Every day, tucked away in newsrooms, broadcast studios, and cybermedia beanbag bullpens, an untold number of overworked and underpaid sub editors perform journalistic alchemy. In congress with thesaurus and dictionary and high concentrate caffeine, these wizards of the press turn thousand word articles into ten word headlines: compressing and combining and, sometimes, improving. But how do they turn a thousand into ten, and what distinguishes a good headline from a great one?
According to the Walkley’s “Headline, caption, or hook” award, headlining is “the art of witty and succinct journalism that grabs attention across all media.” Wit and succinctness are really the crux of headline wizardry. And great headlines come from finding a balance between these two competing forces. Too much wit and you obscure meaning. Too succinct a headline and you bore your reader to death. A good headline should elicit both a chuckle and a knowing hum: not only did they enjoy the headline, but they know the premise of the article it’s attached to.
Just as the fantasy literature titles have settled on “The Blank of Blank” or “Blank and Blank” (blank to be replaced with powerful nouns like throne or souls), world-renowned student newspaper Honi Soit has developed a fool-proof collection of ready-made headline templates. Flick through any edition of USyd’s weekly campus rag from the past 7 or so years and you’ll begin to notice some patterns.
In Defence of Something
An Ode to Something
A Love Letter to Something
These templates are a safety net for embattled editors struggling to pun their way into a witty headline — sometimes there’s just no humorous way to combine the MCU and Dadaism. Under the stress and squeeze of weekly editions, tardy articles, and confused angles, they are a godsend. What’s more, they tell the reader exactly what they’re about to get. If an article claims to be in defence of something, you can be certain it’s about to defend a mildly controversial cultural artefact or social trend. If a piece is a self-described ode, you can be sure it isn’t going to be an ode at all, which, according to the conventions of the poetic genre, is a form of lyrical poetry which is structured into three distinct parts. No, almost every ode you’ll find in campus publications is instead flowery and circuitous musings on a subject matter, usually cultural, that the author has some sort of personal connection to. Each of these Honi headline templates have similarly instructive conventions, acting as shorthand for time-poor readers in their pursuit of instantaneous meaning.
Headline phrasal templates are known as “snowclones”, and the number of available options is ever-growing. Linguist Geoffrey Pullum coined the neologism “snowclone”, referencing the journalistic cliché regarding the large Inuit snow vocabulary: “If Eskimos [sic] have N words for snow, X surely have M words for Y”. Snowclones are derived from classical literature to pop culture earworms and every catch-phrase in between. The cinematic industry has offered journalists: “One does not simply X into Y”, or “X? Where we’re going, we don’t need X”; politicians have unfortunately gifted us “Make X Great Again” and “X lied, Y died”.
Honi’s position as an irreverent student newspaper means that editors and contributors are free to operate at the cutting edge of headline innovation, straying from tired snowclone usage. Take “David Verse Goliath: On USyd’s cuts to poetry”, an Honi headline from late 2021. It beautifully balances its duties to information and interest as it establishes the power dynamics of the conflict in its allusion to David and Goliath, deploys a pun in reference to the article’s poetic subject matter, and clearly explains what the article is actually about — namely, cuts to poetry at USyd. These are the hallmarks of a perfect headline. Its only flaw is its reliance on the dreaded colon crutch. You see this a lot, when a headline technician is desperate to both be punny and let the reader know what the article is about, they tend to separate out the funny and the facts with a loveless colon — ticking off headline boxes without actually making the effort to synthesise it.
This problem isn’t unique to Honi though. In many ways, student newspapers are the canaries in the journalistic coal mine, and if Honi is oding and defending, then you can be certain that the lamestream media are pumping out snowclones of their own. The COVID years were particularly adept at coaxing these hoary old chestnuts out of print subeditors. Well trodden headlines like “To blank or not to blank” and “The mother of all blanks” were deployed into the front lines of the media’s war on the virus: “To test or not to test?”, “The mother of all superspreaders”, “To mask or not to mask?”
So, where do we look to for the brightest and best headlines? As there is no formula promising the transformation of words into headline gold, the quest for the best headlines is a somewhat subjective one. Alliteration when overused can elicit a well-deserved eyeroll, but the fricatives in the Herald’s, “Finally flush farming family finally finish feud” are so laudable that they merit slam poetry clicks. The Walkey archive also houses a headline hall of fame, emblazoning Matthew Quagliotto’s punny “Thirst Degree Murder”; Sean Keeley’s questionable “Jihad me at hello”; and Baz McAlister’s multi-faceted “Halal… Is It Meals You’re Looking for”, which received special praise for its integration of a musical earworm.