In the late 1920s, the British writer Claud Cockburn won a contest among editors at the Times of London to see who could place the most boring headline in the paper. Cockburn's entry, which has become a legend in British journalism, was: "Small Earthquake in Chile/Not Many Dead." This is pathetic, another example of Britain's decline as a civilization.
The readers of the magazine I work for, The New Republic, were asked recently if they could find a newspaper headline more boring than one over Flora Lewis's column in The New York Times April 10: "Worthwhile Canadian Initiative." I'm not sure they succeeded. But they did demonstrate that, without even trying, our American headline writers can produce a profusion of examples far more boring than Cockburn's ostensible classic.
References to Canada are not essential to a boring headline. Merely helpful. Almost as boring as "Worthwhile Canadian Initiative" was the headline on a column by Times economic correspondent Leonard Silk April 23: "U.S. Leadership Needed." The editors at the Times op-ed page, in fact, are geniuses at coming up with headlines that refer to virtually nothing. I was impressed by "Trade, a Two-Way Street" (April 26, essay by Gov. Richard Celeste of Ohio) and positively bowled over by "Beyond the News, Larger Issues" (subhead on a James Reston column, May 4). "Thoughts at Graduation Time" (subhead for some Robert Coles ruminations, May 11) wasn't bad, either.
My favorite genre of boring headline is the one gravely informing you that a development you weren't aware of and don't care about has reversed itself, ideally in some distant part of the globe. "Nepal Premier Won't Resign" is a golden-oldy example, but there was a masterpiece in The Times as recently as April 26: "Chill Falls on Warming Relations Between Australia and Indonesia." Closer to home but almost as choice was "University of Rochester Decides to Keep Name" (Times, April 18). A close cousin of the reversed-insignificant-development headline is the nothing-happened-at-all headline. An outstanding recent example was "Dramatic Changes Fail to Materialize on Hill" (Washington Post, April 23). Then there's the nothing-is-going-to-happen headline. I found "Surprises Unlikely in Indiana" (Chicago Tribune, April 29) almost poignant.
Of course, the largest category of boring headline falls under the general rubric of dog-bites-man. In the subcategory of stating-the-obvious, it would be difficult to top "Soviet Economy in Need of Changes," which recently appeared in one of the San Francisco papers. But "Prevent Burglary by Locking House, Detectives Urge" (Boston Globe, April 21) is pretty good, and I like the wacky specificity of "Methodists Oppose Use of Nuclear Arms" (Times, April 30). Perhaps an honorable mention in this category should go to "Sorry, the Deficit Is a Big Problem" (over a recent Post column by -- whoops -- me).
April and May brought a magnificent spring flowering of hardy perennials. These are headlines that reappear regularly. Generally it is the news itself, rather than the headliner's art, that deserves the credit. The events these headlines chronicle can be subdivided wearily into things that always happen ("B-1B Bomber Cost Expected to Rise," Times, May 4) and things that never happen ("Newark Hopes for Rebound," Times [front page!], May 5).
Other recent hardy-perennial blossoms: "Teamster Chief May Face Renewed Federal Charges" (Post, April 24); "Bush Seeks New Hampshire Support" (Times, April 18); and "E. Germans Open Party Congress" (Post, April 18). The Democratic Party is a fertile source of hardy perennials. I liked "Democrats Plot Course/Party Told to End Its 'Vietnam Syndrome' " (Post, May 4), though a friend was generous enough to share with me a vintage example from his personal cellar: "Democrats Propose Shift in Rules for Presidential Nomination" (Times, Oct. 19, 1985; see also 1981, 1977, 1973, 1969. . . . )
A reader in Milwaukee rather viciously sent in "Economist Dies," from the Wisconsin State Journal, April 20. Every day, it seems, the economics profession develops new evidence to support Lord Keynes's famous proposition that, "In the long run, we are all dead."
For its brilliant counterpoint of overexcited adjective with mundane and obscure subject matter, I was tempted to award first prize in this competition (one copy of "A Time to Heal" by Gerald Ford) to the lead headline on the "Washington Talk" page of the Times, May 13: "Turbulent Days for Donald D. Engen." That middle initial is an especially bravura touch, I think. It fills the reader with an urgent desire not to know who Donald Engen is and with disbelief that his days could be all that turbulent. But in the end, the judges chose a months-old subhead from the Times science section: "Debate Goes on Over the Nature of Reality." Somehow, I don't think that one will ever be topped.