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:
Mubarak Orders Crackdown, With Revolt Sweeping Egypt
Egyptians Defiant as Military Does Little to Quash Protests
In Egypt, Opposition Unifies Around Government Critic
Mubarak's Grip Is Shaken as Millions Are Called to Protest
MUBARAK WON'T RUN AGAIN, BUT STAYS;
OBAMA URGES A FASTER SHIFT OF POWER
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.