Hammering it Home: Using headlines the right way

For being one of the most prominent parts of a newspaper page, it’s also something often overlooked by editors: the headline.

Editors place so much effort on organizing schedules, assigning stories, editing articles, reviewing photos, and playing Tetris with their layout, that they often treat their headlines like an afterthought. Some editors can get so exhausted from the grind of news gathering that they sometimes just say “screw it!” and slap on whatever headline fits the news hole.

But even if the editor has the hyperactive energy of Jimmy Fallon on a coke binge, they could still end up neglecting the headline. Many editors are being taught the same things – headlines should stretch across the entire story, headlines can’t include “the,” “a” or “an,” headlines need to be formatted as subject-verb-object (“President announced plan”).

The result is that all their headlines end up looking the same.

But it doesn’t have to be this way! Your headline is just as vital as the text itself; sometimes even more so, because your headline is what will grab someone’s attention in the first place. So write it and design it so that it is eye-catching.

The best way to to this is by using what’s called a “hammer headline.” These are short, punchy, printed in large-type, and attention-grabbing. It can be a phrase, a saying, or sometimes it doesn’t even have to be a complete sentence! Something like:

Coming Home

Just three words long. When it’s printed in big bold font, it draws the reader’s eye to it.

But there’s just one problem with hammer headlines – they don’t make any sense on their own. What is “Coming Home” about? Well, that’s why all hammer headlines are accompanied by a subhead, or deck below it – a smaller line that gives more information:

Coming Home

Bulldogs set to open new baseball stadium tonight


Now, our eye has been drawn to the page by the big bold hammer headline, and the deck provides a little more context about the story.

When you combine those things with photos, text, and info boxes, it works together to give the reader a complete understanding of what the story is about. The most effective page designs make good use of this design choice.

I rounded up some good examples of newspapers and web sites that used catchy hammer headlines to draw the reader in. As we can see, most of them are only one, two, or three words long, and they are used for everything from news to sports to entertainment:

Last Call: Goal line interception in closing seconds finishes Seahawks-bc009c29c61274feDrought Solution?: Some think desalination could solve California’s water shortage

Decimated: 150 structures burned in Weed

Whiteout: A blizzard stops Maine and the Northeast coldME_PPHYoung, Gifted & Homeless: For more than 100,000 students on U.S. youth, public school and college teams who have no stable place to live, sports provide a way to survive – and even thriveScreen shot 2015-02-20 at 8.20.13 AMNo Charges for Wilson: Arson, rioting erupt in FergusonMO_SLPDCuban Shift: President’s action could open flow of money and people between the two nationsCA_SDUT

The Big Dig: Despite high snowfall totals, crews able to keep roads clear

Leading the Strike: Academic experts say long battle is possible

Day of Destiny: Scotland’s 4,285,323 voters have 15 hours to decide their country’s fateBxxLXR4IIAAVzdr

Numbing Numbers: All-time low records falling across state

Pitch Perfect: US soccer star Alex Morgan has plenty of love for hoopsScreen shot 2015-02-20 at 8.19.04 AMAlmost Home: This loss won’t diminish a magic season

Justice Has Been Done: U.S. forces kill Osama bin Laden

Obama’s Night: Tops Romney for 2nd term in bruising runNew York Times 3When it’s done right, the hammer headline + deck combination, along with a dominant photo and solid story, cal keep your readers glued to the page. It’s not a conservative, traditional, or safe look, but it’s much more eye-catching. And in the end, if your headlines can’t draw in more eyes, what’s the point?


Front pages courtesy of The Guardian, Slam, Sports Illustrated, Newseum


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