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I wrote this headline

It's probably impolitic to say this, but Michael Kinsley's broadside against the stylistic conventions of newspapers makes some good points. Call it the Jason DeParle problem: Would you rather read 10,000 words from Jason DeParle's books, magazine pieces, or newspaper articles? I've been a DeParle fan for years, and I think "American Dream" is one of the greatest works of policy reporting ever put to paper. But I can't recall a single news article I've read from him offhand.

The role of the newspaper has changed a lot in the past 50 years. The writing hasn't. That puts it at a disadvantage against mediums that have constructed themselves in more recent eras. But Kinsley's article brings up another rule I'd like to see changed. His headline is "Cut This Story," which doesn't really describe his critique. Kinsley is arguing that the stories are inefficiently written. Lopping off 600 words at random wouldn't help readers.

Kinsley might have chosen that headline himself. Most writers -- and this goes for magazines as much as newspapers, too -- don't. Then, when they get criticized for a misleading or sensationalized headline that governs how the story is understood, they protest that it's not their fault. That's nonsense. It's not just that more people read the headline than the story, but the headline is the lens through which readers interpret the story. All writers should have to sign off on their headlines. Take responsibility for your work.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 5, 2010; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Journalism  
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Comments

I was under the impression that the reason the headlines are written much later is that the reporter doesn't know how the story is going to be laid out in the paper -- the copy people lay out the physical paper a few hours after the reporter files the story, and then one of the copy people writes a headline that fits in the space above the article, which is something the reporter couldn't do since the reporter has no way of knowing ahead of time how much headline space will be available. Are the reporters even still around the office when the headlines are finally written?

Posted by: mellifluent | January 5, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

It's neither practical nor advisable to require reporters to "sign off on their headlines."

Assuming you work in the Post's newsroom, go ask the copy desk chief why.

Posted by: carlson1 | January 5, 2010 3:59 PM | Report abuse

Krugman at least writes some of his own headlines. You can tell because it's the same lame humor he uses in his writing.

Posted by: bmull | January 5, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

I'd like journalists to stop writing about trends in the form of

"It grew to 50 in 2010 from 40 in 2009."

Where does that convention come from? Nobody speaks that way. Everybody speaks in the opposite, pro-chronology, way ("It grew from 40 in 2009 to 50 in 2010"). It's not any more concise. And it doesn't avoid confusion; for me, it often causes confusion. So what gives?

Posted by: JonathanTE | January 5, 2010 9:06 PM | Report abuse

Mellifluent is correct. It's been a while, but when I was a newspaper editor, the reporters were long gone by the time we wrote the headlines.

Posted by: dpurp | January 5, 2010 10:24 PM | Report abuse

Mellifluent is correct. It's been a while, but when I was a newspaper editor, the reporters were long gone by the time we wrote the headlines.

Posted by: dpurp | January 5, 2010 10:29 PM | Report abuse

Mellifluent is correct. It's been a while, but when I was a newspaper editor, the reporters were long gone by the time we wrote the headlines.

Posted by: dpurp | January 5, 2010 10:34 PM | Report abuse

"All writers should have to sign off on their headlines. Take responsibility for your work."

Easier said than done. What happens if you refuse to sign off on an editor's choice of headline? Do you resign? I always offer my preferred headline, but eight nine times out of ten it gets changed, sometimes for layout reasons and sometimes for editorial ones.

Anyway, there's a lot to agree with in Kinsley's piece, at least from the perspective of a European journo. Most American newspaper conventions seem bizarre and/or dull from over here. At the same time, I can see why the NYT specifically would be reluctant to go to a more European style of punchy, concise news writing. But there's no reason why many other American papers couldn't or shouldn't.

Posted by: GingerYellow | January 6, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

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