Monday, May 01, 2006

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. ...

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.
Back to the Express-News decision: Is it a good one?

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"

Related reading:
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]


At 2:08 AM, May 02, 2006, Blogger MarkDM said...

A like a good pun headline now and again, as opposed to all the dang time. But the heds that invariably make me cringe are the ones that play off somebody's name ("Aaron on the side of caution," for example, although I just now made up that one). You usually find these rancid things in sports, but not always, as San Antonio's Bell example shows. They're almost always cumbersome and unfunny, and they hardly ever tell you anything about the story. Blecch.

At 8:13 AM, May 02, 2006, Blogger tom said...

Since I switched over to the editorial page last summer, I've made it a point to write only direct, obvious headlines that reflect the argument of the editorial. I've used maybe two puns in 10 months. The page hasn't suffered, near as I can tell.

The ban on puns strikes me as an inept management attempt to correct previously inept management (why'd they let it go so out of hand that a ban was the only thing that could correct it?) ... but my knowledge of the San Antonio newsroom is zilch so I'll withhold judgment.

At 10:24 AM, May 02, 2006, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

I like the Bell hed and don't think the mumps one is too bad. The rest are easily spiked. The problem with such edicts is the second law of journalism thermodynamics -- for every edict the reaction will be excessive in the other direction and so some good hed possibilities will be rejected out of overcaution.

At 11:39 AM, May 02, 2006, Anonymous Rknil said...

I think banning pun headlines altogether is serious overkill. I try to keep a rein on them (except on my site), but I've even had editors who have said to me: "Why didn't you put some sort of twist on that one?" as if it's some sort of knuckleball that can just be thrown at will.

The real problem is cliche headlines. Too many papers used "Party like it's 1959!!" when the White Sox won the pennant last year. Then they followed it up with "Party like it's 1917!!" when they won the Series. We've also been treated to "40-year-old surgeon" recently. These may be slightly clever, but they do little to say what the story is really about.

At 12:03 PM, May 02, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can't believe I'm about to agree to an edict from an editor, but ----

Puns have long been overused and abused at the Express-News, despite numerous requests from editors to be a bit more choosy in wordplay.

Some have been downright inappropriate. Light-hearted, teasing puns DO NOT go with dismal stories about illness, death, destruction, etc...

As a reporter of 13-plus years (and a former copy editor), nothing aggravates me more than a downright stupid hed over a story involving serious subject matter.

Really, I fail to see the outrage factor in such a ban -- not when the desk has been REPEATEDLY ask to put more thought into pun usage.

At 12:06 PM, May 02, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...


"Anonymous" -- BTW -- is me, Cathy Frye, reporter, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and former reporter at the Express-News.

At 12:22 PM, May 02, 2006, Blogger DrBear said...

I definitely agree with plays on names. For a while when I was doing sports in Green Bay, we had a high school (later college) basketball player and a Packers football player both named Tony Bennett. When I became sports editor, I immediately instituted a ban on the words "left my heart in" in any story relating to those two. (Although we were there when the two sports Tonys met the singer Tony at the local airport.)

At 12:53 PM, May 02, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are countless ways to write a sparkling and creative headline, but copy editors tend to see the pun as the only way. Yes, the ban is overkill, but if it forces copy editors to explore all those other avenues, then it might actually be a good thing.

At 1:53 PM, May 02, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not to be too sympathetic to bad puns, but I'd like to read those stories the headlines are over and see how many of them are tired, old cliches themselves.

A lot of times, an editor REALLY doesn't like a story, but he takes it out on the headline.

I also think the editor could have issued the ban without making it sound like he thinks his desk is a bunch crap that is dragging down his otherwise brilliant newspaper. If he really does think that, he ought to fire them and hire better people.

At 2:02 PM, May 02, 2006, Anonymous Rick Casey said...

I love an excellent pun, hate a weak or hackneyed one. A possible solution: With the editor as the sole judge, the writer of every less-than-excellent pun that makes it into the paper puts $50 into a kitty. On the rare occasion the editor likes a pun in a headline, the writer gets the kitty.

At 2:51 PM, May 02, 2006, Anonymous a cassel said...

A zillion years ago, when I was trying out for a job on Newsday's copy desk, Joel Kramer, who ran that place like a drill sargeant put it bluntly:

Puns, he said, must "work in all directions." Otherwise they're out -- along with the idiots who create them.

At 12:43 PM, May 03, 2006, Anonymous Ken C said...

One of my pet peeves are hedlines that ask questions. Often, I'd see two of them on the same page. Readers want answers, not questions (clarity, not confusion), and the implication of the hedline question is the story does not provide a clear answer.

At 1:33 PM, May 03, 2006, Anonymous rknil said...

Question headlines are way overused. To me, they often indicate the copy editor doesn't really know what the article or column is about, so the CE straddles the fence.

At 4:13 PM, May 03, 2006, Blogger Bill said...

Just as many people consider every usage-related issue "grammar," many consider any sort of headline that would sound out of place being read by Sgt. Joe Friday a "pun." I hope the enforcer has his definitions right.

At 5:28 PM, May 03, 2006, Blogger Bill said...

I don't have an automatic prejudice against question-mark headlines, providing they are actual questions. The kind of question-mark headline that should be taboo, however, is the kind the Tucson Citizen liked to run during my college years, in which the question mark takes the place of attribution ("Man guilty of murder?").

At 9:16 PM, May 03, 2006, Blogger Nicole said...

Comment from a colleague:

SA rim's eyes roll;
heads may, too

At 12:14 AM, May 04, 2006, Blogger Nicole said...

Regarding question heds: In a story where the merits of a topic are being debated, question heds are often the best way to go. "No question heds!" is so drilled into us, I think, that we automatically discount them. They often beat "Merits of city plan debated."

Regarding puns on someone's name: Pretty much always a no-no.

At 10:00 AM, May 04, 2006, Anonymous Hershele Ostropoler said...

Vaguely relevant: I did a post about homosexuality on my blog with the title "No Brokeback Jokes Here." According to the visitor stats, there are a number of readers who find the post while searching on the string "brokeback jokes."

At 12:40 PM, May 04, 2006, Blogger Karl Weber said...

Best punning headline ever: Years ago the New York Daily News reported about the last-minute passage on a Monday morning of a bill to provide desperately-needed funding for the ailing subway system under the headline


At 1:00 PM, May 04, 2006, Blogger Nicole said...

For those of you not into Latin or Catholicism, I'll explain. "Sic transit gloria mundi" means "Thus passes the glory of the world."

"Sick transit's glorious Monday" is said to have run after the NYC transit system avoided a strike. On a Monday.

At 10:51 AM, May 05, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The pun no pun debate illustrates a common practice in the newspaper business -- a lack of research about readers. I can't tell you how many times decisions were made at newspapers (15 years before I got my comeuppance)based on SWAG, personal bias and or lack of relevant experience with the subject matter at hand.
To arbitrarily ban puns at the E-N is a typical Rivard tactic. He edits the paper based on his biases, ignorance and cocky "I know the reader" attitude. Of course, the is the editor.
Who the hell believes readers don't look at headlines, or use them for the intended purpose -- to draw the reader into the story?
That's the first thing I see (look for) when reading the paper. And I typically read the entire damn thing, despite having fewer reasons to do so.

At 1:44 PM, May 05, 2006, Anonymous rknil said...

I think a lot of editors let their biases govern what gets into the paper. As newspapers become more image-based and less fact-based, that creates a troubling trend. Today's newspapers, in addition to being poorly edited and filled with factual errors, have way too much fluff. They have far less to hold the interest of the serious reader. Under the guise of being "less boring," newspapers have become far less relevant.

At 3:58 PM, August 02, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

But it was Edgar Allen Poe who said:

"Of puns it has been said that those who most dislike them are those who are least able to utter them."

At 6:14 PM, August 22, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just came here while looking for Pun Headlines on Google.

Thanks for the SA paper link.

And you're very hot.

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