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It’s the headline, stupid

October 1, 2020

There is a political maxim: It’s the economy, stupid. (Although this year it might be the pandemic and/or social justice.) When it comes to journalistic news sites it should be “It’s the headline, stupid.”

Yes, story content is important, but like the tree falling in the woods and whether it makes a sound, who cares if no one is there to hear it (or read the story).

Each day I review hundreds of California high school, community college, and university student news publication stories, looking for the interesting, unsual, and just plain outstanding student stories to share on my Online Elsewhere Facebook page and at the bottom of my daily newsletter on journalism education.

I often have a difficult time defining what sticks out for sharing. Sometimes it depends on what else is being published that day, the first time someone beats the rest with real news, or something else entirely. I know I prefer to pick campus-related stories or community/national stories that involve original reporting with an effort to actually talk to someone, but I will also pick opinion pieces that stray from the typical.

Occassionally, I bore through a dull headline and find a hidden gem that I think might interest my intended journalism educaiton audience. But mostly it is that first impression of a good headline, which seems to not be much of a consideration for student journalists these days. One- or two-word headlines rarely tell the reader what the story is about. Twenty-word headlines are just sloppy. Weak headline writing is common across all three levels of institutions I monitor. (Is headline writing not being taught any more?)

But most egregious are the headlines (and leads) that miss the real news. Here is an example from this last week or so. California Community College Chancellor Eloy Oakley has been holding periodic press conferences for community college stuent editors. It is common to see headlines like “Chancellor meets with student editors.” Okay, I’ll give you the benefit of arguing that until the last eight months, this was not common; in that sense it is newsworthy that he is doing so. But what he says in those press conferences is more important that the fact that he met.

During his most recent meeting he apparently covered a variety of topics (a weak description that could be used for every once of his press conferences. SO FAR, I’ve seen only ONE community college story about the press conference that told me in the headline something important he said — and what he said was a doozy. Kudos to the East Los Angeles Campus News for writing “California Community College courses stay online to 2024.”

How is this not the lead story in student publications across the state this week? (By the way, he told student editors last May that this entire school year would be online, but everyone seems surprised that the spring will be.)

California State University publications have a similar problem, by the way, with headlines like “Chancellor-select Castro announces plans for time as CSU leader” that don’t say what those plans include, such as looking to see if campus service fees can be reduced while campuses are closed.

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