On the morning of November 5, 2008, when New Yorkers opened up their paper of record, they witnessed two firsts: news of the first black man to become president of the United States, and a headline, unique in New York Times history, that contained no verb. It read, simply, in capitals almost an inch high, OBAMA.
“What was there to add?” says Tom Bodkin, design director of the Times. “‘‘Wins’?” It was a given that informed readers would know that Obama had won the night before and that the front page was doing something more than just announcing a victor. That single word marked a historic event as much as it delivered the news—but it was also reaching back to reference the paper’s own rich history of headline size and font usage. “There isn’t a style book for this stuff,” Bodkin explains. “There’s no consistency.” Instead of that, a small group of editors react in a highly nuanced and instinctive way to the factual and emotional content of the news, eventually reaching a decision over (often heated) discussion about which event deserves which type treatment. The front page for the first day of the new millennium ran “1/1/00” in big (“How big?” “Big”), bold italic caps. “Why italic?” I ask. “It simply looked better,” says Bodkin.
“For instance,” he continues, “the decision to use a five-column headline (“‘Obama Vows, ‘We Will Rebuild’ and ‘Recover,'” 2/25/09), in 3/8-inch-high upper- and lowercase bold italics, was saying ‘this is an important story, but an ongoing important story.'” He compares this with the six-column (i.e., the full width of the page) headline two days later—”OBAMA, BREAKING ‘FROM A TROUBLED PAST,’ SEEKS A BUDGET TO RESHAPE U.S. PRIORITIES” (2/27/09)—which was set in exactly the same typeface, point size and weight, but in all capitals—for a subject the editors considered “an important story at a definitive moment.”
If there is a house style for ordinary big news events, it’s headlines set in italic caps—and sometimes even then they need extra emphasis. Just compare “BLOOMBERG WINS 3RD TERM IN TIGHT RACE; CHRISTIE TOPS CORZINE; VIRGINIA GOES G.O.P.” (11/4/09) to a story just a year later after the Republican Party had taken the House in the recent midterm elections: “G.O.P. TAKES HOUSE” followed by “SETBACK FOR OBAMA; DEMOCRATS HOLD SENATE; CUOMO WINS EASILY; MIXED START BY TEA PARTY” (11/3/10).
Throughout both world wars the Times frequently ran long headlines, in bold italic capitals, spread across all six columns and running three lines deep. It hardly needs pointing out that these were times with a lot of dramatic news. By contrast, the headline on the morning of September 12, 2001, was “U.S. ATTACKED,” in capitals with no italics. “Italics give importance and vitality, but this wasn’t a time for sensationalism,” Bodkin says. The trend to shorter headlines started with the moon, he adds. “The line on July 21, 1969, was ‘MEN WALK ON MOON,’ and the first time the Times went beyond a standard banner head.” Compare this brevity to the verbiage of October 15, 1912: “Maniac in Milwaukee Shoots Col. Roosevelt; He Ignores Wound; Speaks An Hour; Goes To Hospital.” That’s practically an entire story in today’s New York Post!
The front page of October 18, 2009, was a first in an entirely different way. The paper ran a three-day story by its reporter David Rohde, who had been captured by the Taliban and held in Pakistan. “It was an unusual story,” says Bodkin, “but, in fact, we do a lot of firsts.” The stories had an appropriately bookish feel and ran boxed with a quiet type treatment. “We wanted to signal to the reader, graphically, that this is not your normal news story—the visual presentation was consistent with the content,” he adds.
Verb or no verb? That is the question
Largely because (as most of us are increasingly aware) modern readers get their news from a variety of sources throughout their day, newspaper headlines function differently from the way they did in Teddy Roosevelt’s time. They act like soundbites, grabbing attention or marking moments that a serious paper like the New York Times follows up with substance—what Bodkin calls “progressive engagement,” comparing the headline of a story to the shallow end of a pool, allowing the reader to get to “a deeper and richer level. It’s a sequential step.” The online headline of November 2, 2010, as the recent midterm elections were being called, was small because the news was happening in real time (and in effect hadn’t happened yet); the “headline” here was the House results, given in numbers in red and blue at the top left of the page.
And, I ask, what would the headline have been if John McCain had won the presidential election? “We didn’t have to make that decision,” says Bodkin. I think we can assume that “McCain” would have been accompanied by a verb.—LUCY SISMAN