Headlines: Awful Or Awesome?

What goes through the minds of headline-writers? Why are some headlines forever remembered and others mercifully forgotten?

News Headlines

The passing away last week of Pandit Ravi Shankar brought out many heart-rending and poignant obituaries, from his compatriots and journalists alike. They remembered him for what he was – a true legend, a maestro, and because he was a maestro he was self-effacing and touched them in ways that were mysterious even to him, such was his greatness. But sad news needs to be broken sombrely so it may nudge the reader towards silent reflection, manifest in him an ability to measure the loss.

This is where I feel the headline-makers goofed up. In close to 40 newspapers -including major Indian newspapers and portals (The Times of India, Mint, Rediff, Yahoo, Bloomberg, HT, Business Standard) – all except The Hindu – the headlines were versions of “…While my guitar gently weeps”, the famous Beatles song penned by George Harrison, a friend of Pandit Ravi Shankar. Predictably, “guitar” was replaced with “sitar”.

Not for a moment do I doubt the sincerity of the writers – all of them loved Panditji immensely and felt the loss as personal. Salil Tripathi’s remembrance of Ravi Shankar (Mint, December 13, 2012), for example, was expressed so affectingly it almost became a raag.

That an obvious cliché was considered fit to draw on by so many newspapers was what bothered me. Did they really think no other newspaper would consider using the same line, given the long association of Panditji with Harrison? Or was this in their assessment a word-play opportunity simply not to be missed? Ravi Shankar-Beatles, sitar-guitar: let’s do it.

And so, having to negotiate countless times – “…While my sitar gently weeps” in order to get to the articles and obituaries, I began to wonder about the importance of a headline and whether there’s a mechanics to it. Are there, for instance, individuals in newspapers set aside specifically to write headlines – is there such a thing as a headline-maker? By this I mean someone who writes a headline – constructs it – and not some corrupt politician or a drunken celebrity who runs over pavement dwellers and thereby becomes a headline-maker.

So what should one look for in a headline?

I ask Indrajit Hazra, Consultant Editor of Hindustan Times, who also writes regular columns for HT as well as Newslaundry, columns with headlines that are sometimes elusive, sometimes intriguing, but always arresting. The smoker knows what he’s on, in other words.

“A headline should obviously encapsulate the main points of the story”, says Indrajit. “I would also look for an extra element that leaves the editorial signature trail of the publication I’m reading. Especially when the same news story is appearing in different newspapers, the headline will differentiate the lot and make the reader remember a particular one. Headlines for Comment page pieces are sought to be more opinionated and playful, the purpose being to make the reader raise a brow or a chuckle and enter the story. This holds true for the captions and image selections for opinion pieces as well. Here, the headlines are ‘less straight’ but not so tangential that it makes sense only to the headline-giver!”

Whether a reader takes the trouble to go through a thousand words – something all writers wish for – depends at times purely on the appeal of the headline. It’s a hook – engaging, alluring, funny, scathing, tempting. Sadly, though, just as how we deal with our daily quota of faces and eyes and ears, we forget most headlines that we come across.

But some we remember, oh yes, and for decades. They stick. We may not be able to recall who wrote the article, or the details of it, but we commit to memory the headline.

There aren’t more than half-a-dozen that are etched permanently in my memory, and every time I look at a great headline, I compare instantly its greatness with my bunch. If it comes up short the brain discards it, if not then the bunch swells a little more.

“NO ONE KILLED JESSICA” (The Times of India.) Here were four words – just four! – that managed somehow to sum up the entire tragedy. Clearly, the headline-maker felt the rage we all did, but he could channel it into a word-play whose terrifying simplicity cannot, in my opinion, be surpassed. Jessica was killed, and yet, no one killed her. Sledgehammeringly good.

“JUNG HWA BUT DRAW HUA” (The Times of India.) This one concerned Jung Hwa, a South Korean player in the 2002 FIFA world cup, where, in one of the qualifying matches he played like a man possessed, but the game ended in a draw nonetheless. The headline catches your eye at once and the Hinglish pun is exquisite. I don’t remember South Korea’s opponent, or even the game now, but the headline stays.

Om Thanvi, editor of the Hindi daily Jansatta (of the Express group) and something of an arts polymath, echoes Indrajit’s view. “Main headline may vishay ka saar chahta hoon, aur bhasha aur shaili ki athkhayliyaan bhi.” (I want the headline to sum-up the subject matter; I also want a bit of word- and language-play.)

But there are limits. He explains: “Some three decades back, when I was with Rajasthan Patrika, I remember on the day of Indira Gandhi’s death in 1984, the then editor of Patrika, Mr Karpoor Chand Kulish, wrote the headline: “BHARI DOPEHARI MAIN ANDEHRA” (DARKNESS AT NOON). I was sitting with him when he wrote it and I showed my disagreement as gently as I could. My point was that Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination was such an earth-shattering event by its own reckoning that any effort to emboss it would be unnecessary and counter-productive. A heated debate followed and there the matter rested, but in the end the next day’s headline simply read: “INDIRA GANDHI ASSASSINATED.”

So are there headline-makers in reality or do journalists write their own headlines?

“Headlines are usually given by the editorial team at the desk”, discloses Indrajit. “This is especially the case for news stories where the space for the headline is known only to the persons producing the page and not the person sending the copy. Even for opinion pieces, prerogative lies with the editorial desk making the page.”

This is news to me, the fact that, many a time, what the headline would be is dictated by the space it is allocated in the paper. But it makes perfect sense – you only have to look at the following front page of The Onion to realise this!

The Onion

Now if you’re looking for the pinnacle of language and word athkhailiyan, then look no further than those geniuses at The Sun, Britain’s largest selling newspaper – derided by the “classes”, adored by the “masses”. Here are a few of The Sun’s absolute gems that I wouldn’t forget even after undergoing a lobotomy:

“Sir Elton takes David up the aisle” – on the church wedding of gay musician Sir Elton John with his partner David Furnish.

“You Swiss banker!” – breathing fire on the Swiss referee who ruined England’s chances at Euro2004. The story goes that the reporter initially wrote “wanker”, but the desk thought “banker” was better. It wasn’t just better, it was perfect.

“World chomp” – when Mike Tyson bit a lump off Evander Holyfield’s ear.

The Brits – once they had the world, now all they’re left with is a sense of humour. What more does a man need, I’m tempted to argue!

Here are some more British masterpieces that have entered the folklore, although a quick Google search is non-definitive:

Passengers hit by cancelled trains

Protesters march over illegal immigrants

Body in garden was a plant says wife

Two convicts evade noose: Jury hung

Magistrate acts to keep theatre open

Then there are those headlines that are plain-Jane, i.e. they don’t have any word-play, but you think they do!

“Student body dissolved in JNU” (The Times of India). This one scared the living daylights out of me, and horrific visuals of a student being plunged repeatedly in a barrel of sulphuric acid dissipated only when I read further down and realised they were talking of cancelled JNU elections.

A great headline is, in essence, an idea let loose on the world. And, as with all great ideas, it’s difficult to keep copycats at bay.

“Bill hai ki manta nahin” (Delhi Times). This one summed up the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky saga perfectly. Except that it was copied quickly by supplements of other national newspapers, with headlines like: “Bill to pagal hai, Bill Deewana hai” and “Bill ka kya kasoor?”

“Can you recall one or two great headlines that are forever fixed in your memory?” – I ask the two editors.

For Indrajit, it’s from The Telegraph, Kolkata: “Indira Gandhi shot dead, nation wounded.”

“Sometimes”, says Om Thanvi ponderingly, “the editors try and help the reporter to get to a headline”. For Om, it’s the ex-editor of Jansatta, Prabhash Joshi’s take on the 1977 Rail Minister Madhu Dandavate’s Budget: “Rail budget may Madhu kum Dand Ziada”. I’m afraid it’s impossible to translate this into English while still managing to maintain its beauty and wit.

I hold poets in great respect – and great respect carries always an element of envy – as these poorly paid, poorly appreciated wordsmiths are able to covey in a few sentences what a prose writer needs a page for. To reduce a chapter to a couplet is what separates the good from the great, not the other way round. The writer Edward Said wrote a 900-word essay as his criticism of VS Naipaul. The poet Derek Walcott simply muttered “VS Nightfall” and moved on. Beat that!

The headline-makers are our modern-day bards, they just don’t know it.

I end with a couple of great headlines form the pens of these two editors themselves:

Indrajit Hazra – “Methadone acting” (Hindustan Times): on Eminem’s new album Relapse.

Om Thanvi – “Ghata ghanghor, badra bolay, Chandigarh may olay olay!” (Jansatta): on an unexpected and sudden hailstorm in Chandigarh.



Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/artgoeshere/3888116821/

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  • Kunal Angrish

    man blind after eye drops..