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Hey you! Read this story!

December 18, 2010

By STEVE REAGAN

As any first-year journalism student knows, the purpose of a headline is to encourage people to read a story. This can be done through the clever use of puns (a recent Herald article on a trout release at Comanche Trail Lake was “something to trout about,” the headline promised), but most of the time, taking the Joe Friday approach and stating “just the facts, ma'am” does the trick.

You might think the latter approach somewhat boring. Sometimes you would be right. Other times, however …

The reason I bring all this up is that I was browsing the internet the other day when I spotted the following headline:

“Strippermobile” delivers Christmas donations

I don't care how big of a prude you are, that's a headline that practically begs you to read the story.

So I did.

What? You think I'd resist?

Don't worry; the story that followed was strictly G-rated, detailing how a group of exotic dancers (i.e. strippers) from the Little Darlings Gentleman's Club (i.e. strip joint) delivered Christmas gifts to a Las Vegas charity. For the curious, the dancers were fully clothed.

The Associated Press story states:

(The) truck was part of a convoy that delivered $19,000 in donated bikes and toys Friday to HELP of Southern Nevada, a nonprofit group that assists the poor, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported.

Inside the large Plexiglas cubicle were a bearded St. Nick and eight female entertainers who wore long red dresses or Santa-style camisole dresses paired with leggings.

There was no gyrating or pole dancing this time.

You might think the story heart-warming, or you might think it titillating — and in both cases, you'd be right — but that's beside the point I'm trying to make, which is that the headline served its purpose and enticed (OK, maybe that's the wrong word) readers to peruse the story. And it did so with a minimum of verbiage.

Another example also comes from KSNW-TV in Wichita, Kan., which ran a story about an office building that had a really bad day:

Office hit by cars twice in one day

Again, this is a headline that figuratively grabs you by the collar and forces you to read the story, if for no other reason than to make sure the office in question isn't one you frequent.

The story states:

WICHITA, Kan. — Employees at a northeast Wichita chiropractic office are left shaking their heads after the building was hit twice Monday by two different cars.

The first crash happened around 10:30 a.m. at Lakewood Chiropractic in the 2400 block of N. Woodlawn when an elderly woman pressed on her accelerator thinking it was the brake pedal.

Her car went right through the front of the building. Employees say it's a miracle that no one was hurt, because the area is usually full of patients and receptionists.

Then, around 3 o'clock in the afternoon, an elderly man, who also mistook his gas pedal for the brake, crashed into the building. That crash, however, resulted in much less damage, with only a busted window.
No one, including the drivers of the vehicles, was injured in the crashes.

And you thought you were having a bad day.

Again, the point is that the headline writer in question just stuck to the facts of the story, which proved more than enough to grab the reader's attention.

Of course, this bare-bones approach to headline writing can backfire on you. Imagine, for example, if a headline writer for a Jerusalem newspaper 2,000 years ago was struggling to compose a headline on a story about Jesus' Feeding of the Multitude, and settled for something like:

Nazarene carpenter hosts fish dinner

Accurate? Yes. But it doesn't quite cover the magnitude of the event, either.

All this goes to prove that writing a good headline is harder than it looks. There's a fine line between informing your readers and putting them into a coma.

As a final example of the latter, I point to a headline written more than 20 years ago by a guy who was somewhat new to the headline-writing business. This fellow, whose name is identical to mine, struggled for what seemed like hours to come up with a fitting headline for a short story about a local house fire. What this ingrate finally came up with was:

House burns in blaze

Well, duh.

Contact Staff Writer Steve Reagan at 263-7331, ext. 234, or by e-mail at reporter@bigspringherald.com

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