Sunday, March 22, 2009

What is in a title?

I originally wrote this entry on August 9, 2004 and published it on

Well, if you're impatient to know jump to the last three paragraphs . . . Otherwise, read from here for much more interesting material.

Every morning in Wall Street and other places in America, respectable men and women begin their day reading The Wall Street Journal as the most excellent source of business news.

These respectable men and women do not always have the time or the inclination to read whole stories, cover to cover. Who is to blame them? (On August 2, 2004, the European edition of the Financial Times reported that Americans were now spending an average of some 10 hours a day consuming various types of media. There's now even an organization that promotes turning TVs off.) In any case, society has made it the case that time is a scarce commodity.

We, the respectable men and women who still read papers, often rely on the able hands of the editors to summarize the stories in appropriate titles and subtitles. The editors oblige by composing the comfortable headings, never disturbing the prejudices of the readers with inconvenient details that the writer may have delt with in putting the story together.

As for myself, while I have the printed edition of the Journal delivered to my home every morning, I generally read the online edition assuming I have time. Sometimes, but rarely, I do get to read the printed edition, which has a slightly different format. For some reason, I can see stories I like much better on the printed edition.

I became partial to the Journal while I was taking one of my electives in the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley: Social Reporting. I'm not sure if they still offer this course at Berkeley but back in 1992-1993, this was taught by one professor McDougal. Professor McDougal had worked for the Journal as a younger man, had left it and declared himself socialist and written about his adventures in the Monthly Review, a socialist, semi-academic magazine from New York which I'm surprised to see still in publication.

McDougal was famous for his high-profile departure from the Journal. He had a nice home in Berkeley and was generally a very good professor of journalism and writing although he was not always happy with my unconventional views or my writing style. He was the one who introduced us to the real Journal, i.e. the special reporting in the first and forth columns of the A1 page. He showed us why it was the "best paper in America."

Now, back to the main topic of this Weblog: Titles.

While McDougal introduced us to the WSJ, Tom Goldstein, who was then the Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkely (and then the Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia) taught us something else: Writers rarely chose the titles of their articles. What is more, they often lost paragraphs to their editors or other influential members of the editorial board who may even go as far as changing or embellishing the story as they liked. This was just part of the politics of writing and publishing in a paper. Goldstein introduced me to A.J. Liebling.

Well, I think I may have seen a good example of all this politics and machination in the WSJ today (August 9, 2004). This afternoon, I decided to take the printed WSJ out the trunk of my car and read it while having a late lunch at a Thai restaurant. On page A1, in the left-most column there was an impeccably reported story by John Carreyrou with a rather questionable title. The story should probably be titled "The French Patriot Act" but it is titled "France Moves Fast to expel Muslims Preaching Hatred" with the following subtitle "In Bid to Pre-Empt Terror, Nation Targets 8 Imams; Law Hits Legal Residents: Sent to Turkey After 28 Years."

I recommend that you read the full story and then decide whether this is a good title. That's if you have time . . . which you probably won't . . . in which case, you'll be left with the title ringing in your head. Good work ! ! !

Yes, I do wonder how many people will read the text past the title--a job well done by reporter John Carreyrou but with a misleading heading.

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