BY Jim Barger
Sports editor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
People don’t just process printed matter in their heads, Shea would tell me. An inner voice reads them aloud, so it’s important to consider how a headline sounds as well as what it says. Which is why conversational is so much better than those awkward, overpunctuated, language-of-their-own headlines that populate a lot of papers.
Don’t write a headline you wouldn’t say when talking to a friend. No one in history ever uttered, “Woodley, defense propel Dolphins past NY.”
On the other hand, everybody has at least hummed or whistled “Camptown Races,” and it was out of the comfortable cadence of that old song that the doo-dah principle was born: The best headlines are the ones after which you can say “doo dah.” They just sound right. Readers like the way they feel. And they’re everywhere.
People have been writing this way forever without ever having met Paul Shea. “Mary had a little lamb” (doo dah, doo dah) … “London Bridge is falling down” (doo dah, doo dah) … “Nixon makes his final plea” … “Steelers win fifth Super Bowl.” There probably are a handful of them in today’s paper.
Headline writing is one of the last great arts of newspapering. While the rest of the craft has been downsized first to USA Today-sized briefs, then to byte-sized nuggets for our Web sites, the need for a good headline has endured. Sure, it has changed — we seem regrettably less interested in headlines with nouns and verbs than in snappy magazine-style titles — but every little story still needs an attention-grabber, so headline writing is occurring more than ever.
That doesn’t mean it’s occurring well more than ever. It just increases the chances of falling prey to puns and badly done plays off names. “Steelers buck Tampa Bay” … “Pirates bank on home-field edge at PNC Park.” The disease of pun-ism seems to be spreading. Used in moderation, like bourbon, they can leave the reader with a pleasant glow. But too many groaners can lead to glassy eyes and readers wondering what’s on television. Thankfully, the malady seems restricted to sports pages, or else we might be subjected to “U.S. thinks Osama bin hidin’ in the hills.”
After that, you’re on your own, because headline writing is in the genes. Either you’ve got it or you don’t. The trick is for the person in charge of the desk to make certain the story for which the headline most matters gets into the hands of the person who writes the best headline.