Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Headlines Buy the Numbers

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Headlines Buy the Numbers

Article excerpt

4,855,283. That's how many times U.S. daily newspapers published headlines that consisted of little more, and sometimes nothing more, than a big screaming number. Or maybe it was 1,495,392 times. Or perhaps just 820,031 times. Anyway, it was a lot -- too much, according to some fed-up copy editors.

A number is increasingly the default headline style on business and sports section front pages. "We certainly do it to death here," says Chris Wienandt, chief of the business copy desk at The Dallas Morning News. "Any time the Dow hits a certain thousand -- 13,000 or 14,000 -- you're guaranteed that number is going to be the headline for the story."

Big numbers increasingly command attention on front pages now as well. Wienandt, who is also president of the American Copy Editors Society (ACES), allows that he's "not terrifically enamored" with the numbers-as-heds craze. And he's not alone among his peers.

Newspaper consultant and copy editor Robert Knilands earlier this year posted on the forums at a collection of 13 front pages and section fronts that he says are particularly egregious examples of "giant numerals."

"The absolute worst use of the approach comes with the following format: 5 Things You Should Know About ..." , Knilands says. "The designer generally makes the numeral twice as big as the rest of the headline. Then the designer numbers each capsule, 1 through 5, with a large numeral, as if the reader can't possibly count to 5."

Like Knilands, many copy editors are blaming newspaper designers for this proliferation of numbers. In fact, often it's a designer, not the copy desk, that's slapping on a numeral hed, says retired copy editor Peter Fisk. "Newspaper managers have been pressing for greater and greater emphasis on flashy, 'eye-catching' design, to the detriment of content quality and credibility," he says. "This strategy usually means oversized art and oversized headline type, which often leaves very little room for a meaningful headline."

Decoration, Fisk argues, is often chosen over communication: "Another large percentage of the big goofy headlines that you see are 'written' by higher-ups who don't really know what they're doing, but the people in the newsroom who do know how to write better headlines lack the authority to constrain managerial buffoonery. …

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