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Headlines Matter

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Even though I've been publishing newspapers and magazines for more than 30 years, it's only recently I've become enamored with headlines. It's not as if I didn't like them before, but today's headlines are ever more relevant because they sway the value needle when it comes to judging what's worth reading.

For many years at this newspaper, we prided ourselves on writing clever headers. Former Snark Editor, Bill Frost, was particularly good at writing headlines that were sure to pique the interest of City Weekly's smart, clever and persnickety readership. Frost was hired during the editorial reign of Christopher Smart, but other than the several times he came to my home to watch WWF with my son and his daughter, I don't recall seeing him very often. He would say it was because I was always at Port O'Call. I would say it was because he was always playing mental chess with Ben Fulton and I didn't want to interrupt.

No matter. Bill was forever at the ready with something perfectly appropriate to affix at the top of a story. For evidence, check out the Ocho headlines he wrote right after the 2016 presidential election. Among them you'll find gems like "Donald Trump Clinches Win; Nation Clenches Pussies," and "And He's Not Gay. Not That There's Anything Wrong With That."

Outside of his eventual calling to the corporate world, Frost might still be headline writing except for one simple disruption: Google. Google didn't like nor understand the concept of wit. To attract a reader's eye in print, Frost might have written an attention-grabbing headline that had little or nothing to do with the story itself. Of course, there was a connection to the story—but it was nuanced, comical or wry. That was a problem, because if you Google search for oranges, one of our old headlines might show up, but you'd then find the story really was about apples. What that meant is that for a time, we wrote knockout headlines for print, but dumbed them down online.

Only if you relate to the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers, is that a good thing. Inventiveness took a hit online in regards to newspapers and other journals; now, the business of moving eyeballs has become both scientific and stale and also nearly irrelevant. People who laugh out loud while reading a story in City Weekly or anywhere else are outliers. If that's not so, just look what happened to The Onion. Today's Onion is a CliffsNote version of its former self. Today, if we want to find amusement online, we go to our Twitter or Facebook feeds where our friends wonder why Keith Stubbs hasn't noticed and booked them into his Wiseguys comedy clubs. Trouble is, most of them are neither funny nor clever, and are mostly just adding lipstick to an already worn out meme.

So, in a bass-ackwards way, social media reveals the value of what used to be the bailiwick of honestly clever people like Frost. Headlines matter. They can tease or tempt. They can reveal or revolt. They have always been there to pull us into a story or prompt us to move onto another one. Like all alternative newspapers, we grew to view our headlines part and parcel with our text—we had to draw attention to not only the story it rode above, but also to ourselves.

I'm proud to say we never wrote a single headline that read, "Mystery illness sends Murray man to hospital"—a better headline would have been, "Publisher hospitalized after eating his own words"—but we wouldn't have written that one either. We aren't a paper of record like the two dailies (maybe we should be, though, considering our circulation is bigger.) Boring headlines are nearly standard in those papers. That's not an indictment, it's just a fact that there's not many ways to write a "Wow!" headline about a car accident. Well, you can, but you'd end up pissing off either the cops or the victims or both.

So, newspapers are left to write headlines like this one from the Monday Salt Lake Tribune, "Gov. Chaffetz? Former Utah congressman leads field of potential 2020 Republican candidates for governor." That headline would never have run in any newspaper prior to the internet. Too long. Can't put it in 72-point type. Doesn't blare.

As well, after reading the headline, why read the story itself? It's revealed everything I need to know about the upcoming governor's race—Chaffetz is in the driver's seat. If Spencer Cox is a threat, I can wait to find out tomorrow.

So, I'm off to the next headline, "LGBTQ students wanted to start a club. Three years later, BYU still hasn't decided if the group will be recognized." Hmmm. If I can get what I need just by reading the headlines, then why subscribe? With website space not an issue, headline writing has morphed into mini tweets—all I need to know or have time for is condensed in a couple hundred characters.

Next, someone will tweet those stories. No matter that the story might not be read, the news message is circulating but without the "value." The question is whether people should subscribe to a paper via a paywall or not, because the answer is, so far, paywalls won't work so long as the headline is the story, and that story is free.

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