Writing Headlines Isn’t Easy—Just Ask the Washington Post

By Jack Limpert

Petula Dvorak, a Washington Post metro columnist, has a piece today about an eight-year-old girl, Relisha Rudd, who is missing from a DC homeless shelter. The shelter’s 51-year-old janitor also is missing, the janitor’s wife has been found dead in a motel room, and Dvorak asks, “What happened to Relisha?”  She ends the Relisha column with “She deserved our protection. She didn’t get it.”

The hed on the column on the front page of Metro:

We have failed Relisha. All of us.

The Post likes “we” journalism. A month ago I wrote about another Post piece, by Robert McCartney, a Metro columnist, that told its readers: “Sam Sheinbaum had it coming. We’ve all been thinking it.”

My reaction then to the Post’s continuing attempts at intimacy:
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I often can’t help but replay the old Lone Ranger joke in my head: “The Lone Ranger and Tonto find themselves staring up at canyon walls filled with hostile Indian warriors. The Lone Ranger turns to Tonto, his Indian scout, and says, “What do we do now, Tonto?” And Tonto says, “What do you mean we, Kemosabe?”

The biggest problem with the Post’s use of the “we” construction is that the paper has a million readers and only a few thousand may feel all that much kinship with a Post writer.

At The Washingtonian, I almost always edited out the “we” approach. We had 400,000 readers and the basic strategy of a metro daily or metro magazine is to appeal to a broad range of readers—young, old, urban, suburban, liberal, conservative. What Washingtonian readers had in common was a college degree (almost 100 percent) and many had a good income. We wanted all those readers but we knew that there are lots of different kinds of smart people in Washington.

The big downside of the “we” approach for mainstream publications is that it can turn off readers. As in, hey, McCartney, say what you want but don’t do my thinking for me. It’s even worse when a writer suggests that if I’m reading this story we must share a common love for something. At that point I think this publication is aimed at somebody but it’s not me and why am I reading it.
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In their defense, not every Post headline writer takes the annoying “we” approach. When Dvorak’s column was put up on the Post website, they gave it some digital zing:

Relisha Rudd’s disappearance deserves as much attention as Malaysian jetliner’s

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  1. Jonathan L. Fischer says

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