Headlines: To inform and serve

Traditionally headline writing has been mainly the domain of the copy desk. But in these days when you are as likely to be reading a story on a cellphone as any other medium,  that headline could have been written by anyone involved in the news  process — the reporter, assigning editor, web producer or copy editor.

And those of us on copy desks that deal with both digital and print platforms also know that “that headline” might be one of two or more written for the story. In most cases, it’s just good practice to have a different headlines for different platforms.

New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan wrote about the changing headline scene April 18 in a column titled,  Hey, Google! Check Out This Column on Headlines.

A headline that works in print when paired with a photograph and placed in the context of a particular section of the paper may be a lot less successful when encountered on Facebook or read on a smartphone. So copy editors are writing different versions of headlines for different platforms, increasing their workload.

I thought the column did a good job of explaining the changes in headline writing brought about by digital delivery and also why some Times headlines change throughout the day.

I was a bit surprised, though — although I probably shouldn’t have been — by the Twitter chatter I saw criticizing the Times headline approach as explained in the column.

Take for instance this Twitter exchange:

Kudos to Patrick LaForge, New York Times editor for news presentation, for telling it like it is.

There’s no reason a headline with good SEO still can’t be a good headline. A headline that is clear and informative (and aren’t those two good reasons to use keywords?), accurate and arouses reader curiosity sounds like a good headline to me.

In fact, the worst click bait headlines fail in at least two of those areas (is it ever clear what you’re really going to be reading when you click on one?). A headline should sell the story, yes. But it should be clear about what it’s selling.

I can recall seeing some New York Times three-word lyrical headlines on Twitter several years ago and being unclear on what the story was about. Is it a bad thing that when I see a headline tweeted now I can figure the topic out?

Some of the critics of taking SEO into consideration when writing headlines really just want a return to the days when the news always came packaged in newsprint. Well, that’s not going to happen.

Skip the nostalgia for the past. I’d rather click on a headline that makes sense.

The copy desk: Empowered to question

Over the course of my career, there have been numerous times where I walked into my managing editor’s office and said “we need to hold this story.”

I remember a specific time when I thought the story was too one-sided. Sometimes it was because there were “facts” in the story that we didn’t back up — and I didn’t think we could back them up.

The strongest memories I have of doing this were when I thought the story made a statement or assumption in the first or second paragraph that wasn’t backed up anywhere else in the piece or that the story just wasn’t fair.

Some of these stories could be fixed before the newspaper’s deadline. But I remember others that couldn’t be — and in fact, a few ended up never being published

I have never felt afraid to speak up about a story or that it was beyond my duties to do that. As a copy editor, I am the last barrier between that story and the public, so my duties are to make sure that the story is acceptable in every way — not just in spelling and grammar.

(I’ve had the good luck to work for some excellent editors who were always willing to listen to the copy desk. So all of those trips to the ME’s office resulted in some sort of action. More reporting work or pulling the story. I was never blown off.)

I was thinking about that when I read the CJR’s report on the Rolling Stone’s UVA campus rape story. Especially when I read this quote: “These decisions not to reach out to these people were made by editors above my pay grade.”

My news editing students at the Missouri School of Journalism asked me what I thought the biggest take-away was from the CJR report. I think they thought I was going to say something about the value of verification (which is vitally important), because digital verification is my project right now.

But I told them this: As copy editors, you should always feel empowered to question a story, and you should never be afraid to bring those concerns to the top editors. It’s your job as both the representative of the reader and as the quality control department.

That’s the crux of the top spot on my fact-checking check list: 1. If you read something and a question pops into your mind, run with it. Don’t ignore it.

Of course, the final decision for something might be “beyond your pay grade.” But for copy editors and fact checkers, it should never be beyond your pay grade to bring up your concerns, strongly make your case, and ask for action. Don’t just present your question and return to your desk. Get an answer.

Maybe the answer will be “here’s why we think it’s OK the way it is.” Then you can make a decision on how sound that reasoning is and what you want to do or where you want to go next.

But don’t be timid. Copy editors can never be timid.


Talking about digital verification

On April 10, I presented a session on digital verification at the Midwest Journalism Conference in Minneapolis.

My Digital Verification slideshow from the Midwest Journalism Conference, with some extra notes on some slides. Feel free to download and share the training with your colleagues or students.

I promised to post the slides from my session. Always live up to your promises.

Social media isn’t in its infancy anymore, but often journalists don’t think the same way about it as they would about what they hear in an interview or at an event. There’s a lot of information floating around out there on social media, and — horrors! — a lot of it just isn’t true.

When you use information from social media in a story, you need to treat that information like you would any news tip that comes to your newsroom. Would you automatically publish something that was called in to the newsroom? The answer probably is “it depends on what the tip is and who called it in (and if you’re sure that the person on the phone is who they say they are).”

Treat information from social media the same way. If you are aggregating tweets about a snow storm in your city while the storm is happening, and the tweets are coming from your city, you probably don’t need to do a lot of verification. Make sure the photos are original and not from the blizzard ins 2011.

But, again, it depends on the content of the tweet. A tweet that says cars are sliding on Main Street is a lot different from one that says a house collapsed under the weight of snow and two people are trapped inside.

If the topic is something that needs reporting, the fact that someone tweeted about it doesn’t mean you can skip the reporting.