A chat with WaPo's Don Podesta
I stumbled upon an online chat with Don Podesta, AME for copy desks at the Washington Post, about 15 minutes before it was over today. Damn.
Luckily, reading the transcript after the discussion has ended is just as easy as (maybe easier than) reading it live. There's a lot of good stuff there. A few examples:
Alexandria, Va.: How do online headlines differ from print headlines at The Post? And how important is the lead for online writing, compared to print?Is yet another refer to the "This boring headline is written for Google" story warranted here? I think so.
Don Podesta: Excellent question. We find that clever headlines and anecdotal ledes or suspended interest ledes on the print side are a disservice to our Web site. The reason for that is that so many readers of our Web site now come to it "sideways," from search engines or links on blogs. So a headline built around a play on words might not turn up in a search on that subject, no matter how relevant to the search the story is. That means headlines on the Web site need to be much more straightforward and written in the traditional subject-verb-object syntax.
Washington, D.C.: Hi, I'm an editor too, and I have high respect for the copy editors at The Post (and their headlines, too). I'm curious about the term "undocumented immigrants" -- what does it mean? It sounds like an immigrant who lost a piece of paper or something. Why don't you use "illegal immigrants"? I suppose it's because some people find it pejorative, but it is more clear than "undocumented." (BTW, I'm a Spanish-speaking supporter of increased immigrant rights ... and also a supporter of clear language!)Surprisingly, there was quite a bit about headline puns, probably because of the San Antonio Express-News ban (which he addressed outright):
Don Podesta: This has been a hot-button issue. To many "undocumented immigrant" or "undocumented worker" sounds like a euphemism. Here's what our manual of style says about that:
"When used to describe immigrants, this is a euphemism that obscures an important fact -- that they are in this country illegally. In general, use illegal immigrant (but not illegal alien. The word alien is repugnant to some people). Terms such as undocumented worker may be used for the sake of variety. Despite what Webster's says, do not use illegal as a noun, as in Jimenez is an illegal."
That said, my own personal belief is that over time "undocumented" is more accurate. We've had amnesties in the past, and there are bills in Congress now addressing the status of immigrants. Someone here illegally one day can be here legally the next. But not having papers means not having papers.
Fairfax , Va.: Hi and thanks for chatting,
What is the best headline you have read this week?
Don Podesta: "Pistil-Packing Thieves Just Uproot and Leave" on a story about about plant thefts. ...
Hays, Kan.: Hi, Mr. Podesta:
Local headline about a high school athlete with the last name of Munsch who broke a record: "New record to Munsch on."
Ugghh. When does the cheese-factor on headline writing go too far?
Your "Pistil-Packing Thieves..." example seemed to have a nice balance of cleverness, cheesiness and news value to capture readers' attention.
But is there some official standard headline writers are held to or is the standard more of a gut check?
Don Podesta: That just doesn't cut it. For a pun to be appropriate in a headline, it has to be consonant with the tone of the story, and the pun has to work on all levels. The athlete isn't chewing on his new records, so that one goes nowhere. ...
Richmond, Va.: What do you think about the San Antonio Express-News' decision to ban puns in its headlines? For me, writing good puns was one of the best parts of being a copy editor.
Don Podesta: It's not good to ban language from the paper. Avoiding cliches, loaded language, off-color words is the right thing to do, but you should never say never because there will come a time when an exception is needed.