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My headlines just don’t work. What can I do?

The most frequent problem brought to me by news editors at design workshops is how to manage the headlines on their front page.

Editors often comment, “Headlines just don’t work on my 1A.” A few will admit, “I even tried using four different headline fonts on my pages and stories still didn’t pop out.”

I understand their frustration. The situation is especially trying when editors are not only trying to make the page look good but also create a more comfortable experience for their readers.

Working with type is challenging for folks who have no formal training in design or little time to find out what works by trial and error. I compensate for those gaps by suggesting three guidelines for working with type.

Simplicity and Contrast

The more headline fonts on a page, the more confusion for the reader.

There should be one font for headlines on the page.

That font should have a personality that reflects your news philosophy and a bold, regular and italic version. Use that contrasting weight and posture to guide the reader.

The bold version is used for news stories that require prominence and impact, the lighter version for other stories. The italic and lighter versions can be used for feature stories. Those versions can also be used for “decks”, the longer, smaller headlines you strip under a story’s main head.

Most software programs include a package of fonts that use selections in a style menu (the “B” and “i” buttons”) to mechanically convert the font to bold and italic. That is satisfactory for most news editors.

But, if you are more selective, you can purchase a font that contains the true bold and italic fonts. These fonts are more distinctive and might even have an extra-bold and light version of the headline font.

A single headline font unifies the page.

Contrast guides the reader.

Hierarchy and Contrast

The more headlines of similar weight and size that appear on a page, the more confusion for the reader.

Editors should establish a hierarchy as to what type of stories appear in certain positions on the front page and establish a schedule as to the headline size and weight those positions will display.


The most important story of the day goes into position one or position two in the top half of the page and will always have a bold headline that ranges from 60 – 80 points. It can also carry a deck head below it in regular weight that is 30 point. The second most important story goes into position three or four in the middle of the page and has a regular headline that ranges from 42 – 48 points and can have a deck head below it that is 24 point.

As you move down page, the headlines get lighter and smaller.

As you move down page, the content of the stories gets lighter and has less impact.

The editor is grading the stories for the reader.

The theory is that the reader will scan the page and gather a sense of what is more important by the weight and size of the headline. The eye reads in clusters and recognizes the proximity of type, photos and text as an individual package.

The more contrast and space between these packages, the more distinct each becomes.

Hierarchy grades the importance of stories on the page.

Contrast guides the reader.

Discipline and Contrast

Once an editor has hierarchy established, she has to stick to it. A headline schedule of position, weight and size is useless if it is compromised every other edition.

The challenge for the headline writer is to write the headline to fit the schedule, not fit the headline into the layout.
Quality headline writing is a combination of science and art.

There is a certain number and combination of characters that fit into a two-column, two-line, 48-point bold headline. That is the science.

Crafting a 48-point headline that attracts the reader, tells the story and fits within that two-column width is the art.

I’ve had editors tell me that their headline schedule doesn’t work. As we dig into the reasons, it is often because headlines are written first and someone is changing its weight and size so it fits into the space, regardless of what the headline schedule indicates.

Soon, 60-point bold headlines are scaled down to 48 regular heads and 36-point heads are boosted to 42. Elsewhere, 48-point heads are reduced to 42 and 24-point heads enlarged to 30. Repeat that a few more times and the headline schedule that ranged from 18 point to 72 suddenly has a range from 30 point to 48. There is not much difference in the size or impact of those headlines. There is not much contrast.

I’ll be the first one to agree: It is very, very hard to write headlines to fit. But the Thesaurus is a valuable ally in making the job less stressful.

Having the discipline to follow the headline schedule will not only produce a better page but also make one a better headline writer with a greater variety of words to employ and an understanding of the power in their placement.

Discipline establishes form and confidence.

Contrast guides the reader.

Following these guidelines will not only help an editor feel like her typography is more successful but also give the page structure and organization.

I believe you have to guide the reader through your pages every day and can never train the reader to think the way an editor thinks. However, one can establish a routine through which the reader finds certain types of stories in certain positions and develops a comfort factor with your pages.

And, hopefully, that comfort will bring the reader back to your pages on a regular (read here: home subscription!) basis.

By Broc Sears

Broc Sears has been involved with publications for over 30 years. He a former Senior Editor for Design and Graphics at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where he and supervised a creative team of 35 editors, designers and artists who are responsible for the daily visual report of the paper. He is currently a professional in residence at the TCU Schieffer School of Journalism and has also taught at UTA and SMU. He was Art Director of the Dallas Times Herald, Dallas Morning News and University of North Texas Public Information Office.

He has been responsible for three redesigns at the Star-Telegram, the Dallas Times Herald in the mid 1980s and directed the redesign team of the Dallas Morning News in the early 1980s.

He has received recognition as an editor, designer, illustrator and art director by the Society of News Design, Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, Print Magazine, Society of Illustrators, American Illustration, Graphis, Art Director's Club of NYC, Associated Press Managing Editors of Texas and Dallas Press Club.

He has been a featured speaker and guest lecturer at numerous schools and seminars including Texas A&M, University of Missouri, University of North Texas, Louisiana Press Association, Society of Newspaper Design, API, APME, APSE, Texas Press Association and others.