How Headlines on Stories Can Say a Lot About How Journalism Is Now Being Done

Most of the Washingtonian stories I edited were long—3,000 to 6,000 words—and to find good stories I looked for writers who knew a lot about a subject—politics, crime, education, health care, sports, etc. Then sitting down with a writer, I’d ask about any story ideas the writer had and we’d talk about the lay of the land in the subject area. One way we got some fix on a story was to ask, “What kind of headline would we put on it?” The idea was to narrow the focus enough so we both thought we had something the writer wanted to write and the magazine wanted to publish.

The headline was tentative, subject to the writer doing initial reporting, and sometimes the writer would come back and say the story had taken a turn and the headline we’d talked about wouldn’t work with the reporting. Then we’d either drop the initial idea and go on to something else or go ahead with a revised approach that called for a different headline.

The idea was that initial reporting was needed to make sure the story approach and tentative headline made sense.

Fast forward to today’s journalism. Lots of web and print stories are shorter, more sharply focused, and you get the sense that the time-challenged writer did just enough reporting to go with a headline, often one that had some clickbait to it. Even reading newspapers and magazines that do longer stories, I often get the sense that the headline came first and then the writer’s reporting focused on making the headline work.

That change also may have come from the kind of people who now become journalists. When I started with UPI in 1960, we just wanted to do reporting and writing. Our aim was to reflect the world as it was, not change it. The civil rights revolution and the Vietnam war gave many journalists a sense that their journalism could—and should—change the world. And they did, drawing more people into journalism with the aim of making the world—as they saw it—better.

In the 1970s and ’80s, as the country was becoming more affluent, more journalists seemed to be coming from top colleges with enough family money that they could comfortably afford going into journalism rather than business, law, or the other traditional occupations of the upper middle class. Journalism was interesting, not boring, and you could use it to make the world better, mostly reflecting liberal ideas on how government could do it. And many of the new kind of journalists were certain they were smarter than their readers—they increasingly want to educate readers as to how they should behave and think.

And more journalists now want to be in big cities. At the Washingtonian, we probably had 600 editorial interns in my years there and I saw a shift in their ambitions. Early on they were looking for any good editorial job when their internship was done and I often recommended they start at a small newspaper where they could get some solid reporting experience. But by the 1990s most of the interns said they wanted a job in Washington or New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, etc. They wanted to be in interesting cities around people who mostly thought the way they did. I can remember only one intern that took my advice, going to work for a small newspaper in Salisbury, Maryland.

All these changes reflect on the journalism that some people call fake news. Many of the stories they don’t like are not really fictional or fake, but more stories now come from journalists who are coming up with the headline first and then doing just enough reporting and opinion writing to make the story seem like real journalism. In the old days, we would have thought a lot of those stories belonged on the editorial page, not the front page.


  1. Mike Purcell says

    I enjoy reading good writing. Thank you.

  2. Barnard Collier says


    Once again, a bull’s eye.

  3. Charles Farley says

    Excellent take on the state of so-called journalism today, Thanks.

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