With New York Times Influence, Bloomberg Headline Weirdness Fading

“The headlines usually make sense once you’ve read the article.” Yeah, right.

REUTERS

The famously bizarre and inscrutable headlines that often adorn Bloomberg News articles are a cherished joke among journalists, most of all within Bloomberg itself. But they may be in danger of losing their peculiar edge.

Some prototypically odd headlines from the past year:

 Feeding Naked Chef's Chickens Killing Biggest Bond Rally
 Mao's Red Flag May Need to Evoke Panda DNA to Beat Audi
 Harvard Women Freed From Urinal 50 Years After First Female MBA
 BMW to Amazon Space Demand Spurs Rush to Inland Empire

That Bloomberg writes sometimes incomprehensible titles for its article is no secret. The phenomenon has a hashtag and a parody Twitter account. But now, to the chagrin of some Bloomberg News staff, someone important has taken notice.

"Several editors acknowledged that headline clarity can sometimes be an issue," wrote journalist Clark Hoyt last month in a report commissioned by Bloomberg (pdf). He then ticked off a few headlines that had caught his eye:

 DSM's Flirt With Red Hot Mamas Cuts Investor Love for Plastics
 Brokers Go Gray as Youth Proves Unsustainable With No Cold Calls
• Cold War With Soup Tempts East Europeans to Menus of HBO, Sony
• DoCoMo Cash, Girl Band Help Beat Softbank on Costs: Japan Credit

"I assume that, to them, it makes complete sense what they've written," said the anonymous proprietor of Strange Bloomberg Headlines, a blog that has documented myriad examples since 2011. "They just don't realize that a reader coming at it for the first time won't understand what's going on."

He added, "The headlines usually make sense once you've read the article."

That may no longer be sufficient. Hoyt's recommendations, which Bloomberg said it would follow, included the appointment of a standards editor to, among other things, "review headlines for accuracy, clarity, and tone."

Hoyt, who previously served as public editor of the New York Times, was hired by Bloomberg to review its journalistic ethics after the revelation that reporters had access to information about how Bloomberg customers used the company's data and news terminals. Several large banks, which are responsible for the bulk of Bloomberg's revenue, complained about the intrusion.

The Hoyt report ran just 20 pages but covered a lot of journalistic ground, surprising some Bloomberg editors. It's not clear how seriously his recommendations will be taken, but he remains employed by the company. Bloomberg declined to make Hoyt available for an interview.

There's a certain art to the Bloomberg headline--a pile of words that somehow adds up to something meaningful, if not understandable. Let's pause for some more:

 Carney Not Yet With Pink Set Sharing Policies Beyond BOE Circle
 Shark Oil for HIV Shot Takes Cue From Hemingway's Old Man
 Giraffe Mulling Suicide as 'Terrorists' Chant in Cairo
 Kill Your Wife While Sleepwalking or Get Goldman Touch

Most news organizations adopt headline conventions that, over time, become institutional clichés. (The New York Times: In Starting With a Prepositional Phrase, a Way to Sound Intelligent. Business Insider: BOOM: Here Is Something Extraordinarily Mundane. Quartz: Why everything you ever believed is a lie, in charts.) Other headlinese words--mull, see, probe, nix--are artifacts of space constraints imposed by narrow newspaper columns.

Presented by

Zachary M. Seward is a senior editor at Quartz. He previously worked at The Wall Street Journal and Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab. He teaches digital journalism at NYU.

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