Headline writing: Not just a copy editor’s task

I’m terrible at writing headlines. I love a good pun and alliteration is one of my favorite literary gems. I know those things are frowned upon in journalism. But I tend to use them in headlines anyway. It never hurts to try, right?

Even when I was a college reporter, I wrote headlines. Did they always get used? No, of course not. But that doesn’t mean I should have stopped writing them. Because there’s always that one headline that you get right.

For all the crappy headlines in the world, anybody can write one, good, provocative (or witty) headline. It just takes time. And a lot, a lot, a lot of practice.

One of things I remember the most from staff meetings when I was a new reporter at my college paper is that editors would say to come up with a headline. Maybe they’d use it. Maybe not. But even if they didn’t use it, it could help get ideas flowing for what they think the headline should be.

Plus, one of the benefits of writing your own headline is that it can help you focus your story. If you can’t come up with even a crappy headline that explains what is happening in your story or what the angle is, then you either need to think harder about the headline or write the story from a different angle.

You’ll never know if you’re good at writing headlines if you never try. Very few people are good at it. I’m not. My former editors weren’t always the best. Editors at major papers across the country may not even have a knack for it. But to just refuse to write headlines because you don’t think you can is ridiculous. Like Nike says, just do it.

So, with that said, I present to you three of my favorite headlines from the Alestle, only one of which I actually wrote:

‘A drop in the bucket’ — This story was about a nursing alumna from SIUE who was in Haiti volunteering. This is one of the rare occasions wherea quote headline can actually make a good impact on the reader — and the story.

Heroes helping half shells —It’s not often you get to write about turtles. But I had the opportunity, and, in my completely biased opinion, I think this headline was one of the best the editors came up with. Giving a nod to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, then-EIC Aren Dow came up with this gem on deadline. Playing on pop culture references isn’t always a good idea, but in this case, I think it worked out great. Cowabunga, dude!

Blagojevich ringtones cross the (expletive) line — This is one of the few headlines I came up with and that I’m actually proud of. Anyone who has heard anything about the drama surrounding former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich can understand and appreciate this. And working for a paper in Illinois, that’s exactly what I was going for.

Feature writing: Why telling someone’s story is better than any FOIA request

Nothing. Not schemes. Not FOIA requests. Not breaking a story. Nothing compares to the love I have for feature writing.

Do I get excited when breaking news occurs? Hell yeah. What journalist wouldn’t? Do I love being the first to tell an important story that impacts an entire community? Um… Yeah. I do. Do I love asking the tough questions and providing readers with important information that can affect their daily lives? Abso-frackin’-lutely.

But I love feature writing more. I love the description. The ability to tell someone’s story. Taking a walk in someone else’s shoes. (Please, ignore the terrible use of a cliche. I am trying to make a point.) Bringing other peoples successes and failures to life with a few questions and some creative thinking. I love it. I love it so much.

Even though you keep your distance and remain impartial, becoming a part of someone’s life just long enough to tell their story requires a great amount of trust between yourself and the subject. It’s a big deal. And some could argue that getting someone to open up about their personal life is much more of a challenge than tracking down a corrupt government official. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. But some might.

One example that comes to mind is a two-part series I wrote for The Alestle about a student (a speech communication major) who uses a wheelchair getting handicap buttons installed outside of the speech comm department offices. At first, it seemed like a pretty straightforward news story. But this girl was willing to talk about anything and everything. She let me into her world and allowed me to see things from her perspective.

In fact, I ended up finding out that we attended school in the same district (different high schools) before going to SIUE. And, I gave her a ride back to campus the weekend I was working on the story. During that time we did the interview. She didn’t have to go on and on like she did, making the interview take up almost the entire 45-minute drive from St. Louis to Edwardsville. But she did. She told story after story, without much asking, and allowed me to create one of the favorite stories I’ve ever written.

It wasn’t just about her making a change on campus. It was about her life. Her accomplishments. It was her life’s story. And I loved being the one to tell it.

You just don’t get the same satisfaction from a well-written news story that perfectly uses inverted pyramid as you do from crafting the words that reveal someone’s life to the world. There’s nothing like it.

Staff editorials matter — My college paper just proved it

You don’t realize it when you first start writing for a newspaper (or magazine, or working in broadcast), but people, believe it or not, actually listen to what you’re saying. And that’s never been more evident than on the opinion/editorial page.

I have a soft spot for editorials (individual and staff) because of the opinion editor position being the first editor title I had in college. I was told the opinion editor spot is good for people who you want to be an editor, but you want to make sure they can handle it. There was (usually) only one page of layout, writing more opinion stories than you used to and compiling and editing everything for staff editorials. Sounds pretty simple, right?

Well, it is. But it’s also one of the most important positions on the paper, as far as I’m concerned. People like to read what other people think. People like to complain about what other people think. People like to praise people for having the same beliefs.

But what I like most about the editorial page is that it can elicit change. Did that happen while I was opinion editor? No, not really. I was able to expand the section to two-page spreads on occasion, which was great, but nothing I wrote and no staff editorials under my leadership really made a big difference.

But a recent one at my college paper did.

The staff wrote about how boarded up windows on buildings around campus, specifically Dunham Hall (the mass comm/theater building), are an eyesore and don’t accurately showcase the aesthetics of the school. They suggested, at the very least, painting the wooden boards black so they’re not such an obvious eyesore.

The Alestle’s current editor in chief posted on Facebook a couple days ago that those boards were recently painted black.

It’s just neat to me that what journalists say — especially on the college level — does matter and does make a difference. My only complaint is that it doesn’t happen more often.

Journalism in the real world: A six-month reflection

Well, I’m half way there. Today marks six months since I started living in this weird little place called “The Real World.” And it’s definitely been an interesting venture so far.

When I first started my job as a staff reporter, I was also working at a second internship, which I started around Thanksgiving. Needless to say, the real world kicked my ass. I was working about 50+ hours a week between the full-time gig and the internship, along with doing interviews for InsideSTL’s music section in what little downtime I had left.

About three months in, I gave up on trying to hold down a full- and part-time job and a sporadic writing gig. I quit my internship to focus on my full-time reporting job. (I still write pretty regularly for InsideSTL.) Even though I’m still trying to find things to do to fill my time on my Wednesdays off, I’m glad I went the path I did. I think I would have burned out way too fast if I tried keeping up at that pace.

The only problem is that now I feel like I have too much down time. I went from being a full-time student and part-time journalist (which, let’s face it, there’s no such thing as a “part-time journalist,” even at the college level) to a full-time journalist and somehow ended up with more down time than when I was in school.

I’m not constantly on the go anymore, despite spending the majority of my weeknights covering meetings. I don’t have some work or school-related task to take up every waking (and sleeping) hour of my life. It’s so… weird. So weird, in fact, that I even went back to SIUE to chat with the Mass Comm department chair about grad school. I really do want to return to school at some point and get a Master’s so I can be better equipped to reach one of my ultimate career goals (creating a magazine). But, unfortunately, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

But anyway, to get off that tangent and back on track…

Life in the real world isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be (She says knowing everyone around her is saying, “I TOLD YOU SO!!!”). I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but the transition from a college newsroom to a community newspaper newsroom was shocking, to be blunt. At the Alestle, we had a staff of roughly 20 to 30 to cover one college campus, not including the advertising department. Where I work now, we have a staff of about 10 to 12 including secretarial, advertising, part-time office workers, etc., where my editor and myself are the entire editorial staff.

The staff size alone was a shock, let alone the way stories ideas are generated. Most stories come from board meetings/agendas now. In college, the ideas came from talking to people, searching SIUE’s website, campus events, etc. I just thank the journalism gods that my former managing editor (and later editor in chief) stuck me on the student government beat back when I was a baby reporter. It prepared me more than I could have ever realized at the time.

One of the biggest adjustments I’ve had to make is having very few people to vent to about the frustrations of my first “real” journalism job. Back in college, my best friends worked for the paper too, so there was plenty of time to get out our frustrations in between editorial meetings, watching episodes of Archer in the office and random nights out of the office.

But when your closest journalism friends from college either don’t go into the industry after graduation, or they’re at least 45 miles away, the healthy venting time just isn’t there. And it makes the stress twice as hard to manage.

Even though I’ve made post-collegiate life sound like a depressing hell, I promise it’s not all bad. I am getting great experience and learning new things with every issue we publish. Because our staff is so frackin’ tiny, I also copy edit the entire paper and post a majority of our content online. The small staff does allow me to hone other skills I have but aren’t quite where they could be.

I’ve also been able to write some pretty cool stories. A member of British parliament was visiting Jefferson Barracks a few months back, and I had the opportunity to cover her visit and interview her. And, one of my first post-collegiate stories was about the one-year anniversary of a tornado that ripped through the city of Sunset Hills the previous New Year’s Eve.

So, it’s really not all that bad. But the transition is the hardest part. THE. HARDEST. PART. But you (read, “I”) can’t let the frustration wear you down. Because it will cloud your vision, and you won’t be able to see how much progress you’re able to make and how much you really are contributing to the media outlet(s) you work for.

But because (as far as I can tell) journalists are generally a pessimistic, dark and depressing bunch (with a wicked sense of inappropriate, yet always entertaining humor), I can’t very well end this post on a happy note. So, here we go: When I was texting one of my old Alestle friends about some of these issues, he texted me back John Mayer song lyrics. At first I thought it was funny and a little odd coming from him. But then I realized, it’s so true…

Letting Go of Your College Newspaper

On my last official day as editor in chief of the Alestle, I refused to turn in my office keys until I left for the last time. As childish as that sounds, that just shows how much I didn’t want to leave the paper. And as I’m writing, a certain U2 song comes to mind… ignoring the “love” aspect, of course.

Anyway, back to my point. Even though I was looking forward to graduating and starting a new job, I didn’t want to leave the Alestle. I didn’t want to leave Edwardsville. I didn’t want to leave my friends — most of them worked at the Alestle. I didn’t want to leave with so much left undone.

As graduation got closer, I slowly started to realize there was so much more I wanted to do. I wanted to keep improving the paper. I didn’t even have a full year to make changes, help new reporters, work with new editors, etc. Everything I had worked for was just being left. Incomplete. Unfinished. Halfway finished. And I hated it.

But, obviously I had to snap out of it and get to work a couple weeks later, which I did. But I’ve spent so much time comparing my current newsroom to my college newsroom. The atmosphere is different. The conversation is different. The memories… it’s all different. Not necessarily bad-different. Just…  sad-nostalgic-different.

And I went back a few times to help with the transition for the new editor in chief. It was fun to go back and get thrown into the rush of deadline in the same newsroom that I walked out of stressed and near-tears so many times. (Yeah, I realize how weird that sounds.) It felt like I was in the right place.

But the last time I went to visit, it was different. Everyone was busy. They were rushing in and out of the office between classes, getting assignments ready for the next week, figuring out class schedules. And I realized, I don’t belong here anymore. As much as I love the Alestle, and as much as I want to see everyone on staff (editors now, but just baby reporters a year and a half ago) succeed and make the paper the best it can be, I know I need to leave it alone.

It’s not my place to critique, suggest, criticize or edit. I did my part while I was there. I didn’t have former editors lurking around trying to relive their glory days. And I don’t want to be that former editor. A visit every now and then? That’s totally cool. But to visit. Not to do any hands-on assisting with the paper itself.

It’s their turn to do things. And I know they’ll do them well. Sure, there will be some screw ups along the way — I know I had my fair share of them. But it’s part of the process.

And, now that I’ve written a completely cheesy and totally sappy blog post, I think it’s important to point out that, despite what the general public says, JOURNALISTS ARE NOT UNEMOTIONAL. WE HAVE FEELINGS! They’re just covered underneath many layers of newsprint and pica poles…