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Mar 13 / King Kaufman

How to avoid “stupid” headlines

This Buzzfeed collection of “25 stupid newspaper headlines” is one of those fun Internet time-wasters, but it can also serve as a reminder about writing good heads: An extra few seconds of thought can save you from writing a “stupid” one.

As usual with this type of headline collection—kids, there used to be a late-night talk-show host named Jay Leno who regularly featured bad headlines and typos from newspapers—the funny ones are often inadvertent sexual double-entendres:

“Student excited dad got head job”

“Lady Jacks off to hot start in conference”

“Republicans turned off by size of Obama’s package”

“Deer with big rack female, it turns out”

It was a non-sexual double entendre in a headline that got an ESPN headline writer fired last month. The headline “Chink in the armor” could have been read as a racial slur against the Chinese-American Jeremy Lin.

My first thought upon reading that headline was that a young editor wasn’t aware of “chink” as a racial slur. The last person I heard utter that word was Archie Bunker, on TV in the ’70s. Not that racial slurs have gone away, but I thought that one had fallen from favor.

Once in a while, you might get burned by a double-meaning you didn’t know existed. When I was in my late 20s I was told by a senior copy editor that “eenie meenie miney mo” had racist overtones, something I hadn’t known when reciting that rhyme as a kid, with the thing being caught by its toe being a tiger, not a vicious, two-syllable slur against black people.

But most of the time, an extra moment reading—really reading, and thinking about—your headline, will reveal these double-meanings or errors.

“Marijuana issue sent to a joint committee”

“Federal Agents Raid Gun Shop, Find Weapons”

“Missippi’s literacy program shows improvement”

Your headline is the biggest text, the first thing readers see, your calling card in search engine results and, often, in social media links. Take a few extra seconds. Make sure it’s spelled correctly and grammatical, of course, but also make sure it’s not saying something painfully obvious—”Diana was still alive hours before she died”—or something you hadn’t intended.

You’ll be glad you got that largest text right. After all, size matters.

  • aaron belz

    There’s an even bigger text: the title of the publication. My fave is when the Chattanooga News merged with the Chattanooga Free Press to become the Chattanooga News-Free Press. It really happened. Do people, collectively, not think?

    • Anonymous

      Ah not so fast. I can’t quite tell for sure, but I think headlines on B/R are bigger than the name of the “publication.”

      I think the News-Free Press may have just been truth in advertising.

  • Andre Khatchaturian

    King, these blog posts make my mornings. Keep em going!

    • Anonymous

      Thanks, Andre!

  • Stinecarl

    These tips, quotes etc…are incredible. Keep it up.

  • Kevin Stott

    Good stuff. I look forward to working for Bleacher/Report and am currently working on at least three additional pieces this week besides the one I just submitted (“CHELSEA NEEDS TO SHOW FERNANDO TORRES THE DOOR”). They are: “PEYTON’S PLACE: ROCKY MANNING WAY” (Opinion piece on Peyton Manning ending up with NFL’s Denver Broncos); “THE TOP 15 TEAMS IN WORLD FOOTBALL” (Opinion-List-Slideshow); and “CHELSEA’S IDEAL STARTING XI AGAINST MANCHESTER CITY” (Opinion piece-Slideshow). Love how modern (pictures, slideshow) and List-oriented the B/R website is. And how cool is a site that lets its readers respond in this “back-and-forth” manner as well as one that lists the hottest wives of athletes? As Gordon Ramsey would say, spot on.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for this article. I remember my father telling me of a witty (not really stupid) headline in the ’70′ (or ’60′s?), about a vehicular accident involving a bus of Philippine Rabbit, then one of the leading bus lines in the country: “Philippine Rabbit Turned Turtle.” :-)

  • Terry Martin

    Regardless of whether you think Leno was ever relevant, he still has his show and he still features funny headlines. He’s just not on as late.