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Banner Headlines

Banner headlines fascinate me.

Part of it is because my father was a newspaperman, and so I'm interested in journalism in general. But even beyond that, a banner headline implies history-making news. After all, the choice of publishing a headline that fills all the columns on the top of the newspaper implies that this story is much more important than the usual story.

Banner headlines illustrate the fact that deciding what is significant while you are living through it is a fallible human decision. An editorial board has to make the decision that this particular news story is really that important, and if history judges otherwise, the editors might end up appearing a little foolish or short-sighted. Of course, by then, people will probably have forgotten.

(The Onion played up this human element to banner headlines quite well in their book "Our Dumb History." For the onset of World War II, the banner headline is in a huge font that reads "WA-" with a note that the headline is continued on an inside page.)

As it is, the main paper I read is the New York Times, and so it's their banner headlines that I "collect," for lack of a better term. The Times is a pretty good paper for banner headlines, as they are more conservative when it comes to running banner headlines than many other papers. Although they started publishing in 1851, they didn't run their first banner headline until April 16, 1912, for the sinking of the Titanic:

TITANIC SINKS FOUR HOURS AFTER HITTING ICEBERG;
866 RESCUED BY CARPATHIA, PROBABLY 1250 PERISH;
ISMAY SAFE, MRS. ASTOR MAYBE, NOTED NAMES MISSING

(Note the use of all-caps, as opposed to capital letters only at the beginning of words. That's another decision editors have to make when it comes to banner headlines.)

This past week has been a good one for "collectors," as we just came off a streak of banner headlines. From January 29 through February 3, for six days straight, the New York Times ran daily banner headlines about the crisis in Egypt. That streak ended today, although they did run a five-column, two-line headline about the ongoing crisis. Part of me was hoping for more, but in a way, the fewer banner headlines, the better.

If you missed them, here they are:

1/29/11:
Mubarak Orders Crackdown, With Revolt Sweeping Egypt

1/30/11:
Egyptians Defiant as Military Does Little to Quash Protests

1/31/11:
In Egypt, Opposition Unifies Around Government Critic

2/1/11:
Mubarak's Grip Is Shaken as Millions Are Called to Protest

2/2/11:
MUBARAK WON'T RUN AGAIN, BUT STAYS;
OBAMA URGES A FASTER SHIFT OF POWER

2/3/11:
MUBARAK'S BACKERS STORM PROTESTORS
AS U.S. CONDEMNS EGYPT'S VIOLENT TURN

My understanding is that a streak of banner headlines is not uncommon during times of war, although I don't know what the New York Times overall record is. I do know that I lived through their record for peacetime banner headlines, which took place in November 2000. For twenty days in a row they ran banner headlines about the presidential election (which, you may recall, dragged on due to the balloting problems in Florida). Their last banner headline for the election was published on November 27, 2000, while the recount was still dragging on:

BUSH IS DECLARED WINNER IN FLORIDA,
BUT GORE VOWS TO CONTEST RESULTS

(The previous record was seventeen days in a row, from September to October 1919, when many unrelated events happened close together, including a steel strike, race riots, and a World Series.)

I worry about the fate of the banner headline. If newspapers eventually become completely digital, how will editors decide what "today's" headline is? With headlines changing by the minute, will there be a way to measure a streak of daily banner headlines? If not, the world of journalism will be poorer for it.

Comments

my parents have a collection of NYT newspapers from the 60s and 70s, that they keep in plastic bags. When JFK was killed, moon landing etc. Richie and I have some as well. I've always been fascinated by it.
My father had a lot of old newspapers, some of which had fascinating headlines. Unfortunately, there were too many to really go through and try to find them.

I think that somewhere in storage I have the Times headline from the Challenger tragedy.
I'm of the opinion that the Times has chosen to water down the significance of the banner headline. While what's going in Egypt is obviously big news, it's been pretty much the same story the whole week, and doesn't seem to warrant such coverage on a daily basis. It's as if the Times is trying to show that they and they alone cover international news stories in this way.
It's possible; it does seem significant to me that in the beginning the Times went for over 50 years without a banner headline, and nowadays they seem more prevalent.

Then again, a lot of other newspapers have banner headlines a lot more frequently than the Times, which is why I tend to take them as a standard to study.
This was very interesting. Thank you so much.
You're welcome!
A few years ago, when they were sorting through old items in preparation for a move, my parents gave me some NYT papers with the following banner headlines:

SOVIET FIRES EARTH SATELLITE INTO SPACE;
IT IS CIRCLING THE GLOBE AT 18,000 M.P.H.;
SIGNALS PICKED UP FROM 184-POUND SPHERE

KENNEDY IS KILLED BY SNIPER
AS HE RIDES IN CAR IN DALLAS;
JOHNSON SWORN IN ON PLANE

MEN WALK ON MOON
----------------
ASTRONAUTS LAND ON A PLAIN
AFTER STEERING PAST CRATER

(I have three copies of that last one.)
I don't know if this would be to your taste, but the Onion's "Our Dumb Century" has a very funny take on the "Men Walk on Moon" headline. Their headline opens with a scatological phrase and includes a sub-headline with obscenity in it. Although I'm not going to retype the headline here, I did find the headline (and the article, with the astronauts using obscenity and scatology to discuss how incredible it was that they landed on the moon) hilarious.

At least vaguely related by virtue of print

In case you didn't see this already:


City of Boston to sell off entire contents of its glorious, ancient print shop

http://www.boingboing.net/2011/02/01/city-of-boston-to-se.html

Re: At least vaguely related by virtue of print

If only I could afford it...
Quite a fascinating habit you have there. Thanks for this post. I've just realized that subconsciously I've been wondering about this myself.

"If newspapers eventually become completely digital, how will editors decide what "today's" headline is? With headlines changing by the minute, will there be a way to measure a streak of daily banner headlines?"

I've taken all my news in digital format--NYT, WP, etc--for the last few years, and in a simplistic answer to your last questions, I think editors go with the most important stories at the top--a nod to the banner headline.

Other times, I feel like everything is a banner headline. That said, I think a reader can still tell when something momentous is happening. Whatever the other news was, I knew (and know) that what's going on in Egypt is important (an understatement, but it's late at night here).
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