A Study In Headlines

by Dan Walsh

7 Days of the San Francisco Examiner.

I’m currently reading The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst. It’s been a trip so far. There were so many famous and powerful Americans alive at the turn of the 20th century: Hearst, Pulitzer, Teddy Roosevelt, Rockefeller. These are men about whom I’ve previously read, so it’s eye opening to see their tales weave together from different perspectives. It’s also wild to read this book and live in San Francisco, where much of Hearst’s early life took place. He made an indelible mark on this city, and it’s fun to wander around to his old haunts. Given my recent increase in public facing writing, it’s been particularly interesting to read about Hearst’s ownership of the San Francisco Examiner, and then to see the very same paper still on the newsstands. I’ve decided to make a study of the paper’s front page. The following is an assessment of 7 days of the San Francisco Examiner.

December 12th, 2013

Bottled water ban pitched for city land
Supervisor David Chiu set to propose legislation that would phase in restrictions at facilities, events

Tech rant highlights a PR problem
CEO’s post about homeless creates backlash

Street fights
SFFD pushes back on sidewalk projects

A family affair
Photo exhibit shows work from father, daughter

Hot-head coach
Urban: Harbaugh’s bully act getting old

Asiana crash
New details emerge in federal hearing

December 16th, 2013

Market St. free Wi-Fi debuts today
Google’s service in open spaces expected in mid-2014

Niners on a roll
Defense stuffs Bucs for fourth straight win

Wedding hype
Neighbors unfazed by Journey nuptials

Power lunch
Lee, tech leaders to talk about future

Her own style
Malaysian singer combines passions

December 17th, 2013

Homeless youths face loss of vital lifeline in Haight
Increased rent may force nonprofit to close its doors on Christmas Day, turn into mobile operation

Niner’s setback
FB Miller’s injury may end his season

Christmas circus
Clowns amaze and delight in ‘Mistletoe’

Eviction crisis
S.F. to weigh law on tenant harassment

Felony charges
Driver in crash will face manslaughter

December 18th, 2013

Dirty air is record for region
Weather system has locked pollution into the skies over the Bay Area for 11 straight days

Fond memories
A look at Candlestick before it fades away

Welcome back
Iguodala returns as Warriors top Pelicans

Deep discussion
Obama talks spying, NSA with tech CEO’s

Forced to move
Tenants losing homes without rent control

Holiday chuckles
Kung Pao Kosher continues tradition


December 19th, 2013

Mayor: Build housing faster
Lee’s executive directive will prioritize low-income units

Greatest catch
Dwight Clark recalls Niners at the Stick

Bethlehem A.D.
Living Nativity in Redwood City a thrill

In high demand
Busy Hidalgo rocks outside of Los Lobos

Return to court
Warriors happy to have Iguodala back

December 20th, 2013

Call for phone kill switch
State Sen. Mark Leno, District Attorney George Gascón propose legislation in move to curb theft of devices

Quest for history
Sacred Heart Prep to play for state title

415 is old school
New 628 area code coming to S.F., Marin

Yule icon yanked
Rebel Christmas tree on Haight removed

Rush on retail
Short holiday season swamps local shops

December 23rd, 2013

Solutions for middle-income housing sought
The debate about incentivizing units in new developments or collecting more fees rages during housing crunch

A special final night at Stick?
Niners can clinch playoff spot in possible last game in stadium

Lots of questions
Can healthy SF work with Obamacare?

Community help
Marcus Books rushes to secure funding

Another lesson
Too many mistakes haunt Raiders in loss

Leaving the pack
Brit comedian Oliver sets his own course

Observations After 7 Days

The first thing I notice is the giant headline for the main story. This is something Hearst pioneered, and it’s interesting to see that it’s still around. It definitely grabs my attention. Even if I’m not interested in the story, the headline is so big I can’t help but read it. A headline that large also suggests that the Examiner believes it is the most important story of them all – and they’re not afraid to tell you. Most newspapers choose one story to prominently display on their front page, but this story is only a little bigger than the others. It’s like other newspapers say “here’s the big one… and just in case you don’t like it, here’s some other stuff you’re probably interested in.” Other newspapers play it safe. The Examiner throws a hail mary everyday.

Speaking of football, I was surprised how much sports coverage there was on the front page. Of the 38 total stories, 10 of them were about local sports. This is compared to only 7 articles about the current tech/gentrification/eviction battle that is currently raging in San Francisco. There were only (maybe) three articles about non-local issues.

Another Hearst legacy is the championing of the “little guy”. Despite Hearst’s vast wealth he was an opponent of big business and advocate for the working man. Regarding the eviction stories, The Examiner is overwhelmingly in favor of tenants rights. While they don’t go so far as to bash landlords or the causes of gentrification, their word choices indicate solidarity with low and middle income classes: rant, eviction crisis, vital lifeline, forced to move. These words and their usage are all emotionally charged to create sympathy with tenants, homeless, and the non tech-elite.

These emotional words were utilized well in all headlines, not only those regarding the housing crunch. Even the sports articles used evocative terms: street fights, hot-head, rant, backlash, on a roll, hype, power lunch, crisis, dirty air, deep discussion, kill switch, quest for victory, yanked, rush, rages, crunch. These are all visual, emotional, and evocative. Specific word choices help tell the story with fewer words – important for headlines.

Finally, I was surprised by the lack of capitalization and punctuation. None of the headlines or sub headlines had ending punctuation, and only proper terms and the first word in a headline were capitalized. This flies in the face of online marketing best practices, of which I’m most familiar I’m not sure what to make of this observation. Maybe less punctuation and fewer capital letters helps the page feel less crowded?

All things considered, this was an interesting exercise for me. The biggest lesson is that I should use more evocative words while maintaining the integrity of my topics. I will also consider “front-page” layouts of websites more thoroughly. There is definitely power in a giant headline.