Express-News bans puns in headlines
The editor of the San Antonio Express-News banned all puns in headlines after seeing nine of them in April 20's paper.
"I am prepared to take disciplinary action against our most senior headline writers and editors if my order is not respected," editor Robert Rivard wrote in an e-mail, quoted in the public editor's column. "I do not want to be the editor of a newspaper where we limit the creative use of language. ... I want even less to be the editor of a newspaper riddled with puns."
Many will argue that papers can only benefit from such a move. I won't go that far, but there are too many mediocre -- and just plain bad -- puns that make it into papers every day.
The topic came up at the ACES conference, and here's my part of the conversation: Much of the time, puns end up in our headlines because we feel lazy if they don't. We can read a story and throw a headline on top of it. We'll do some work to make it fit and strengthen the verb. And that's good enough. But with 15 minutes left before the story needs to go, maybe we can do something better, something to show that we tried.
Who are we showing? Our colleagues, our bosses, maybe even a headline judge. But readers? Seldom do they care. They're looking for news, and a clever headline doesn't tell the story any better. It may even distract them from the news.
Another reason we do it: We're bored. We wrote a headline on that very topic last week ... and last month and last year. We're ready for a new direction. And a pun-within-paramaters challenge is just enough to shake out the cobwebs. (This is the "Headlines are our only creative outlet" excuse.)
There's a third reason that comes to mind, and it is this one that makes the Express-News decision a disappointment: There are occasional strokes of brilliance where good word play perfectly fits the tone of the story, where it adds nuance that a straight hed wouldn't.
I'll repeat the advice from "Headlines and Deadlines":
Two tests can be propounded for puns, whether in a headline or elsewhere. The first is whether each of the two meanings of the word forming the pun is appropriate. ...Back to the Express-News decision: Is it a good one?
The second test is based on the theory that the basis of humor is incongruity and unexpectedness. This means that the pun should not be obvious; it should not be just lying around waiting to be picked up. ... The best advice that can be given to the headline writer is to avoid the pun unless he is convinced that it is exceptionally good. If there is one thing that most newspapers need, it is more sophistication. The bad pun, like the childish rhyme, is the mortal enemy of this quality.
Banning punny headlines probably does readers more good than harm. (List all the reasons people subscribe. Semi-clever headlines should never make the top 10.)
But I dislike that the editor thought the edict necessary, that he felt as though he couldn't tell copy editors to raise the bar and leave it at that. And this quote from the editor seemed like overkill:
"It's a shame to see the good work of so many disparaged because of the immaturity of a few headline writers who seem more focused on peer approval than on producing a quality newspaper for the community."Here are some of the punny Express-News headlines mentioned:
"Old well ends well: River Walk threat wiped out"
"Mumps outbreak swells"
"Border violence killing tourism"
"Bell's name doesn't have a familiar ring for many voters"
"(Pope) Benedict names a flock of new cardinals"
This boring headline is written for Google [New York Times]
Comments on "This boring headline is written for Google" [Slashdot] (scroll down to "Maybe I should apply to be a journalist, and start reading there)
Debate on when puns work [Testy Copy Editors]
Readers flummoxed by runaway headlines [St. Petersburg Times]
Regrettable puns I've used as headlines at the in-flight magazine for which I work [McSweeney's]