Thursday, March 09, 2006

Punchy? Yes. Accurate? Well ...

Editor & Publisher had its first online chat yesterday, with editor Greg Mitchell. Here's a question mentioned that's of interest to copy editors:
Q. Recently I noticed a significant difference in the quality of headlines between those on the L.A. Times' web site and those in the hard copy of the Times. The headlines in the web edition were much "punchier" and seemed to encapsulate the stories more accurately. Here's one example:

Online edition: "Book: Bush Proposed Provoking War"
Paper edition: "Book Casts Doubt on Case for War"

I wrote to the Times' readers' representative inquiring about the differences, and received a reply that said in part, "...some of the language I see online wouldn't be allowed in the newsroom -- not because it's 'dumbing down' the headline, but because the headline goes a bit further than editors here in the newsroom might think is accurate. For example, the 'provoking' headline probably would be seen as pushing the facts a bit more than editors want. The headline used in the print edition was more neutral so that readers could decide for themselves after reading the article."

As a trained journalist who has written heads and who understands the constraints of deadlines and space, I was taken aback by this response. Why should there be different standards for an online edition and a print edition? I would be interested in your opinion.

GM: I can't judge the day-to-day headlines at the L.A. Times, but their response to your note is certainly interesting. There has long been a sense that online readers are different than print readers, and more open to opinion and "punchiness," but I wonder if that will change as the audiences overlap more and more.
I may be off base here, but I think Mitchell is missing the point.

I don't get the impression that the online heds are punchier because headline writers are catering to a livelier audience online. The smaller online staffs mean you have fewer people specializing in writing accurate headlines. And there are fewer people around to rein in overzealous summations.

Here's more justification for the rim-slot system.


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