Friday, May 05, 2006

Ban on headline puns

I went to Bob Rivard, editor of the Express-News, to clear up some questions after he put a moratorium on puns in headlines.

The big points:
  • His memo came "only after many months of unsuccessful efforts to temper the work of some of our headline writers and after months of listening to and responding to a steady drumbeat of complaints from readers."
  • It applies to all copy editors on all desks.
  • He does plan to lift the moratorium, but first "we need to give readers some space and relief while we recalibrate our system of checks and balances on the various desks."

Here's his full response:
Thanks for the opportunity to comment on our recent decision to declare a moratorium on puns in headlines in the San Antonio Express-News. It's been interesting to read the postings on your blog and others around the country. Some misassumptions, notably that the Express-News has issued a permanent ban on puns, suggest some clarification is in order.

The memo that Bob Richter, our public editor, excerpted in his recent Sunday column, does read a bit harshly for those unfamiliar with what came before it. It was meant as a wake-up call and it is working. We aren't head hunting or focusing on disciplinary measures because we believe editors will abide by our directive, which applies to headline writers on all desks.

I wrote the moratorium memo only after many months of unsuccessful efforts to temper the work of some of our headline writers and after months of listening to and responding to a steady drumbeat of complaints from readers. In brief, efforts by senior editors to improve headline writing were not yielding the expected results and in some quarters were met with resistance. Perhaps some copy editors do feel demoralized in the wake of the memo and the attendant publicity. The general morale at the Express-News is very good; it's something we work hard to maintain. I can tell you about droves of readers demoralized again and again by the use of puns in headlines on serious stories; poorly-executed puns in general, and worst of all, section fronts that barrage the reader with multiple puns, as if no single editor were reviewing the sum of our parts.

I could speak with pride about our strengths here at the Express-News, and that would include some memorable, award-winning headlines, but the art and craft of headline writing remains an area where we have much work to do. I have issued few mandates in my nine years as editor, and pride myself on the open, collaborative culture here. It's worth noting that we did not place a moratorium on the use of creative language in headlines. It's the often groan-eliciting word play that we are attacking. In time, I am sure, we will lift our moratorium, but first we need to give readers some space and relief while we recalibrate our system of checks and balances on the various desks.

Thanks again,
Bob Rivard
Richter, the public editor, told me Wednesday that the reaction from readers has been split 50-50. In his ombud blog, he included some of the responses (including one from my favorite Australian, Paul Wiggins). Here are a few:
My wife and I have been turned off for a long time by the amateurish "heds" running in the E-N. I cannot imagine that management let this go on as long as it did. — Jack Mynier

_______________________

The piece on wordplay in headlines was interesting but I thought it was inappropriate that so much detail from an internal memorandum was aired. — Paul Wiggins, a copy editor and page designer, Homebush, Australia

_______________________

Mr. Richter, you were right about one thing — copy editors are underappreciated and unnoticed (and usually underpaid, but most newspaper employees are). They work late at night trying to fix mistakes, fill in holes and clarify facts. These anonymous wordsmiths find their fun in an occasional play on words. As long as the pun isn't lowbrow or vulgar, what's the harm in allowing the copy editors a smile or two as they race to put the paper to bed?

If you really want to make a change in the copy editing room, please teach them how to write a caption without using the trite phrase "as John Doe looks on." That should be banned before puns.

Incidentally, there was a grammatical error in your column, Mr. Richter. It should be "Here are two" not "Here's two."
— Chelsea Caivano

_______________________

Ouch! Editor Robert Rivard can put a sting to his e-mail but he is absolutely right. I wouldn't like being the 'victim' of a clever headline, especially if I were laid up in a hospital. You probably wouldn't appreciate it either. A note to Mr. Rivard though: Please don't take the pun headlines away from the sports writers. Please. They are the bomb. Thanks. — Anonymous

_______________________

I love puns. But OK, keep puns out of the paper except for Sports. They are some of the best! — Anonymous
People love their sports puns. And I find them to be some of the most appalling I've ever seen. What does that say?

Related reading:
A headline flap [ACES message board]
Death penalty [Testy Copy Editors]
San Antonio bans puns in headlines [Visual Editors]

8 Comments:

At 8:19 PM, May 05, 2006, Blogger Bill said...

Reportage! Wow. Coming soon: Nicole Premium, only $29.95 a year.

 
At 11:12 PM, May 05, 2006, Blogger Fiddler said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 11:13 PM, May 05, 2006, Blogger Fiddler said...

Nice work, Nicole.


mike jarboe

 
At 2:09 AM, May 06, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

>I find them to be some of the most appalling I've ever seen. What does that say?

Exactly! This is a question I have been asking, too -- why is it that some people love puns and others find them offensive? How can this be? (Also whether any other form of wordplay is so polarizing.)

-- Mike

PS Your write-up certainly is hitting the blogs -- I see that LL used your piece as a source, cool.

 
At 2:12 PM, May 08, 2006, Blogger Nick said...

Bill's onto something with that Nicole Premium idea. Domain name NicolePremium.com is available!

 
At 2:40 PM, May 08, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess since it's something he just dashed off, we can forgive the inappropriate hyphenation of "poorly executed."

 
At 3:26 PM, May 08, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's wrong with sports headline puns?

You shouldn't ban winners like this gem: Oui, Wie, Monsieur.

 
At 5:55 PM, May 08, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder how the copy editors at the paper feel about this? I'd bet they're too bamboozled to say.

The editor SAYS morale's great and so is communication. So why was even driven to the extreme of banning puns then?

 

Post a Comment

<< Home