Maybe This Is Why Newspapers Are Failing: Boring Headlines

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Display copy in American broadsheets is oppressively dull -- and reflective of a deeper attitude that contributes to their declining fortunes.

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Flickr/NS Newsflash

On road trips, including the one I took recently between Tampa, Florida, and Charlotte, North Carolina, I habitually buy a local newspaper every time I stop to buy gas, food, or coffee. As my colleague Garance Franke-Ruta can attest, the result is frustrated muttering about the product. For various reasons, I think local newspapers remain important to American democracy, and that their waning readership and influence is likely to coincide with more corruption, absent steps to mitigate their decline that aren't being taken. On the other hand, look at the headlines.

Why are they so oppressively boring?

The banality on display won't be apparent if your notion of newspaper heds comes from The New York Times. Elite broadsheets turn out some good display copy. But neither is my frustration aimed at obscure newspapers in tiny towns largely unknown to the broader world. Each day, the Newseum updates its Web site with images of the front pages from 800 newspapers worldwide. Perusing them, here are a selection of front page headlines from September 10, 2012.

I defy anyone to get through these without skimming:

  • Bills Wait Congress' Return (The Atlanta Journal Constitution)
  • Romney Talks Health Fix (The Tampa Bay Times)
  • Day's Light, Leaves Signalling Noticeable Shift to Autumn (Arizona Daily Star)
  • As Vote Nears, Camps' Rhetoric Sharpens (The Miami Herald)
  • Price of Maintaining WTC Memorial Is Questioned (The Fresno Bee)

You're having trouble already, aren't you?

And these are A1 stories. Here are some more:

  • Homeless Authority Holding Course Through Re-Assessment (Savannah Morning News)
  • For Swing Voters, Tossup For President (The Chicago Tribune)
  • In Nashua, Aldermen Don't Agree on Panel (New Hampshire Union Leader)
  • Believers Called on to Vote with Faith (The Charlotte Observer)
  • Congress Returns Briefly (Pittsburgh Tribune Review)
  • In Post-9/11 America, Resilience Is Ongoing Project (The Dallas Morning News)
  • Original Marble Counter Reinstalled in Courthouse (The Bloomington Herald-Times)
  • Insurers: Redo Annuity Law That Helps Elderly (Orlando Sentinel)

These are but a small sample of boring headlines from a single day in this country.

The question isn't whether you'd pay 50 cents to read those stories; it's whether you'd agree to slog through them if paid $15. Yes, there are reasons why some of these headlines aren't better. Some of the stories just aren't very interesting. And ink on paper imposes space constraints.

But the reasons don't ultimately matter when there are alternatives available. Most newspaper readers formed the habit of buying them before Web headlines,Twitter teases, Facebook likes, and other ways to discover content. What are the chances anyone else would buy a newspaper on the strength of headlines like the ones I listed? I'd put them at approaching zero.

Boring headlines are just one of many problems afflicting newspapers. Still, they seem symptomatic of a broader attitude that makes much of the content contained in their pages needlessly dull. The writers are often capable of writing better copy. The photographers almost always get more interesting images than make it into print. But the prevailing ethos combines a suicidal insistence on staid neutrality with an aversion to anything provocative even within those bounds.

Please, broadsheet editors, free your staffs to be more interesting! A different feel might cost you a few stodgy longtime readers. But let's be honest, you're going to lose them to the grave soon anyway.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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