June 13, 2021

THE WRITER OF THIS ARTICLE ALSO WROTE THIS HEADLINE AND THAT’S RARE:

Headlines are important. They have the ability to draw readers into a piece that they otherwise might skip. They also have the ability to completely tank an article that is otherwise full of good information. How can you avoid reading a story with the headline “Underwear bandit caught, admits brief crime spree” or the infamous 1983 headline from the New York Post, “Headless body in topless bar”?

Headlines are the first thing news consumers see when searching for stories or columns to read. They are essential in trying to attract eyes on articles writers have spent hours—sometimes even days or months—working on.

And so it is surprising to learn that authors generally don’t write their own headlines. Different publications have different staffing and processes, but for the most part it’s a section or copy editor who writes headlines.

Think about the work that goes into putting out a newspaper, the print kind that leaves your fingers stained with ink. Headlines are dependent on an article’s length, the page’s design, and how many other pieces are on that page. They have to fit within a certain number of columns, and font size might be dictated by a page designer or the publication’s style guide.

“If you think about newspapers, there were column inches. There were fixed widths, and you had to have a headline that fit. So people developed the skill at writing headlines to fit with their particular paper’s style and layout,” Rutgers University history and journalism professor David Greenberg told The Dispatch. “You had to know what you were doing. There was a kind of technical precision to it.”

Related: James Lileks on another aspect of newspaper and Website design: Editorial illustrations have “converged into a uniform blobby minimalist style,” or as Lileks dubs it, “Colorforms Totalitarianism.”

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