Aiming to catch your eye |

Aiming to catch your eye

Matt Zalaznick

Headlines are the most visible and most read words in a newspaper. Reporters and editors are repeatedly demoralized by study after study that tell us how many readers only scan headlines and photos, and skip the stories below. Because I am in charge of local news coverage, I write most of the headlines that appear on the front page and in our local section, generally the first nine to 10 pages of the paper. Different editors have different philosophies about what makes a good headline – consider the range represented by the dour, measured phrases of The New York Times and the blaring banners of the New York Post.I’ll explain what goes into the Vail Daily’s headlines. Despite those studies of reader behavior, a headline doesn’t necessarily have to tell the whole story. There’s seldom space for that anyway,and a headline’s purpose isn’t to inform readers in the same way a story does. We want you to have an idea of what the story is about. But remember that we spend our days reporting, writing and editing these stories – we want you to read them, not get away with a glance at the headline before bouncing off to the water coolor to chat about current events. To me, a headline is bait. Its most important function (along with being accurate, of course) is to catch readers’ eyes and lure them into the story. That’s why our headlines sometimes only give hints in broad, simple and active words that can capture the widest number of readers. If the story’s about real estate, I’ll try to get the words “home prices” into the headline because that’s a phrase with universal appeal. Also, a headline may weed out some nuance to get to the heart of the story. The secondary, smaller headline can paint some of that nuance back in. If there’s conflict in the story, I will try to convey that in the headline. By conflict, I don’t necessarily mean a bar fight, political spat or a war. I mean stories in which something’s at stake: like whether people can smoke in bars or whether a ranch will be preserved with millions of tax dollars. If there’s true tragedy in the story, that will go into a headline, too. Because conflict and crisis get people’s attention – those studies also tell us readers don’t pay as much attention to stories with headlines like, “Nothing happened Tuesday” or “Everything’s fine and dandy in national forest.” We’ve been criticized for some headlines recently. The front page headline on July 12, for example, said “Housing costs a strain.” A reader called up and gave us the old, “Well, duh!” But headlines also don’t have to be revelations or concise nuggets of surpassing wisdom. I completely agree that headline was obvious, but painfully so for many of us trying to make a living in the valley. Housing prices are something people talk about a lot. When it’s such a big issue, the simple mention of it can’t attract many readers’ attention. We also were criticized for headlines people perceived as “negative” and worried they would reflect badly on the community. Readers, many of them business owners, complained that we wrote about arrests and other disturbances at the recent Snoop Dog concert. These readers were upset the bad news appeared during a high-profile weekend. The answer to this complaint is simple: the Vail Daily is not a marketing brochure. While we will support local businesses editorially when we get the chance, this is ultimately a newspaper, which is to say our obligation is to cover the news, good and bad. The trouble at that concert was news – big news – and for us that’s a no brainer. Occasionally, readers complain about bias in headlines. A recent one, “Gays lack job protection,” drew such criticism. The headline was true – as far as ethnic and social groups go, gays and lesbians have no protection from being fired over their lifestyle. Perhaps the reader doesn’t think that’s a problem. That’s fine. The headline didn’t say it was a problem. But the headline served its purpose. It was accurate. And it caught the reader’s eye. City Editor Matt Zalaznick can be reached at or 949-0555, ext. 606. Vail, Colorado

Support Local Journalism