Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Headlines to Die For

HALLIE EPHRON: A few months ago I had the great pleasure of meeting Deb Pines at an MWA chapter meeting in New York that she'd organized. She's working on a mystery, of course, but what floored me is her day (actually, night) job: she writes headlines for the New York Post, a paper famous for its headlines.

After the JetBlue pilot had a meltdown in midair, her headline:

Is that a great headline or what??

Deb, how did you come up with that headline? Did you sit in a cubicle and experience a visitation from Captain Kirk? Or is it a group process?

DEB PINES: At The Post, my team, the copy desk, doesn’t write the screaming Page 1 headline – the wood – every day. When the top editors are stuck, they come over and say something like, “Why don’t we run it by Barry’s boys?” That means my seven male colleagues (on most nights) and me.

Sometimes, the wood is a collaborative brainstorming effort with everyone calling out suggestions. Often – probably due to girly reticence – I submit my ideas on paper.

We all re-use old words or headlines (short ones that fit).  Or we build on prior headlines or concepts. Or, in rare cases, we come up with something new and original. I owe part of my “THIS IS YOUR CAPTAIN FREAKING” to an earlier wood written by a now-deceased colleague, Joe Cunningham.  When a JetBlue steward in 2010 ranted at passengers then fled the plane, beer in hand, out an emergency chute, Joe wrote, “FREAKING FLYER.” I took the “FREAKING” from him and went from there.

HALLIE: Day in the life... what time do you go to work, are you in a big noisy newsroom, and how many headlines do you have to come up with in a given night?

DEB: I work in a big old-school noisy newsroom on the tenth floor of a modern Midtown Manhattan skyscraper.  My shift is from 3:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.  I’d like to say all I do is write headlines.  But, alas, my main functions are far less sexy.  I chop stories to fit the space they’re assigned to.  And, in what’s often a mad rush, I try to catch typos, inconsistencies, misspellings and other mistakes.

Each night, I write between three and fifteen headlines. The number depends on the size of  – the next day’s paper, available staff and stories assigned to me.

I can do many little postage-stamp-sized stories with one-word or two-word headlines like: Luftwaffler (when a Holocaust-denier changed his tune), Mazel Tough (when a family, denied a bar mitvah at the Plaza Hotel due to renovations, lost a lawsuit against the Plaza) and Eyeful Tower (about a different hotel that got cheers and jeers for allegedly encouraging guests to stand naked or have sex in front of curtainless floor-to-ceiling windows).

HALLIE: I inadvertently stayed in that hotel! I wondered why the room was so reasonable.

How on earth did you end up with this job?

DEB: I’m a former newspaper reporter. When I got bitten by the mystery-writing bug, I wanted a “day job” that gave me time and energy to write fiction, too.

My first “day job,” writing entries for a course-catalog from home, turned out to be deadly dull and lonely. My second “day job,” copy-editing a hip-hop magazine (where I changed gangsters to gangstas, players to playas, motherfuckers to muthafuckas, and so on) ended in me being fired.

Missing the camaraderie and adrenaline rush of a newsroom, I applied for copy-editing jobs at every New York newspaper. I got a try-out at The Post that led to the job that I’ve enjoyed since.

HALLIE: Headlines and short, attention grabbing, and pithy. Novels are 80,000 words long. Is there any cross-over in terms of what it takes to get it done?

DEB: Some similarities exist between mystery-writing, headline-writing and any kind of writing. Each has its own rules as specific as those required of writing loftier stuff like, say, a sonnet in iambic pentameter.

All require a consistent voice. For my mystery, I’m aiming to speak in my own authentic voice.  For my headlines, I’m aiming to channel the voice of some leering old right-wing New York guy (who uses words like perv, fiend and thug and loves cheesecake photos of hot models and celebs).

HALLIE: You know, that wouldn't be a bad voice to channel for a mystery novel.

DEB: For both, I try to withhold something – saving a punchline.  For instance, when a Post columnist denounced greedy unions, I headlined it: “Unions sing same old song: Me, me, me, me.”

HALLIE: Last but not least, please tell us about the novel you're writing. Is it about the news business?

DEB: I’ve just finished the first draft of my novel, tentatively called “All I Really Needed to Know I Learned from the O.J. Trial, ‘Law & Order’ and the New York Post: A Mimi Goldman Murder Mystery.”

HALLIE: Laughing! That will take the "longest book title ever" award. And Mimi is...??

DEB: Mimi Goldman, is – no surprise – a tabloid copy editor.  A younger, braver and prettier version of myself, Mimi thinks it would be a lark to solve her own “Law & Order”-type murder mystery.  But, when a neighbor dies and she gets the chance, her efforts – at times comical, at times harrowing – turn into life-or-death struggle. Mimi could end one of two ways – that, at my other job, I might sum up as:

Back at The Post
or she’s toast!

HALLIE: Well, we wish you great success with your novel -- it sounds wonderful. And anyone can tell,  you definitely have a "voice." We can say we knew you when...

Deb will be checking in today, so please chime in. (Any books that need catchy titles? I bet she'd be great at it.) And I'll bet she could have come up with a much snappier headline than I did.


  1. Hi Deb,
    Welcome! of course my first thought as I read your post was the infamous Headless Body in Topless Bar. I don't even remember where that was from, but it's stuck with me my whole life. What a fun job!
    Anything you've thought of after tha fact that had you saying - Rats - that would have been perfect?

  2. Deb, so nice to see you here! It does sound like fun to be working part of the time on a brainstorming team. But all guys? I can see why you sometimes submit on paper!

    Do you find plots at your job to use in your fiction?

  3. What a fun post! I can picture that the leery old right-wing guy chortling over cheesecake photos in his tabloid. You're in the perfect place for story fodder. Best of luck with Mimi!

  4. I remember writing headlines as a sports editor at my college newspaper. I was pretty good at it. But for all that, I suck at titles for my own writing!

  5. As far back as my newspaper days (1970s), The New York Post was well known for having the best headline writers, so Deb, you are in mighty fine company. People have no idea how hard it is to make words fit. Good luck with the novel!

  6. I enjoyed the post, Deb! I have to admit that the Post's headlines often make me chuckle even though the underlying stories are not the least bit funny. And I'm not even a leering old conservative man (although I do have a fondness for "perv" and "thug"). Good luck with your novel!

  7. No surprise NY Post headline writers had a particularly good time with Anthony Weiner. Hide the Weiner. and Where's the Weiner. and Weiner Roast. Wiener Exposed. Wiener's Pickle. My favorite: Weiner: I'll Stick It Out.

    He was the gift that kept right on giving. Deb, what other news stories have been so ahem fertile, from a headline writer's viewpoint?

  8. Oh my goodness, I'm so glad I finished my cup of coffee before reading this hilarious post, otherwise I'd be ordering a new laptop!

  9. This was such fun - great way to start another rainy day in the big apple! Good luck with your novel, Ed.
    Thelma Straw

  10. Horrors! Talk about typos !!! I'd get fired at the Post, DEB!!!!!!!!!

  11. Thanks all for warm welcome.Rosemary, little goes to waste at Post. If we don't call DSK "Gauling" on Day 1, we do on Day 26.


  12. Thanks all, also for your encouragements. Hallie, we did a lot of Gov. Spitzer heads like: "Ho, no!" or "Hooked."


  13. Nice to know those philandering pols are good for something at least. (Not to mention inspiring novel writers like our own Hank.)

    Deb, do you note the headlines in the competition? Daily News? British tabloids?

  14. OH, how wonderful to read you post...thank you--I LOVED This is your captain freaking--and when Hallie was talking about your visit, I wondered if that was you! Bravo!

    Wow. Your brain must work in mysterious ways. Fascinating! And I live in Boston, land of the Boston Herald, who called our senate candidate who had claimed what might be dubious Native American heritage: "Lieawatha."

    (Email me if you want to chat about your book--it sounds fantastic--happy to do whatever you need!)

  15. Deb, as an inhabitant of the West Coast I never get to see your clever headlines.What fun it must be coming up with the really witty ones!
    And I bet you could make a good living creating book titles for mystery novels too.

  16. Awww, your community is so nice.

    Hank, Lieawatha is a great headline.

    Rhys & all, The Post is available online. Sometimes, though, Web headlines are "de-sexed" to get more hits. If we called George W. Bush, W. or Dubya in the paper, the Web story might call him Bush.

  17. Hi, Deb! What a fun post! You should use that aged right-wing New Yorker who loves words like "perv" and "thug" in your books since you've learned to channel that voice so well in your "day job."

    I'll just echo Roberta/Lucy's question--do you find plots at your job to use in your fiction?

  18. Luftwaffler? That's hilarious!

  19. Lucy and Linda, yes, tons of potential plots and characters can be found in the tabs -- tabloids.

    Hallie, we often eye the competition. Enviously. Or mockingly. Like when our more responsible rivals are especially stodgy.

    The day the Daily News did its famous, FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD, the head in the New York Times was:


  20. I loved this post! I would be terrible at your job, but am glad there are witty headline writers at work.

  21. I'll be interested in reading your book. Will you remind us when it shows up? It sounds like fun--like your post :)

  22. Deb,I like the sound of the book you're working on, but I think something in your headline writing voice would be fun too. When you're published, please let us know.

  23. What fun I've had as your guest!

    I will take you all up on your kind offers to help.

    I leave a tremendous fan of you, Reds, and your fans.


  24. Really enjoyed this post. Deb, your job--and your book--sound fabulous.