Sunday, September 25, 2005

Summarize This!

Depending on his or her workplace, a copy editor can do any number of jobs. She can design pages. He can correct grammar. She can scour the wire for stories to fill inside pages. He can grapple with the intricacies of assigning gender to indefinite pronouns.

But nearly every newspaper copy editor tackles the headline, often in conjunction with a subhead or some other bit of accompanying text. Much has been written about the craft of shaping headlines. We must make them sing, we're told. We must (or must not) include clever word choices or turns of phrase. We must seduce the unsuspecting browser into reading the story.

But headlines also summarize. Few readers devote time to every story in a newspaper. That holds true, I think, for the most devoted reader or the smallest paper. As general interest publications, newspapers by definition print a vast array of material, some of limited interest. Headlines help readers navigate through these articles. They offer a pithy summation of the news, big and small.

In many cases, they will be all the reader sees.

We spend time and energy worrying about the biggest headline. We sweat and strain to produce a great banner for the A1 main bar. But because we've positioned one story as the most important, most people will at least read its first few paragraphs anyway. Despite all our work, people will race past the headline to the story.
The stories pushed to the bottom of the page or huddling inside the paper -- these are the stories for which the headline is most important. For them, the headline is it. The headline carries the weight of not only saying what has happened, but offering some detail or shading that allows the reader to understand the information in context. In other words, the headline must summarize the story's facts and spirit.

Let's pause. Let's take some time with these poor, obscure stories. Let's show them we value them as much as the big scandal splashed across A1. And let's show readers we value them enough to give them accurate, subtly shaded summaries of current events.