Why Is the Washington Post Asking Me?

By Mike Feinsilber?

You thought a newspaper’s job was to provide answers to readers’ questions? That proposition is turned upside down by lots of Post headlines.  Will you take a look at what Post web and print headlines asked me–and other readers–on Wednesday, September 20?

Will Chipotle Choke on Its Own Queso?
(The Mexican-flavored food chain created a cheese dip some tasters didn’t like.)

“Rocket Man”: Was That a Slam of Kim Jong Un – Or a Compliment?

Got a Weird Amazon Email About a Baby Registry You Don’t Have?

Can Centrism Be a Movement?
(Over a Kathleen Parker column. Her answer was yes.)

Does the Road to Broadway Pass Through Beijing?
(Theater critic Peter Marks asking. His answer appears to be maybe, maybe not.)

Lego’s Plastic Bricks Transformed Childhood.  Are They Strong Enough to Survive Screens?
(A business page story.)

In Apt. 713, a Power Player or Con Artist?
(Apparently about a TV show.)
Dear Post:

Why do you keep asking?

I guess I know. Headlines that ask questions are intended to intrigue readers and lure them in. Newspapers like to be read.

In an essay on headlines, Ross Collins, a mass media historian at North Dakota State University, says: “Headlines writers who are good at what they do have something in common, I think, with advertising copy writers. They must be accurate, entertaining, pithy and, if possible, clever–all in limited space.”

Some Post headline writers evade the need to be so damn pithy if they can lure the reader with a headline.

Anyway, the Post is cursed with a clumsy headline font–the letters are too fat.  Pithiness comes harder: a pity.

Years ago I remember reading about headline writers at the New York Times whose editors used to amuse themselves in idle moments–many moments ago this was–by writing imaginary headlines for historic events. My favorite:

Moses, Atop Sinai,
Gets 10-Point Plan
Mike Feinsilber spent about a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and about a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach. He was a deskman, reporter, and editor and he covered Congress and 18 political conventions.


  1. I once said in an editor’s note to readers of the Washingtonian that when they saw a question head in a magazine or newspaper, they’d never find the answer in the story. I tried to be playful about it but a journalism professor in Baltimore took it seriously and tried to start a fight over it.

    Okay, I didn’t really mean never, but the fact is that most question heads are a dodge by the headline writer. I sweated over the writing of many a headline—What is this story saying?—and then gave up—let’s let the reader try to figure out what the story is saying—and made the headline a question.

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