Headlines buy the numbers

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

4,855,283. That’s how many times U.S. daily newspapers published headlines that consisted of little more, and sometimes nothing more, than a big screaming number. Or maybe it was 1,495,392 times. Or perhaps just 820,031 times. Anyway, it was a lot ? too much, according to some fed-up copy editors.

A number is increasingly the default headline style on business and sports section front pages. “We certainly do it to death here,” says Chris Wienandt, chief of the business copy desk at The Dallas Morning News. “Any time the Dow hits a certain thousand ? 13,000 or 14,000 ? you’re guaranteed that number is going to be the headline for the story.”

Big numbers increasingly command attention on front pages now as well. Wienandt, who is also president of the American Copy Editors Society (ACES), allows that he’s “not terrifically enamored” with the numbers-as-heds craze. And he’s not alone among his peers.

Newspaper consultant and copy editor Robert Knilands earlier this year posted on the forums at Wenalway.com a collection of 13 front pages and section fronts that he says are particularly egregious examples of “giant numerals.”

“The absolute worst use of the approach comes with the following format: 5 Things You Should Know About …” , Knilands says. “The designer generally makes the numeral twice as big as the rest of the headline. Then the designer numbers each capsule, 1 through 5, with a large numeral, as if the reader can’t possibly count to 5.”

Like Knilands, many copy editors are blaming newspaper designers for this proliferation of numbers. In fact, often it’s a designer, not the copy desk, that’s slapping on a numeral hed, says retired copy editor Peter Fisk. “Newspaper managers have been pressing for greater and greater emphasis on flashy, ‘eye-catching’ design, to the detriment of content quality and credibility,” he says. “This strategy usually means oversized art and oversized headline type, which often leaves very little room for a meaningful headline.”

Decoration, Fisk argues, is often chosen over communication: “Another large percentage of the big goofy headlines that you see are ‘written’ by higher-ups who don’t really know what they’re doing, but the people in the newsroom who do know how to write better headlines lack the authority to constrain managerial buffoonery.”

But that conflict is nothing new, says designer Robb Montgomery, founder of non-profit educational online forum Visual Editors: “Sometimes copy editors aren’t involved in those decisions, and it becomes the classic debate: Whose page is it?”

Designers probably are feeling more empowered as editors, nervous about shrinking single-copy sales, look for something eye-catching, says well-known Chicago-based newspaper designer Ron Reason: “After desktop publishing became more common in newsrooms in the early ’90s, you saw the big-number technique more often, but … more for the Barry Bonds [home-run record] type of story.”

It was a “special event technique,” he adds, in part because the technology to create a big number was tightly controlled by a top editor or art director. Now, though, the ubiquitous access to Quark or InDesign software has put the ability to design a big number in the hands of any layout person.

There’s a good reason designers favor the big number, says Montgomery: “They stop you, they arrest you, but it’s like any other tool ? if you use it too much you can spoil the effect, and people tune it out. If the music calls for violins, you don’t play the drums.”

The big number is just one example of newspapers looking to tell stories in different ways, says Neil Holdway, news editor of the Daily Herald in Arlington Heights, Ill. In recent weeks, he used the price of a gallon of gas as the main headline on rising prices, and a 12-digit dollar figure on a story about school finances. “It’s an attractive art element, too, and I think that’s why we’re tempted to use it more,” says Holdway, who is ACES’ treasurer. “And it’s also very concrete.” But he adds that it can be overused: “A fundamental that we teach is not to use word play for the sake of being cute, and that applies here, too. A lot of times readers tell us, ‘Stop with the gimmicks, tell what you’re going to say in this article.'”

Amen, says copy editor Knilands. “There was never anything wrong with the standard headline approach of noun-verb-noun or noun-verb-place,” he says. “I suspect the people who decided to change that are the typical wonks who listen to a couple of consultants or visual ‘experts’ who don’t read the paper.”

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