GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

January 10, 2009

Bucking tradition with headlines on Patriot coverage

Why Did My Newspaper Do That?

A headline really isn't even part of a news story. But, as the briefest of summaries, it sure is the statement that attracts readers' attention and tells them what the story they're about to read is all about.

So in that vein, headlines can be among the most important items on a news page, particularly Page 1. Let's face it, it's the headlines that readers look to in deciding which stories they want to read first — or, in some cases, whether they may find a story interesting at all. So a lot of care goes into them, particularly for the front-page stories you see every day in the Times.

Traditional headlines simply tell the reader what's in the story below. This week, those included Thursday's "$2,000 fee on table for full-day kindergarten" from a story about Manchester Essex schools; Monday's "Mayor looks to open door to hire chiefs from outside," on a Gloucester story on a proposal by Mayor Carolyn Kirk; and Wednesday's chilling-but-to-the-point "Killer dermatologist found dead in cell," on our first story about the prison death of Dr. Richard Sharpe.

Some headlines are tricky. You see, once our editors decide upon which stories are being presented where, there are limits to the number of words or even letters than can fit in the allotted space, depending on the size and font of the type. That's partly why Tuesday's story about a funding deficit for the New Year's Rockport Eve program — blamed in large part on the weather - read "Snowstorm puts fete in the red." Good headline writers — like our own Andrea Holbrook, Jeff Pope and Scott Pytlik — are great at using short words to convey bigger thoughts, and Andrea's "fete in the red" precisely conveyed the issue at hand about as briefly as you could get.

This week, however, we used a couple of very different headlines in our coverage of the tragic sinking of the Patriot, and the loss of Gloucester fishermen Matteo Russo and John Orlando. The first, which appeared over Monday's lead story, simply read "Mourning the Patriot." The more dramatic one topped Richard Gaines' investigative story about Coast Guard's response to the Patriot's plight: It read, simply, "What Took So Long?"

In the Coast Guard story, no one is quoted as asking "What Took So Long?" In fact, those words do not appear anywhere in the story, nor did the Monday story focus squarely on mourning the loss of the men and the Patriot. So, you may well ask, why did my newspaper do that?

The Monday "Mourning" headline ran above our first real reporting of the Patriot disaster in the Gloucester Daily Times, and in that vein, it would have been appropriate to use a headline saying, simply "Patriot sinks." But was there really anyone in our tight-knit community who hadn't heard about the early Saturday morning tragedy by Monday morning?

Indeed, we had posted three updated stories about the tragedy Saturday and Sunday afternoon alone on our "Breaking News" line at www.gloucestertimes.com. So for the Monday morning paper, the idea was to recognize the sense of the community, which was indeed already grappling with the tragedy and mourning the victims.

In the meantime, we were already hearing questions as to the Coast Guard's response. By Wednesday morning, Richard had nailed down the time frames needed to detail the calls made to the Coast Guard by Josephine Russo and the Gloucester Fire Department, and the various other elements that went into the Coast Guard's response.

But what would be an appropriate headline? I suppose it could have been "Records show Coast Guard delay," which would have conveyed the focus of the story. Or perhaps, "Coast Guard failed to send help to Patriot for 21รขÑ2 hours." But neither of those would have been good fits in the appropriate large type.

Given that, we decided to go with the question we had heard being quietly asked all around Gloucester: "What took so long?" It's not easy to boil down a 1,200-word investigative story into four words, but we honestly thought that question captured the story's focus — and represented at least one aspect of the community's sentiment.

Headline writing is an inexact science, and one that often cries out for bucking tradition.

We thought this was one of those times. As always, let me know what you think.

Questions? Comments? Is there a topic you'd like to see addressed in a future column? Contact Times Editor Ray Lamont at rlamont@gloucestertimes.com