Take it from the pros – headlines should not be an oversight. In fact, headlines can live on as the entire story.
New York headlines were going viral long before the Internet provided a venue for messages to go viral. A short, smarmy, sensational header plastered across a front page in 3-inch letters could, like no other medium, capture the essence of a news event, dominating conversation around water coolers across the country and getting picked up virally by TV networks and national news magazines.
Tabloid journalists have always called these headlines “the wood,” for the inches-high wood headline type used before newspapers went digital. Sometimes the wood might overtake the story and assume a life of its own – like the New York Post’s immortal 1983 headline, “Headless Body in Topless Bar.”
The story was a ghastly account of how a psychopath invaded a Queens bar, murdered the owner and forced a customer to cut the head off of the dead body. It was sensational, all right, but maybe not the kind of a story to lead the news, journalism mavens sniffed. Except the headline, produced by legendary Post editor Vincent Musetto, was just tabloid perfection. It will live forever.
Another timeless example was the N.Y. Daily News’ 1975 front pager: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” This was after President Gerald R. Ford denied federal aid to prevent New York from going bankrupt, and the headline uncannily summed up the city’s outrage about the administration’s fiscal intransigence (though, in fact, Ford changed his mind a few months later).
Now, of course, the New York tabloids are bringing “the wood” into the digital era. Every day, the Post and the News (and a few other tabloids around the country) make a frontpage play for cyber gold, trolling for 20 million mouse clicks and national notoriety.
Ironically, while the headlines are viewed – and shared and tweeted – by millions, the newspapers themselves, starved for paying readers, are dying a slow death. The Daily News, which in the 1940s sold more than 4 million copies on Sundays and 2 million on weekdays, now has a circulation of about 241,000. The N.Y. Post, which during its tabloid heyday in the 1980s sold 800,000 copies a day, is now at about 400,000.
More people than ever are reading the “daily wood.” Unfortunately, they’re picking it up on their smart phones and not buying the print version.
Still, aficionados savor the latest gems. The Post scored big recently, cleverly piggybacking on a story about a coming blizzard on a controversy about the lack of minorities among recently announced Academy Award contenders: “This weekend will be… Whiter than the Oscars.”
And the News recently chipped in with another viral winner. After presidential contender Ted Cruz put down Donald Trump as representing questionable “New York values,” the paper responded: “Drop Dead, Ted,” complete with a crude representation of the Statue of Liberty flipping a middle finger.
Again with the “Drop Dead”? In fact, says the Daily News editorial library, the paper has used “Drop Dead” on “the wood” four times since 1995 (the earliest date for which the library could search electronically), to say nothing of a sports headline or two on the back page.
This is what you might call squandering the family fortune. Sure, New York has been underestimated, insulted, dissed and ridiculed plenty in the past 40 years. But trotting out the old warhorse every time it happens (like when a hot cornerback prospect decided to sign with the Philadelphia Eagles instead of the Giants or Jets) diminishes its impact.
Coming up with the right high-impact phrase is a daily challenge for tabloid editors. Unfortunately, it’s more about rep and status than revenue. “The art of tabloid writing may yet outlive the tabloid,” according to N.Y. Times reporter Jonathan Mahler.