This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

140 Characters? A Piece of Cake

            Two weeks ago I signed up for a Twitter account, and if you follow the news you’ve probably noticed that the world has become a worse place since then. Sorry about that, but it was a business necessity. With a new book, The McHenry Inheritance, coming out soon, the experts said I had to join the 21st Century and use social media to promote it.
            Part of me (actually, just about all of me) rebels against that. I’ve been on Facebook and LinkedIn for over a year but was a Twitter holdout. I don’t like the superficiality of the format, and signing on to follow hundreds or thousands of people is like begging to have junk mail sent to you. On the other hand, the first time I tweeted about one of these blog posts, the number of hits went up twenty five-fold. No sense in arguing with success.

Twitter Is Easy; Headlines Are Hard

            One of the things that surprises me when I talk about this is the number of people who comment on how hard it is to keep a message to Twitter’s limit of 140 characters. It’s true that with the exception of Benjamin Franklin (who, in Poor Richard’s Almanack, penned the first tweets), none of the Founding Fathers could have done it or wanted to.
            But I worked at a newspaper for two decades and wrote thousands of headlines. Headline-writing is, in my mind, the most technically difficult job in the newspaper business. Not many people did it well when I was in the game, and as budgets get slashed and fewer people are around to mentor the newbies, things have only gotten worse. The New York Times still does headline-writing with grace and skill, but few other papers do. Of course as more and more of the news is on the web, where space isn’t an issue, perhaps it doesn’t matter.
            It takes a certain twist of mind and verbal skill to summarize a complex news story in 36 characters. That’s even more true when you have to do it in three lines, each of which has to be no less than 10 and mo more than 12 characters long. That’s tough, and when you’ve done it enough times, sticking to 140 characters, with no line breaks, is a walk in the park.

The Headline Writer’s Challenge

            Sometimes it’s even tougher than what I just described. In October of 1975,  New York City was in a financial crisis and facing bankruptcy. The city was hoping for federal assistance to get through, but President Gerald M. Ford announced that he would veto any federal bailout that Congress might pass.
            It was a major story, and the Daily News decided to make the headline so huge it would take up half the front page. Here was the technical challenge: Summarize the story in a two-line headline, with a count of no more than ten for each line and no less than eight. For the purpose of counting, all letters stood as one character, except for I and T, which counted as half, and M and W which were one and a half. Punctuation marks counted as half, and the space between words could count as one character, half a character or a character and a half as needed.
            It was an impossible assignment, but after rejecting several more pedestrian alternatives, Managing Editor William J. Brink resolved the issue by going vernacular and outside the box. His headline will be a legend as long as newspapers are remembered: