Before the two labs this week, I was barely bothered by the differences between the headlines in print and their online versions. I regarded online journalism as simply pulling what is to go in print onto the web ahead of press time. The layout is a bit different, as I have noticed, but I believe that is because news web sites allow much more space than the actual newspaper pages so that photojournalists and writers who are protective of their brain-children do not have to cut to fit the pages. I did notice the headlines online seldom match their print counterparts, but I thought the straightforward, less-of-a-wordplay web version is due to the rush, while editors can come up with an elaborate print version, often brimming with irony and pun, by press time.
Now I know writing headlines for online is no easy task. Even though editors are spared racking their brains for witty wording, they are expected to cram as many as key words into a headline nine words long to open up all sorts of search possibilities. As Professor Follis put it, writing online is "information science" rather than "poetry."
We had an in-class exercise today. We formed in groups of four or five and each of the group members wrote headlines for five stories that were considered top news of the day within consensus. I volunteered to be on the international news group. I considered international news my edge. But sadly, my English is not.
The maximum of nine words is not that much, even though word length did not matter in this drill. If you have both "Khmer Rough" and "Cambodia genocide", then you have to juggle the rest five words at most to both tell the main idea and make it sound good. I also had to reckon what search terms might interested audience use. Will they term what North Korea is going to launch "rocket" or "satellite?" Is it appropriate to use the term "missile" now that everything is in question before the actual launch? What also bothered me was that the primitive headlines that AP provided sound quite right for online. With a not-bad headline readily available, I felt like doing some minor change rather than coming up with a completely different one by myself.
See what I got in the end:
1, World leaders talk about economy at G-20, making little progress.
2, North Korea threatens to down U.S. spy planes if obstructed.
3, 17 killed in suicide bombing in Afghanistan by Taliban.
4, Khmer Rouge defendant in Cambodia genecide requests separate shelter.
5, French workers protesting job cuts free Caterpillar bosses.
Here is a list of the final version our team picked or collaborated on:
1, Obama talks world economy, nuclear arms at G-20.
2, North Korea threatens U.S., Japan over rocket.
3, 17 killed by Taliban in Afghan suicide bombing.
4, Former Khmer Rouge leader's genocide trial begins.
5, Facing layoffs, French Caterpillar workers release captive bosses.
I have a long way to go. The problem with my first one is not a matter of headline writing. There are simply more than one G-20 story in recent days and I wrote for the wrong one. But looking at the rest four, I can see my problems in each headline are:
Number 2 included not enough key words. The final version has "Japan" and "rocket," the root of the issue, even though I personally think "satellite" is better, as it is the official wording.
Number 3 has the problem of wordiness. I got two "in"s. "Afghan" is shorter and less repetitive than "in Afghanistan" to describe the location.
Number 4 shows my laziness. I simply made some change to the original AP headline "Khmer Rough defendant seeks change of detention" without even looking closely at the story, therefore I missed the key point, which is "trial begins."
Number 5 is might has some logical problem. Readers might wonder what "protesting job cuts" has to do with "free bosses," even though I wanted to tell the purpose of detaining the bosses this way. The final version is better since it shows both the fact that some bosses are apprehended, and the reason of setting them free, despite that readers have to look for inside the story what was the cause of the detention. Well, the apprenhension is old news while the release is the latest. I had better leave out the cause of apprehension in exchange for the cause of release than the other way around.
Practice! Practice! Practice!