At their best, newspaper headlines capture the essence of a story in just a few short words, grabbing the attention of readers and pulling them into an article they otherwise may have flipped past. At their worst, headlines misrepresent the theme, subject or facts of a story, leaving a disconnect between what readers think the story will say and what it actually says. Such headlines can erode reader confidence and offend those who were involved in the story.
We printed a headline in Sunday's Steamboat Pilot & Today that accomplished the latter, and our readers rightfully let us know about it.
"Sailors choke at state" proclaimed the headline on the cover of the sports section. I, like many of you, cringed when I first read it. We quickly updated the story's online version with the tamer "Sailors cross country struggles at state," and I posted a story comment acknowledging the insensitivity and inappropriateness of the headline. Of course, that's still not good enough for the hard-working Steamboat Springs High School student-athletes who came home from a disappointing finish at the state championships to see that their hometown newspaper had rubbed salt in their wounds.
The fact is that student-athletes deserve to be treated differently than the men and women who are paid small fortunes to play their respective sports. The seven teenage boys who competed for Steamboat last weekend in Colorado Springs should be proud of their accomplishments this season, which included a third-place finish at the regional tournament. Just to compete at the state level is an honor many prep athletes will never realize. And none of this takes into account that most student-athletes juggle their sports with school, family, friends and work.
So what was the breakdown that led to Sunday's headline? To answer that question, I first must explain the headline-writing process.
Several years ago, the Pilot & Today began having all reporters write suggested headlines at the top of their stories. Doing so provides a foundation on which our copy editors - the newsroom employees who design the paper each night - can craft a strong headline that fits within the space constraints of a given news hole. Expecting the copy editors to come up with accurate, compelling headlines on dozens of stories they read for the first time just minutes before was simply setting them up for failure.
The system has worked relatively well, but bad headlines still occasionally make their way into the paper. Such was the case Sunday, when copy editors had to craft a headline that fit nicely into the one-column hole on the right side of the sports cover. Unfortunately, the headline we came up with was one of our poorer efforts.
Writing good headlines is considered an art form in the newspaper business. Believe it or not, writing a great headline can be a lot tougher than writing a good news story. Headlines must capture, in just a few short words, the essence of story while also being able to stand on their own. Readers form their impressions of a story based on those words, and that's something headline writers must always keep in mind.
It may be of little consolation to the student-athletes, parents and coaches who were justifiably offended by our choice of words, but my promise to readers is that we'll use Sunday's mistake as a lesson for the future, and we will continue to strive to make every headline one that's worth reading.
As always, please feel free to call or e-mail me with questions, comments or criticisms. My phone number is (970) 871-4221; my e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.