In almost three decades as a print journalist, I never called out a fellow headline writer for something he or she crafted to introduce a story.
What I never did was write a headline so egregiously bad that readers threatened to yank their subscriptions over what I wrote.
Someone at Texas Monthly Magazine did, however. Here’s the headline:
“Blue Bellghazi Continues: Total Recall Issued for All Products Everywhere.”
The powers that be at Texas Monthly, which “has chronicled life in contemporary Texas since 1973,” according to its website, should never have allowed that headline to run. (As of April 22, it was still displayed on the magazine’s website. The Web link is www.texasmonthly.com/daily-post/blue-bellghazi-continues-total-recall-issued-all-products-everywhere)
There is no comparison between the recent bacterial contamination of Blue Bell’s products and the Sept. 11, 2012, terror attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead.
Texans (and I count myself as one, having been born and raised in the Lone Star State) knew and loved Blue Bell ice cream long before the Brenham, Texas-based company developed a national brand. On April 20, Blue Bell Creameries voluntarily recalled all of its products after contamination by the sometimes-deadly bacteria listeria killed three people in Kansas and made several others sick in Arizona, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
Here’s a sampling of reader comments on Texas Monthly’s Facebook page about the headline:
- “How dare you equate ice cream recall to Benghazi! Very poor taste.”
- “That cute play on words is extremely disrespectful.”
- “What a ghastly choice of words Texas Monthly chose. They should be ashamed.”
- “You all stepped in it TM, didn’t you? Either poor taste or a Troll for an editor. Going after BBQ, High School Football, or the Texas Flag next? Morons.”
- “Bellghazi? Up yours, worthless rag.”
Here’s my response: “That is, without a doubt, one of the worst headlines I have ever had the displeasure of reading in my 28-year career as a print journalist. There are some lines you just don’t cross – and your cutesy headline writer jumped WAY over it. That employee (I won’t honor that person with the title ‘journalist’) needs to be canned or resign in disgrace. Immediately.”
While that may sound harsh, it pales in comparison to what one of my old managing editors in Wichita Falls, Texas, would have said to me had I turned in that headline. I have no doubt that this will cost the magazine subscribers – and probably advertisers as well. Both are unforgivable sins for a headline that really wasn’t that good to begin with.
The bottom line is that I understand how important it is to “hook” readers so they’ll read the stories. I’ve worked on newspaper copy desks in Arizona, Indiana and Texas, and because of that experience I am intimately familiar with the “read all about it” pressure that headline writers face. I’ve also written countless dozens of headlines when I was managing editor for Gateway Journalism Review. Writers get hundreds, sometimes thousands, of words to tell their stories. My job as a headline writer was to tell readers what the story is about in 10 words or less – and make it interesting enough to make them read it.
Sometimes I knocked it out of the park with my clever wordplay. Other nights my work was best suited to wrap fish. That’s the nature of the beast when you’re working on deadline.
This one isn’t even fit for that.
Texas Monthly readers deserve better.