Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Headlines Imperil Clarity

As the Internet increasingly becomes the medium 'o' choice for information, the newsmongering industry ought to look anew at the way it calls attention to what we old hacks call news. Headlines are not what they used to be when typography mattered.
Tabloid headlines used to be built with type big enough to fill the width of the page, thus giving us such gems as
And broadsheet newspapers are typically designed with the most prominent story getting the fattest type, which accounts for ambiguity in 72-point revelations such as this:
Pregnant Women Can Fly, FAA Says
(Move over Dumbo, says I)
My own employer imposes a 63-character count, allowing no more than three characters short of fill, on stories that stand alone. And in my earlier days at The New York Times, we had single-column, multiple deck heads that could not have word echoes (saying the same word twice in the whole headline), which sent everyone scrambling for a thesaurus full of three-letter verbs.
So I know, after four decades at this, that headline writing is more an art than a skill, and that the myriad rules of different news media must leave the audience scratching its collective head, so to speak, at what we must mean when we leave out words of clarity for the sake of brevity and design.
But I sometimes wonder why headlines have to be so fuzzy on web news portals, where the imperatives are more flexible and, one would hope, there is room to be more precise. MSN, the Microsoft news portal, draws from many other media for its news package. As a guitar player and longtime fan of Carlos Santana, I had to stop for a second look at the headline that told me "Mets Reach Deal to Acquire Santana." Of course if you allow that headlines are supposed to be devices that hook the reader and get him or her to read the story beneath them, the MSN head (via Fox Television) did the job.