not kind to S. Texas" (San Antonio Express News)
- "Carolinas may lose and gain in budget" (Charlotte Observer)
- "Cuts hit L.A. hard" (Los Angeles Daily News)
The best of them homed in on a particular project important to their readership:
- "Bush proposes $2 billion for an airport rail link" (New York Sun)
- "Budget to cut back on Navy shipbuilding" (Providence Journal)
- "Depot: Not alarmed over Bush budget" (Anniston, Ala., Star)
- "Bush budget keeps milk program" (Green Bay Press Gazette)
Numbers tell the story in these headlines, where the papers focused on the total amount of the budget, in most cases with massive display type using point sizes in the hundreds. One thing to consider, though: Is this being fair and objective, or is this the Copy Desk trying to make a political point? It's worth a discussion:
- "$2.57 trillion" (Tuscaloosa, Ala., News)
- "$2.57 trillion" (Waterbury, Conn., Republican American)
- "Bush's budget: $2,568,000,000,000" (San Francisco Chronicle)
- "$2.6 trillion after trims" (Fort Myers News Press)
- "President pitches $2.57T budget" (Argus Leader)
The political reaction was another sure bet for headline approaches, and a key aspect of the story. So which is going to interest your average reader more: How lawmakers react or how the budget will affect them? Again, worth a discussion:
- "Bush's cuts collide with political reality" (Santa Rosa Press Democrat)
- "Politics rules in budget reaction" (Mesa)
- "Bush delivers his budget to immediate resistance" (Indianapolis Star)
- "Bush budget gets a cool reception" (Quad City Times, Davenport, Iowa)
- "Slashes further divide Congress" (Clarion Ledger, Jackson, Miss.)
- "Bush hears no cheers over budget" (Greensboro News & Record) ... Nice rhythm there.
- "Scepticism greets Bush's budget cuts" (Pittsburgh Post Gazette)
- "Lawmakers say Bush cuts too deep in budget" (Leaf-Chronicle, Clarksville, Tenn.)
- "Congress balks at Bush cuts" (El Paso Times)
Painfully obvious reaction
When writing a reaction headline, you don't want to slant unfairly to one side or the other of the debate. But why write a reaction headline that tells readers what they could have expected long before the budget was released? "Mixed bag" headlines almost never tell you anything:
- "Budget reductions get varied response" (Augusta Chronicle)
- "Congress divided over new budget" (Chicago Daily Herald)
Don't use a 50-cent word when a 10-cent word will do. That applies to headlines much more than to stories. So are we trying to show off our vocabulary? Or are we trying to draw in readers?
- "Bush proffers 'lean' budget" (Arkansas Democrat Gazette)
- "Bush plan ambitious, austere" (Fresno Bee)
- "Bush offers austere budget" (Rochester Democrat Gazette)
Some copy editors like to live on the edge and offer headlines that draw conclusions from the story or offer analysis/interpretation of the day's events. It can get you in some hot water with a hard news story, but it's probably in tune with what readers are looking for.
- "Bush plans spending squeeze" (Modesto Bee)
- "The red ink rolls on" (Omaha World Herald)
- "Budget tests political will" (Herald News, W. Patterson, N.J.)
- "Bush budget is driven by terror costs" (Star-Ledger, Newark)
- "Cuts, deficits make budget a tough sell" (Dallas Morning News)
These two actually offer predictions. A bold move -- it can pay off in looking ahead or it can bite you back if your prediction doesn't pan out.
- "Bush budget will worsen deficits" (Lewiston, Ohio, Tribune)
- "Bush cuts could cost consumers" (Daily Journal)
Old-school slots will admonish that without a verb, you don't have a headline. But with the right deck, it can work. I've found, though, that copy editors often fall into a lazy pattern of filling tight head counts with pun-based labels and supporting decks not because it serves readers, but because they've gotten into a rut and don't want to take more time with the headline. Make sure your motives are straight when you go for the label.
- "Bush's blueprint" (Orange County Register) ... Would be great on a graphic-driven layout.
- "Bush budget good, bad, ugly" (Baton Rouge Advocate) ... Isn't that horse dead yet?
Rumors of war
When not using sports imagery, journalists often think in terms of conflict. But are we doing readers a service by predicting metaphoric war every time a budget is announced? And, come to think of it, did these predictions come true?
- "Budget fight looms" (Orlando Sentinel) ... "Looms"?
- "Let the battle begin" (Winston-Salem Journal)
- "Budget battle" (Memphis Commercial Appeal)
And now I'll leave you with a startling mental image of our president, whose budget "cuts" at these papers just might draw an R rating for extreme violence.
- "Bush wields budget knife" (Pittsburgh Tribune Review)
- "Bush hefts budget knife" (Greensburg, Pa., Tribune Review)
- "Bush sharpens his ax" (Atlanta Journal Constitution)
- "Bush's budget ax cuts deep" (Denver Post)
Christopher Smith is news editor of the Leaf-Chronicle in Clarksville, Tennessee.