Thursday, November 19, 2015

Thoughts on 'Headline Names.' Or, What on Earth is a 'Magaziner'?

During Bill Clinton's first term as president, I was not yet at The Washington Post. I worked at another news organization -- one that was, shall we say, extremely interested in the inner workings of the administration. One night I was working on a story that involved a Clinton adviser named Ira Magaziner (shown above in a New York Times article that reminded me of all this), and the headline said something like "Clinton aide blah blah blah." The top editor was not happy with this headline, and he told us to change it to "Magaziner blah blah blah." Specificity is good, he said.

He's right that specificity is good. "Clinton health-care adviser Ira Magaziner blah blah blah" or "Clinton health-care adviser Magaziner blah blah blah" or even "Clinton aide Magaziner blah blah blah" would have been better, but there was no room to get that specific. So we could call the guy "Clinton aide" or we could call him "Magaziner."

There's a concept in big-time journalism called "headline names." It's pretty simple: Will most readers know who you're talking about if you put that name in a headline? Making that determination is an art, not a science, and it involves questions of familiarity, ambiguity and context. "Magaziner" failed on all three counts. No matter what my bosses may have thought, the vast majority of readers were not so obsessed with the Clinton White House that they would have recognized that name. So much for familiarity. The ambiguity problem usually takes a different form: For instance, which "Clinton" are we talking about? The same editor who insisted on "Magaziner" once told me to change "lawmaker" to "Smith," or some other very common name, in a reference to an obscure congressman. That's a great example of more specific being less specific -- yes, "Rep. Hypothetical J. Smith, a Republican representing California's 17th Congressional District," would be more specific, but "Smith"? Nope. Smiths outnumber lawmakers by a wide margin. 

With "Magaziner," especially in an up-style headline (major words capitalized) or, in this case, at the start of a headline, the problem is a name that combines bizarre rarity with misdirection. What the hell is a magaziner? Verb, intransitive, "one who magazines"? Are we referring to Jann Wenner? Anna Wintour? Henry Luce? Hugh Hefner, Bob Guccione, Larry Flynt? Those kids who go door to door asking you to buy cut-rate subscriptions to subsidize their school trips?

If the name had been Blumenthal or something, or Magaziner's name had been in a spot where its proper-noun capitalization had been obvious, context would have probably made the non-headline name fine. The "blah blah blah" was no doubt something about advising the president, and so one could infer that we were talking about a presidential adviser and not somebody having something to do with magazines. You could argue that readers would have figured this out with Magaziner as well, but I don't know. I'm still thinking it's Hef.