They need to attract attention so people will read the story the headline is for, and yet they’re so hard to write. I would know — I spent a lot of time on them this week.
We published a story Tuesday afternoon about an MU student whose hometown was affected by the Colorado floods. We put a fairly bland but SEO-friendly headline on it for the story (“Colorado flooding hits home for MU student”), but I was asked to work on a more attention-grabbing headline for the website’s home page — it was to be the centerpiece that evening.
Monica and I spent maybe 15 or 20 minutes coming up with an alternate headline that wasn’t too wordy. We wanted to make the identity of the student more personal without including her name, so we added her year in school. We wanted to focus more on how she felt about being away from her flooded hometown instead of just the fact she was from one, so we added in a partial quote about the separation being “a stress factor.” Final headline before I sent it on? “For MU junior, separation from flooded Colo. hometown ‘a stress factor.’ ”
Before I went to the print desk Thursday night, where I wrote lots of headlines (and definitely struggled with some), I read one story. Yes, one. It was a 75-inch piece about chronic wasting disease in Missouri deer — and how some relaxation of inspections, etc. by the state could have helped contribute to the disease’s spread.
The story definitely took a while to get through (and completely understand, as I am no expert on deer), but one of the most difficult parts was finding where to split the story up into sections and then writing short subheads for those sections. I thought I did an OK job, after staring for 10 minutes at a section and trying to figure out what I might say to sum up the topic for a friend, until I realized I had made an error in a subhead when I looked over it again in production. Thankfully, the story hadn’t been published online yet, either, and I had time to correct it before anyone outside the newsroom saw it.
As for print headlines? My goals are to work on being neither redundant nor ridiculously cheesy in short headlines (I am aware I tend to do one or both) and to brush up on sports terminology so I can write better headlines for the sports section.