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The July 7, 2004 New York Post headline was particularly memorable, in that it was second printing of the newspaper for the day. The original headline reported that Rep. Dick Gephardt would be Sen. John Kerry's running mate. Former managing editor Chris Shaw calls the cover the "best correction in history."
When the news bulletin flashed across computers and Blackberries that New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer had been linked to a prostitution ring, one thing was clear: a tabloid newspaper called The New York Post would sum up the news in a few unforgettable words.
The next day, 720,000 people in New York bought a newspaper splashed with the words "Ho No." In another instance of its pithy style, the Post had in a few words summed up the magnitude and emotion of an event — and in this case, using only four characters. To commemorate more than 25 years of wordsmithing — including the classic "Headless Body in Topless Bar" — the Post has just a released book of its best cover lines.
Chris Shaw, a former Post managing editor and current Vice President of Digital Media, says the process of determining the cover headline is not a total free-for-all. The crew responsible for the front page, he says, is chaired by the editor in chief and includes the managing editor and section editors.
But, sometimes, he says, the copy comes from unlikely sources. "They can come from readers," he says. The day of the Spitzer saga? "I must have personally received 1,000 emails," he says.
Now a fairy tale among journalists is the story of a copy kid named Joe Cunningham. Shaw says that in early 2003, the Post's editor in chief was roaming the floor, looking to headline the news that Germany and France were declining to join the Iraq war. "Joe, as a 21-year-old copy kid, who shouldn't be saying anything to anyone," says Shaw, "just chimes up in the background of the newsroom. 'Axis of Weasel.' [The boss] points at him, he nailed it ... and he got himself a job."
A great headline, Shaw says, "informs you, makes you want to get inside and read the story. ... [It's also] one that makes you smile, maybe makes you laugh a little bit. It's a hard life we all live sometimes."
What about that famous headless/topless line? "Amazing, amazing headline," he says, explaining that the headline ran with a 1983 story that might otherwise have run on page 24. "But all of a sudden," Shaw says, recalling the lightning bolt that struck the newsroom when an editor said the line, it "was so good that it propelled the story from the back of the book to the front page of the newspaper."
Why invest so much time and energy into the headlines? "We're a tabloid," Shaw says. "We're not ashamed about that. ... We sell a lot of newspapers on the street, we have to catch your attention."
In one memorable instance, the attention was unwanted. In 2004, speculation abounded as to who Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) would pick as his running mate. The Post reported on its cover that Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-MO) was Kerry's choice. Unfornately for the paper's editors, Kerry had chosen then-Sen. John Edwards (D-SC). Although the paper was on the street, the editor in chief ordered another press run.
"We didn't have to reissue the cover," Shaw says. "You have to make a decision. ... So we thought the best way to do it was to do it with a little bit of a sense of humor. So we could control what our message was going to be. The editor in chief brilliantly went about making I think what really to me was the best correction in newspaper history."
But with headlines such as "Fairy Godfather," about an outed homosexual mafia figure, it's not just positive superlatives that follow the Post. Shaw acknowledges that the top editors are on a number of watchdog groups' speed dial.
Even still, Shaw says, that daily meeting to determine the cover is a serious affair. "We feel we have a responsibility ... to get this right," Shaw says. "You guys are talking about it, what's the Post going to say tomorrow?"