The most important news elements in a newspaper are obviously the stories, photos and graphics. These are where the vital information is contained that makes The Western Producer so valuable.
But probably the most visible element — the one that most readers look at first — is the headline. And writing a successful headline can be tricky business.
Headline writers have a limited number of words to accurately capture the essence of the story. I have always worked under two guiding principals when writing headlines: don’t make it wrong and don’t make it boring. But it’s not always easy walking this line between accuracy and catchiness.
I was reminded of all this a couple weeks ago after a reader called to talk about the two headlines on the front page of the March 19 paper.
One of them was about how the pandemic was complicating the movement of shipping containers. Its headline was, “COVID-19 sinks container shipments.”
The other story was about how problems with exports were expected to be a short-lived. Its headline was, “Bull recovery expected from COVID-19.”
Both headlines seemed straight forward enough, and the shipping container headline was even a bit on the clever side.
However, the reader was worried that both headlines would give the wrong impression. How could the virus sink a ship? A bull recover from COVID? Animals weren’t supposed to catch the virus.
Both headlines made sense once you thought about them, he said, but in the short term they could be misleading.
I hadn’t thought that either of those headlines could give that impression, but it was certainly a good reminder that newspaper editors have to pay close attention to what they’re doing when crafting the words that run over top of the stories.
It reminds me of something that happened to me in the first few years of my time at the Producer. I had written a headline for a story about a farmer who was converting some of his land to an orchard in an attempt to increase revenues.
One of our reporters thought my attempt was so funny that he sent it to the Columbia Journalism Review, a prestigious journalism magazine that included a page every month with headlines that had missed the mark. The magazine eventually published my wayward headline, much to my chagrin.
The headline? “Alberta farmer turns to fruit.”