Today’s USA Today carried what is possibly the best newspaper headline ever written.
A man named Bear killed an alligator to avenge the death of his friend
As a headline, it is quite literal. It is as rich in detail as the story that follows it.
According to the article, Bear believed the alligator had killed his friend.
“He had to go,” Bear said. “That’s what happens when you kill someone.”
Bear’s suspicions were confirmed. According to the article, “game wardens cut open the alligator Monday night – after Bear killed it – and found remains of Woodward inside.”
But Woodward wasn’t entirely innocent.
The article says that “Woodward went to the marina on Thursday, and despite pleas from the staff and a posted warning sign reading, “No Swimming. Alligators”, jumped in and was “almost immediately attacked.”
The police weren’t sympathetic to Bear’s act of revenge.
“Woodward’s cause of death is listed as unknown, pending an autopsy. Bear is facing a class C misdemeanor and a fine of up to $500.”
The Lesson for the Publishing Industry.
Nowadays the newspapers devote more space to opinions than to reporting life. These articles have clever headlines like “A Good Bad Deal” (Tom Friedman) and “Cold War Without the Fun.” (ditto). The problem is that these articles are disingenuous. Real life is so messy that a credible retelling cannot be condensed into neat sound bytes. Tom Friedman is a good ad copywriter. But to pretend that the world is so simple as to be flat would be sheer stupidity.
If a newspaper is to provide a credible (and relatable) retelling of life, it needs to be a lot messier. And when a media outlet abandons the need for neat taxonomies and concise narratives, it will find that truly memorable stories, more often than not, can be fragmented and very, very literal.