Friday, May 13, 2011

The dark side of keyword searching

Not so long ago, when intelligent and educated readers still kept newspapers alive, copy editors delighted in writing witty, pun-soaked headlines to go atop lighter stories. The editor who could consistently come up with a zinger of a "hed" 30 seconds before the presses started rolling was highly valued by his bosses and sometimes made $10 a week more than his compatriots on the copy desk.

An example was a headline over a Chicago Daily News review of a book about the irritation-plagued life of the humorist James Thurber: "Great Jokes from Little Achings Grow." That was not mine but written by my boss, Bill Newman, big brother of Edwin Newman, the celebrated NBC pundit. (Pun intended.)

But now the witty headline is a fast disappearing art. As newspapers latch onto the online teat, search engines need to lock on important keywords in headlines so that readers can find the stories. Puns would turn Googling into paroxysms of bada-Bing.

Of necessity that Thurber headline would have to read: "James Thurber Led Troubled Life, Book Says."

It does tell the story -- but oh, so lamely.

True, a talent for witty headlines could sometimes get out of hand. Over a one-paragraph Daily News short about Asian villagers succumbing to an invasion of poisonous tree frogs, an editor wrote: "Croak."

Unhappily, the slot man let it through and the story made it onto the bottom of Page One. Just for one edition, but the damage was done.

Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post opined on the subject yesterday in a funny but acerbic column.

P.S. This post was intended to be online two days ago, but Google trashed its own software while taking Blogger down for what was supposed to be an hour of maintenance and it was dark for 48 hours.


  1. Google Punishes Reluctant Blogger

  2. Another example of a "bright" head in execrable taste: When the news broke the other day that pornography had been found at that Abbottabad residence, the New York Post put it on Page One under the headline "Osama bin Wankin'".

  3. Hi Henry, I am glad I found your blog.
    My dad was in newspapers,(not the most wanted section), he was a compositor ( of the old skool varitey). Loved his foreman printers role right up until "them bloody computers" took over. Fortunatley he was at retirement age by then.
    He also had a great respect for decent " proper journos, the ones that could spell".
    I am a railroad worker in Australia and I love traveling in your country, I think I have found some great reading here!
    Id better get started!!

  4. Since the B'ham News changed owners &/or GMs or some such sometime last year, not only are there rare interesting headlines, except for a few local & syndicated columnist, a lot of it is no longer really interesting. I still like the funnies. I miss James Kilpatrick. And I'm seeing more & more typos than EVER before spell check, & much more "continued on page" & the article is not continued anywhere! I'm with Gene Weingarten about the maggots served with steak. A lot of readers obviously love to drink "whine" when writing to an op/ed page. When my subscription runs out, I may not renew.