The Poetry of Headlines


In the composing room of the “Daily Mail” in 1944, a newspaperman locks the blocks of type into place on the metal frame or “form,” which will be inked and used to print the newspaper page. UK Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection.

Newspaper headlines, as I said last week, are prose poetry. Not only do they have distinctive grammar and diction, they also have a tightly constrained form and even more tightly constrained content. Compared with a headline, a sonnet is a piece of cake.

At least that’s how it used to be in the good old days of the mid-20th century, in pre-CNN, pre-Internet, pre-Twitter times, when newspapers felt the burden of conveying the day’s important developments accurately and for the record.

Those were the days when every word written for a newspaper was literally weighty, set by union Linotype operators in inch-high metal in the composing room. It was a time when even females writing for newspapers were “newspaper men.” And it was a time when the very idea of newspaper design would have been laughed at as prissy. No, newspapers had makeup and layout, not design.

Since the place of a story in the layout couldn’t be determined until the story was written, the reporter had no say in the headline. It would be the assignment of a copy editor, who would first edit the story and then write a headline for it.

And this is where the poetry comes in. The headline as a whole must exactly reflect the story it heads, both in content and in tone. Even within the headline, the top line ideally should reflect the top concern of the story. Line breaks should come at natural breaks in the headline sentence.

That’s hard enough to do, but there’s worse. Each line of the kind of headline I’m talking about must have an exact width. Back then, you couldn’t just type a headline on your computer to see if it would fit. You had to count each line, to make sure it would be the proper width and match the other lines.

Here are the rules for counting:

Count all small letters 1 except l, i, f, t, which count ½, and m and w, which count 1 ½.

Count all capital letters 1 ½ except I, which counts ½, and M and W, which count 2.

Count punctuation marks ½ except dash, question mark, dollar sign, and percent sign, which count 1.

Count numerals 1.

Count spaces 1. (They can be stretched to 1 ½ or reduced to ½.)

Admittedly, even back then many headlines weren’t written to exact width, just as many poets were writing in free verse, unconstrained by meter. (Blame Walt Whitman for that.)

But even now there are some holdouts. Here’s a recent front-page “stepped” headline from The New York Times:


Both in its original font and in this style, each line fits  precisely in its one-column width.

But see for yourself how difficult it is to compose a headline. Here’s an example from Bruce Westley’s News Editing, a wonderfully demanding book published in 1953. It’s based on this wire story:

WASHINGTON, May 2—Ireland, growing prosperous, had its Marshall Plan aid suspended today.

The economic cooperation administration announced the end of the program with the agreement of the Irish government.

“As a result of Ireland’s progress under the Marshall Plan,” the ECA said, “the Irish economy is probably in better shape today than in any other time in history.”

Westley wanted two lines counting between 17 and 18. This is the first attempt, way too long (counting 23 and 27 ½):

Ireland, Prosperous, Has
Marshall Plan Aid Suspended

It took him four rewrites, but he ended up with a top line of 18 ½ and a second line of 17 that precisely summarizes the story. Can you come up with a headline as good as his? I’ll give his answer next time.

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