Blog by John Miller

<< back to article list

Head to Come

I'm a retired headline writer. It was the best thing that I did as a newspaperman. I once wrote a headline that sold 145,000 extra newspapers, and I liked it because it consisted of only one word.

One of our hallowed brethren much more famous than me just retired, so I must say a few words about the joy of writing headlines for a living.

First let Vincent A. Musetto say it. He worked 40 years as an editor at the New York Post and wrote one of the most famous headlines of all time: "Headless body in topless bar." The Post is a tabloid, and a Rupert Murdoch one, and I never worked for one of those, thank God. But they sure carried the best headlines.

Musetto, who retired yesterday, once told People magazine the secret of how he practices his art: ""Zap, zip, zonk, nix, these are good verbs. Short. Short and powerful. They've got to contain a sense of urgency. Nouns? Tots, kids, fire, you know -- SIX-ALARM FIRE. Blaze is good, but fire's shorter. Siege. Siege is good. Madman, maniac, fear. My favourite word is 'co-ed.' When you see co-ed, people want to buy the paper. I don't know why. Just some young, innocent girl getting into a lot of trouble. It's the dirty old man in people. It's a very sexy word."

Musetto, in fact, may have written my favourite recent headline. It conveyed the front-page news that the wife of U.S. congressman Anthony Weiner was pregnant. This came after he'd he'd been caught twittering pictures of his, um, weiner to other women. Shortly before he resigned, the Post carried a picture of the expectant parents and this headline: POP GOES THE WEASEL.

A good headline accurately covers the story and rings with authority. A great headline resonates. Reading it can make the corner of your mouth go up as you marvel at the human condition, or appreciate a nifty double meaning. Headlines are icons of pop culture, and we should study them and appreciate them because they are more important than you think.

One statistic: On average, 8 out of 10 people will read headlines, but only two will read the story that goes underneath. So there are a lot of failures. If you don't believe me, just read any on-line news site or blog. How far do you get? The Internet has made headlines even more important. It has also flooded the market with amateurs, and the last thing amateurs are good at is writing headlines. Google "great headlines" and you get countless suggestions for writing great blog headlines, all of it virtually worthless.

Great headlines are nearly a lost art. When I taught headline writing to students at Ryerson, I developed a process called "wordstorming." It was a way of selecting key words from the story and sharpening them up for use in headlines. I used newspaper ads as examples, eliminating only the headlines and inviting students to write new ones, then comparing the two. It made me realize that some of the best headlines appear in ads, because they're quite literally designed to be an effective "sell." They often do that by appealing to some emotion, and I realized that zapping readers with an emotional charge is a good way to pique their interest in reading more. I used that insight to develop a newspaper training module in "wordstorming" for professionals, but only gave it a few times. There was little interest.

Headlines are wonderfully diverse. Original puns, plays on words and cheeky double-entendres are used often in the tabloids Musetto used to work for. When Elton John married David Furnish, the headline read: "Elton takes David up the aisle." In crime stories especially, anything goes. When a mental patient escaped and raped a woman in a landromat, it was: "Nut screws washer and bolts."

The best at it I ever saw in Canada my old colleague Lew Fournier. When he was at the Star, he wrote a great headline on a small story about Virginia Maddox, widow of Georgia's ex-governor Lester, running for office. His headline read: "Yes, Virginia, there is an Atlanta cause." The senior editor at the Star rejected it, but it would have been treasured at the rival tabloid Sun. Fournier moved to the Sun.

I didn't get to play with that fast crowd. My career was at more sober broadsheets, and I learned my craft in the days of hot type, when every headline was assembled laboriously by Ludlow, and one that was written too long close to deadline would make the paper late. Headlines, even then were afterthoughts, and we'd move stories with the designation HTK, meaning "head to come." Then we'd tempt fate by writing them on top of deadline. It taught me to be quick, short and accurate. I once got a hearty laugh out of fellow editors attending a newspaper training session in Reston, Virginia, by suggesting a title for a pornographic novel we could collaborate on, about the sexual misadventures of a copy editor. The title was "Head to Come."

Oh yes. My famous one-word headline that sold 145,000 papers? In my early days as editor of the new Sunday Star, I put together a special section after John Lennon was shot dead. Our paper was trailing the more established Sunday Sun in circulation at the time. Martin Goodman, then the publisher, was furious with me for promoting it in advance. "Why tip off the Sun?" he asked. I said: "I hope they do one too (which they did) -- we're going to blow them out of the water."

The cover we chose was a poster of Lennon looking almost mystic in his wire-rimmed glasses and beard. We kept the typography simple, just saying "John Lennon, 1940-1980." Posters don't need headlines but this cried out for one. It had to be short and it had to be emotional and it had to convey a simple message appropriate for the death of such a cultural icon. Something, perhaps one word, that resonated with meaning for his life and death. I came up with it in the middle of the night. The section appeared with PEACE as the headline over the inscription.

The section was such a hit with readers that we increased our average circulation by 70 percent that Sunday. Within a few weeks, we'd passed the Sunday Sun for keeps.That's the power of a great headline.