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An Ex-Insider’s Look at a Bad NYT Headline

4 min read

More than three and a half years after getting the ax from The New York Times, I have a chance to say I told you so.

I’m not going to, exactly.

The paper employed me for 17 years, and I helped oversee the front page for a decade. Writing a weekly internal headline critique was part of the job, and I wrote or revised thousands of headlines.

So I was on the outside looking in when The Times published a headline this month — about President Donald Trump’s response to mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton — that deeply embarrassed the paper, igniting sharp criticism and a wave of canceled subscriptions.

At a special staff meeting a week ago, Executive Editor Dean Baquet called the headline “a [expletive] mess” and fielded questions on whether the paper’s recent overhaul of its editing process had contributed to the misjudgment.

The company operates now with perhaps 100 fewer copy editors, specialists who gave things a final read, fixing problems and writing headlines and captions.

The newsroom overhaul came in conjunction with a mission document, the “2020 Report,” which declared a need to double digital subscription revenue by 2022. One thrust was eliminating “low-value editing” that treated stories like “fire hydrants” subject to a sprinkle from editor after editor after editor.

Another expendable luxury was the news desk, senior editors who determined what was “fit to print.” Hardly any of the night-shift news editors I worked with a dozen years ago remain on staff, and it’s a good bet none of them would have approved Aug. 6’s lead headline: “Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism.”

It was a superficial distillation of events after a racist mass shooting in El Paso committed by an alleged gunman who parroted Trump’s border “invaders” language before killing 22 people at a Walmart store.

The credulous headline drew an immediate backlash, and The Times quickly changed it. But the first headline was already viral; the damage was done.

Arkansas Times Editor Lindsey Millar, noting that Trump had indeed read a mechanical denunciation of racism and white supremacy from a teleprompter, got to the root of the original headline’s faults: “It’s inexcusable and irresponsible to not put Teleprompter Trump in context of everyday Trump: on Twitter, at rallies and in other off-the-cuff speeches.”

John Brummett, writing in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, recognized that headline-writing is a difficult, thankless job: boiling down a complex article into a few choice words. Brummett’s best stab? “Trump says stuff; people mad.”

Brilliant, but not something you’d see in The Times. The paper says that when editors realized the first headline was faulty, they changed it. Revising headlines between editions is a common practice, but the change itself drew attacks by Trump supporters, who claimed The Times had caved in to liberal pressure.

Baquet, the chief editor, said the unidentified author of the initial headline is “sick about it,” but he conceded the paper will be looking to improve its coverage of race in America.

The uproar is undoubtedly a stumble for Times journalism, but it may be just a blip for business.

Scrapping “redundant” editing was meant to free up resources for modern platforms like “The Daily,” a popular podcast, and NYT Cooking, a profitable recipe franchise led by Sam Sifton. More accessible stories serve the paper’s funneling strategy to gain new digital subscribers. With more clicks, more readers reach a limit on free stories, and a small fraction hitting that wall actually get out their credit cards. The key is The Times’ great scale, visibility and legacy, assets that few papers can match. We used to call it the “last man standing” philosophy.

The Times announced Aug. 7 that it had added 197,000 digital-only subscribers in the second quarter, bringing the subscriber base to 4.7 million. The company is unquestionably far healthier than it was in my last years there. A share price of $51.55 in June 2002 had crashed to $4.13 by February 2009, and less than three years ago a share was $11.

Propelled by digital strategy or the Trump-driven news explosion or both, The Times has rebounded remarkably. When I was sacked at the end of 2015, the stock was trading at $13. This June, it was at $33.76, and last week it traded at $28.

Bottom line? Running me off is starting to look like one tiny part of a brilliant business strategy by The Times. Still, I could have saved it from that headline.

My ideas? “Trump Speaks on Massacres” would fit, and while it’s flat, it’s indisputably accurate and free of irony. Or how about a quote headline conveying the president’s mindset? “Trump: Hate ‘Pulls the Trigger.’”

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