June 20, 2018
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On writing hall-of-fame headlines

By Kent Ward

When the evening’s pace in the newsroom of a daily newspaper slows and reporters and copy editors sit around waiting for the first edition to come off the presses, they often talk shop.

Sometimes the late-night discussions concern the writing of snappy headlines, which — like cooking a mess of award-winning beanhole beans or training the family dog to serve drinks on the poolside patio — is an art. Some people are good at it. Others, not so much.

The late Sheldon Gross, a former Bangor Daily News reporter and copy editor, insisted that if a certain set of circumstances should present itself there awaited in the wings the greatest all-time headline ever to come out of the state of Maine — a line that could never be topped by any latter-day pretender to the throne in such matters.

What was needed, Gross explained, was the cooperation of a mechanic in the Androscoggin County town of Mechanic Falls in falling down a well, say, or off a high bar stool in a manner worthy of coverage. The headline for the resulting news story, he suggested, would be obvious to anyone with a pulse: “Mechanic Falls mechanic falls,” and the line would repose forever in the Headline Writing Hall of Fame.

Alas, the planets never properly aligned to permit the event, and, to my knowledge, the headline remains unused to this day. And a pity it is, for it would certainly hold up well against others of the genre, including that shopworn classic, “Small medium at large,” a legendary headline crafted by some unknown wag to introduce an imaginary story about a short fortune teller who escaped from prison and eluded capture.

I believe the Mechanic Falls offering would win a two-thumbs-up approval from heavy hitters such as syndicated word maven, punster and best-selling author Richard Lederer, whose book Adventures of a Verbivore, published in 1994 by Pocket Books, is a page-turner for those who get their kicks playing with words. (Carnivores eat meat, herbivores chomp plants and verbivores — a word coined by Lederer — devour words, a book jacket blurb explains.)

Lederer asks the reader to imagine being a newspaper editor charged with creating clever headlines for stories that are to run in the morning paper. What headline would the reader concoct to go over a story about an explosion at a factory that makes small parts for Datsun automobiles? A good place to start might be “It Rained Datsun Cogs.”

If former television news anchor Connie Chung were to get into the teakwood business, a great headline would be “Chung In Teak.” Should a major balsa wood products factory burn, the perfect headline would be “Great Balsa Fire,” Lederer advises.

And so on, until the reader begs for mercy.

It’s easy, of course, to write catchy headlines when you manufacture the story to fit the head, rather than the other way around. Transform Connie Chung into a teakwood dealer and the resulting headline practically writes itself. But coming up with a brilliant play on words under pressure of deadline and with a hardline copy desk chief breathing down your neck is another matter.

I’ve always thought “Holy Smoke” as the headline over a photograph of a church on fire would be a swell offering. But on the few occasions when I’ve had the opportunity to see how it might fly with readers, discretion has become the better part of valor at the last minute, and the line has never seen the light of day.

Sometimes, a crafty headline writer deliberately aims for a double meaning, with good results. And sometimes he or she unwittingly comes up with an unintended double meaning, with even better results.

“Mrs. Ghandi stoned at rally in India,” a headline that ran years ago in the Toronto Star, has long been a favorite of mine. As have “Milk drinkers turn to powder,” courtesy of the Detroit News, and “Stud tires out,” headline the Ridgewood (N.J.) News ran over a story about outlawed studded tires. A couple of home-grown BDN clunkers that cannot be repeated in a family newspaper are also keepers.

But none of them, intended or otherwise, has quite the pizazz of “Mechanic Falls mechanic falls.” It would be nice to some day see that one put to good use “jest for the pun of it,” as Lederer might say.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His e-mail address is maineolddawg@gmail.com.

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