Jon Fischer wrote some terrible headlines for this week’s Washington City Paper. “Overall, I feel like I’ve been whiffing it on them,” Fischer, the weekly’s managing editor, said by phone. Normally, that propensity toward self-flagellation is a job requirement for an alt-weekly editor — I helped hire Fischer at City Paper in part because he was so good at doubting himself — but Fischer is probably being too critical. Just look at the headlines he didn’t run.
His new Tumblr blog, Heds Will Roll, asks journalists to send in the headlines they “dare not use.” A lot of them are by any reasonable measure unusable — “‘The Feminine Mystique’ Turns 50, Doesn’t Look a Day Over 30,” for instance — but some represent the sort of defeats that gnaw at journalists for years.
Take “The Slides of March.” That’s a headline Tom Wilk wanted to use for a traffic story at the (Cherry Hill, N.J.) Courier-Post in 1999, after a snowstorm hit the region late in the winter. “Our executive editor at the time didn’t want puns or word play in headlines so the headline didn’t make it into the paper,” Wilk told Fischer. “I even called him at home to lobby for it.”
Fischer said he started the blog after self-rejecting a headline about George Washington University buying up land in a D.C. neighborhood. “Foggy Bottom Feeders” was “a bit more negative than the story was, so it would have been a bit trollish to go with that headline,” he said. And so the idea of a blog about journalism’s misfit toys was born.
About six or seven people have written in since he launched the blog a couple of days ago. Some pitched headlines they rejected themselves. Some pitched headlines others squashed. A few people wrote in “perhaps misunderstanding the concept of the blog, with alternate headlines for articles they had nothing to do with,” Fischer said.
And some were “deeply offensive,” he said. (Like, uh, this one? Yep, like that one.) Have any of the contributions so far been too bad for even a blog about rejected headlines? “There was one guy who sent in a headline that had an ethnic slur,” Fischer said. “There’s a minimum bar of funny.” Some headlines, though, he said, “are bad to the point of being funny.”
About half the headlines on the blog now are Fischer’s and the rest are contributions. He’d like to get it to mostly stuff people have sent him. He’ll keep contributors anonymous by default but will attach their names if they like. (Wilk took a buyout a couple of years ago and was happy to share.)
“Editors are often funny people, but they spend a lot of time honing this very basic kind of stupid but often quite satisfying form of comedy and oftentimes no one sees the work,” Fischer said. “And even when they do see the work, they forget headlines in a day. So this is a tribute to that.”