Below the Beltway

Gene Weingarten column mentions Lady Gaga.

Below the Beltway
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By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, July 18, 2010

Not very long ago, the typical American newsroom had three types of jobs: reporter, editor and photographer. But lately, as newspapers have been frantically converting themselves into high-tech, 24-hour online operations, things are more complicated. Every few days at The Washington Post, staffers get a notice like this: "Please welcome Dylan Feldman-Suarez, who will be joining the fact-integration team as a multiplatform idea triage specialist, reporting to the deputy director of word-flow management and video branding strategy. Dylan comes to us from the social media utilization division of Sikorsky Helicopters."

Call me a grumpy old codger, but I liked the old way better. For one thing, I used to have at least a rudimentary idea of how a newspaper got produced: On deadline, drunks with cigars wrote stories that were edited by constipated but knowledgeable people, then printed on paper by enormous machines operated by people with stupid hats and dirty faces.

Everything is different today, and it's much more confusing. For one thing, there are no real deadlines anymore, because stories are constantly being updated for the Web. All stories are due now, and most of the constipated people are gone, replaced by multiplatform idea triage specialists. In this hectic environment, mistakes are more likely to be made, meaning that a story might identify Uzbekistan as "a subspecies of goat."

Fortunately, this new system enjoys the services of tens of thousands of fact-checking "citizen journalists" who write "comments." They will read the Uzbekistan story and instantly alert everyone that BARACK OBAMA IS A LIEING PIECE OF CRAP.

I basically like "comments," though they can seem a little jarring: spit-flecked rants that are appended to a product that at least tries for a measure of objectivity and dignity. It's as though when you order a sirloin steak, it comes with a side of maggots.

My biggest beef with the New Newsroom, though, is what has happened to headlines. In old newsrooms, headline writing was considered an art. This might seem like a stretch to you, but not to copy editors, who graduated from college with a degree in English literature, did their master's thesis on intimations of mortality in the early works of Molière, and then spent the next 20 years making sure to change commas to semicolons in the absence of a conjunction.

The only really creative opportunity copy editors had was writing headlines, and they took it seriously. This gave the American press some brilliant and memorable moments, including this one, when the Senate failed to convict President Clinton: CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR; and this one, when a meteor missed Earth: KISS YOUR ASTEROID GOODBYE. There were also memorably wonderful flops, like the famous one on a food story about home canning: YOU CAN PUT PICKLES UP YOURSELF.

Newspapers still have headlines, of course, but they don't seem to strive for greatness or to risk flopping anymore, because editors know that when the stories arrive on the Web, even the best headlines will be changed to something dull but utilitarian. That's because, on the Web, headlines aren't designed to catch readers' eyes. They are designed for "search engine optimization," meaning that readers who are looking for information about something will find the story, giving the newspaper a coveted "eyeball." Putting well-known names in headlines is considered shrewd, even if creativity suffers.

Early this year, the print edition of The Post had this great headline on a story about Conan O'Brien's decision to quit rather than accept a later time slot: "Better never than late." Online, it was changed to "Conan O'Brien won't give up 'Tonight Show' time slot to make room for Jay Leno."

I spent an hour coming up with the perfect, clever, punny headline for this column. If you read this on paper, you'd see it: "A digital salute to online journalism." I guarantee you that when it runs online, editors will have changed it to something dull, to maximize the possibility that someone, searching for something she cares about, will click on it.

I bet it'll read "Gene Weingarten Column Mentions Lady Gaga."

Lady Gaga.

Got a better headline for this column? Share it in the comments area.

E-mail Gene at weingarten@washpost.com.


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