Half the problems of an ombudsman would go out the window if The Post would return to the old-time journalism and stop using headlines. It is those blankety-blank headlines that are the big troublemakers. They might not admit it, but there isn't a single reporter on this newspaper who would privately disagree with me. They are the ones who take the brunt of a misleading headline, and no amount of explaining will convince a reader that the reporter doesn't even see the headline on his story until the paper is on the street.
Headlines, aside from making a page more pleasing to the eye, play a vital role in communicating with the reader, a far more important one than they once did, when a headline's principal function was to sell the newspaper rather than the story. Those were the days of sidewalk newsstands, when a buyer had the luxury of choice and would often select his reading for the day by the headlines that promised the most excitement.
Not so anymore. Kiosks and rugged news dealers have been replaced by ugly little sidewalk coin machines, the kid on a two-wheeler by a $20,000 van. Headlines compete only with other headlines in the same paper.
With all the technological innovation and the major intrusion of electronic news, the magic headline still remains the exclusive province of the print media. TV news has tried to capture it with "billboards" offering teaser one-liners hawking the next news item. It just doesn't work.
The printed headline still retains all its old magic and potential for trouble because it is the headline that makes the impact. Yet, sadly, it is a dying art, in large part, because people don't care anymore. With the lead pencil and the typewriter now candidates for the Smithsonian, and with writers and editors staring into computer terminals, there is little time or incentive to give the headline its due process. The other day, I rather liked a headline in the Business section -- not a great headline but a good one. I inquired who wrote it. "It was a combination effort," I was told.
Great headlines were never "combination efforts." They came from one person's gut. Take the banner head of The New York Daily News, a pioneer in creative headlines, over a story about President Ford's negative response to New York City's appeal for federal help to save it from bankruptcy. The headline: "Ford to City: Drop Dead." Perhaps the most famous headline in The Post was pure accident, a typographical error. President Franklin Roosevelt one day canceled a press conference because he was down with a cold. The front-page headline misspelled one word, which gave it a place in the headline hall of fame: "FDR in Bed With Coed." In the past year, there was one memorable headline in The Post over a story that reporter George Wilson wrote from Holland after spending some time at sea with the Dutch navy. He found that Dutch warships have open bars for officers and enlisted men that serve alcoholic drinks during off-duty hours. He observed it was doing wonders for morale. The front-page headline: "In Dutch Navy, Loosening Up Makes a Tight Ship." Now, that's headline writing. Too often, headline writers depend on puns to catch the reader's eye; sometimes it works, more often it doesn't.
A classic appeared only last Thursday in The Post. But a classic of a different kind. It was a masterpiece that, as one Post editor cynically observed, could have been used quite accurately over any one of the page-one stories that day -- or any day these days. The headline: "Corruption Inquiry Broadens." Earlier in the week there was a "trouble" headline: "U.S. Backs Middle East Conference." It wasn't quite what reporter John Goshko wrote. Secretary of State Shultz, wrote Mr. Goshko, said that neither he nor the president was committed to any such conference, but it was certainly worth exploring the idea.
No discourse on news headlines would be complete without recall of the most famous of all headlines, one so old that some in The Post newsroom had never heard of it. It appeared in Variety, the New York newspaper for show biz. The headline was splashed across the front page over a prosaic box-office story reporting that rural audiences were shunning Hollywood films about country folk. The headline: "Sticks Nix Hick Pix."