Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten really hit me where I live today with this nostalgic essay titled “Gene Weingarten column mentions Lady Gaga.”
As you might surmise, Weingarten isn’t in the habit of going all TMZ over celebrity hooha. No, my fellow scribe is actually lamenting the death of the well-wrought headline in the age of Search Engine Optimization.
SEO, as you may know, means using words and phrases and hidden tags that influence (or just plain trick) browsers and Internet searchbots into serving up your chunk of text versus someone else’s. If you were to google “sausage party,” you could thank SEO for whipping up a piping hot batch of content that’s a far, far cry from the Bavarian festival you were hoping to take your Granny to.
The headline, as my fellow journalism students might recall, is that cherished cherry at the top of the editorial sundae. In the glory days, the headline used to give us evening copydesk sloggers a chance to leave our own stamp on the next day’s paper. Not only that, but headlines were a puzzle that begged to be cracked like a Rubik’s Cube. It had a number of decks (measuring lines deep), it often had a subhead, and it had a character count — an arcane system of measuring width: a teensy i was only 1 unit but a capital W was 3, for example. Combined with the wacky restrictions of headline-ese, a quirky grammatical tense called “historical present,” penning a headline was a daily challenge akin to shooting a wadded-up paper ball into a garbage can across the room.
I loved this. I loved the purity of distilling the story to its essence, with wry wit when possible, and doing so while cracking the crazy calculus of the headline’s space restrictions. Especially challenging were the headlines that had to fit in the width of a single column, and when you mastered a good one of those … ooh, the chills!
My favorite of these one-column wonders was a headline I worked on for the Daily Northwestern in 1991. The story was about the dropping of Coca-Cola products from campus dining rooms, and their replacement with Pepsi:
Pepsi is it
Bah, you kids probably don’t remember the “Coke is it” ad campaign. Still, funny stuff! I won an Illinois college journalism award thingy for this one, which is too bad, because I’m pretty sure this headline was a group effort. Cheryl Dahle, if you’re reading this, I’ve always suspected this joke was more yours than mine.
I am quite sure I alone wrote the zinger for the story about the sudden bee infestation on campus:
is thy sting?
All over NU
And my favorite of all time? On Oct. 26, 1991, I watched my hard-luck Wildcats upend No. 17 Illinois on the rain-soaked Dyche Stadium turf. Overjoyed fans (though not me, ’cause I was in the band and had to behave) rushed the field, ripped down the goalposts, and marched them down Central Avenue to relegate them to the waters of Lake Michigan. The Oct. 28 front page bore my 60-point handiwork:
Cats win; goalposts swim
Web-only writers will never feel this thrill. For them, a headline is and will forever be a marketing concept, geared to drawing as many eyeballs and fooling as many search tools as the technology allows. There’s a certain poetry in that puzzle, too, I suppose, but it’s cynical.
In a world where
FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD (New York Daily News, 1975)
HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR (New York Post, 1982)
Harvard beats Yale, 29-29 (Harvard Crimson, 1968)
can exist, I can hold hope that their inspiration may draw us back to a time when a headline meant something more than statistic in a marketing report.
For those philistines who disagree, Weingarten provides the perfect coda:
I spent an hour coming up with the perfect, clever, punny headline for this column. If you read this on paper, you’d see it: “A digital salute to online journalism.” I guarantee you that when it runs online, editors will have changed it to something dull, to maximize the possibility that someone, searching for something she cares about, will click on it.
I bet it’ll read “Gene Weingarten Column Mentions Lady Gaga.”