OCHIENG: In aesthetics, space and size, a headline should be suitable

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By PHILIP OCHIENG
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Word economy is among the marks of professionalism in newspaper production.

A headline composed of the smallest number of words which, nevertheless, summarise the event adequately — that is the mark of an editorial operator who has arrived.

Yet I culled this headline from page 5 of the Daily Nation of Wednesday, August 2: “All set for polls as final batch of presidential ballot papers arrive”.

Never mind the absence of any article from the noun batch.

Newspaper operators tend to discourage grammatical articles from headlines because such articles tend to slow down the speed of a headline.

But here, even on a prime news page, the headline is composed of 12 words.

That — as a Mark Twain character used to complain — is “too many”.

One secret of headline writing is to use as few words as possible.

But a headline must, nevertheless, make the fullest sense.

That raises one vital question. Are you able to save space for more headline stories using the fewest words in your headlines and yet a headline that introduces the event as fully as is desirable in a newspaper?

Here I use the word “desirable” to describe a headline’s ability to force a passing individual to dip his hand into his pocket or her handbag to produce the money with which to buy a copy of your newspaper, especially as a result of the headline.

Called the chief sub-editor, the newsroom’s individual in charge of this activity knows that, in this context, desirability can be a wholly subjective question, especially whenever the word is used to describe only the interests of the individual selling the organ in which the headline appears.

Here, the adjective “desirable” can mean “profitable”.

Yet, in the theory of knowledge — namely, as an etymological concept — even desirability can be seen as a fully objective “item”.

Most living species “desire” air and water without even knowing that they do or why.

Only the human animal is mentally equipped to become permanently aware that it needs an item from its environment.

But, objectively, a thing is desirable if it is necessary for the very biological existence of a particular individual or society or species.

The ideal newspaper headline, then, is that which consciously summarises as fully as possible, as objectively as possible and as attractively as possible the whole story above which the headline is running.

A heading should thus be appropriate both in terms of size and space and of aesthetics.

For attractiveness is second only to thematic content among the factors that can promote a newspaper’s sales-worthiness and popularity, thus — because of it — raising its profit margin.

Moreover, I know from decades of experience in newspaper work that unattractive layouts and inadequate or exaggerated or shoddy or over-excited headlines are among the factors that have condemned to premature death all the myriad of attempts by indigenous Kenyans, Tanzanians and Ugandans to set up their own newspapers in Dar-es-Salaam, Kampala, Nairobi and other urban centres in the whole region.

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