RACHEL MARTIN, host:
OK, when the breaking news bulletin flashed across our computers and our BlackBerries that New York's Governor Eliot Spitzer was linked to a prostitution ring, we here at the Bryant Park Project did what we often do when a big story breaks. We tried to guess what wouldd be the headline the next day in the New York Post.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ALISON STEWART, host:
Of the ones we came up which we can actually say on the radio, "Eliot Mess" was the best. So what did the cheeky writers at the Post go with? "Ho No," summing up so much event and emotion neatly using only four characters, some saucy slang to hilariously, inappropriate effect. The Post has run such memorable headlines as "Kiss Your Asteroid Goodbye," "Wacko Jacko Backo," and the legendary "Headless Body in Topless Bar."
The latter is the title of a new book celebrating the New York Post headlines. It's in bookstores this week. Chris Shaw is in our studio. He's the former managing editor of the New York Post, currently vice-president of digital media for the paper. Hey, Chris.
Mr. CHRIS SHAW (Vice President, Digital Media, New York Post): Good morning.
MARTIN: So who writes these headlines?
Mr. SHAW: Well, they come from just about anywhere. We have a team of - copy-desk full of some the smartest people, I think, in journalism. They're the ones mostly responsible for it. But the front page headline is shared by the editor-in-chief and there's a group of people, the managing editors and the section editors, who, every day, get together and they toss the ideas around and - but they can come from anywhere, they can come from readers. You mentioned the Spitzer story this morning. I must have personally received a thousand emails...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHAW: With suggestions on there, and "Eliot Mess" was certainly one of the more popular ones that was coming in.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHAW: And a lot of them that I can't talk about on the radio.
MARTIN: Exactly. Yeah, we - yeah.
Mr. SHAW: In fact, one that your producer told me about was there.
MARTIN: Yeah, we shouldn't discuss that. I'm just imagining what this looks like. You guys are all caffeinated up.
Mr. SHAW: Oh, yeah.
MARTIN: Sitting around. Is it just a free-for-all? Do people just start shouting things out? Or do you actually, OK, read the copy first and then decide?
Mr. SHAW: OK, it can come in many different ways. I'll give you an example, today's paper...
MARTIN: Mm hm.
Mr. SHAW: Which is - the headline is "Bride of Godzilla." It's about Hideki Matsui's shocking marriage, and the picture he has - he won't identify her. He just uses a sketch of her. We knew that story yesterday about 11 o'clock in the morning, which is the time of our first editorial meeting. One of our managing editors, Jesse Angelo, the headline just popped into his head. He had it and all of a sudden, we had an easy day ahead of us. We knew unless something big was going to break, we had the headline.
MARTIN: Got it.
Mr. SHAW: But two days ago, when we broke the story about Governor Spitzer's ties to another prostitution ring, we were going back and forth about what the headline was going to be, and we had a couple ideas we were running around with. And then, all of a sudden, the picture shows up in our hands. ..TEXT: MARTIN: Oh, the picture of the voluptuous blond lady showing her voluptuousness.
Mr. SHAW: Exactly.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHAW: And so Barry Gross, our copy chief, who, for my money, is the best headline writer in history, sees that picture and immediately says, easy. "Busted Again."
MARTIN: There you go.
(Soundbite of laughter) ..TEXT: MARTIN: In your mind, what makes a great headline?
Mr. SHAW: Two things. One, one that informs you and makes you want to get inside to read the story. I mean, that's ultimately what we're trying to do here, right? We want you to go down and read the piece. The other one, I think it's one that makes you smile, maybe makes you laugh a little bit. It's a hard life we all live sometimes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHAW: And we like to have a little bit of a sense of humor and make you smile.
MARTIN: I'm going for the obvious first, the name of the book, "Headless Body in Topless Bar."
Mr. SHAW: Amazing, amazing headline that was - described a really, unfortunately, just a horrible story from 1983, that maybe without this headline, would've run on page 24 of the newspaper, right? It doesn't do anything more than that. But all of a sudden, you get the right words with it.
Vinnie Musetto, who's now one of our film critics and has been with the Post for over 30 years, came up with the idea and the editor-in-chief at the time realized that the headline was so good that it propelled the story from the back of a book to the front page of the newspaper, and it's become legendary since.
STEWART: That one kicks it old-school, all the way back to 1983. So, you've been doing this 25 years. Is that about when the headlines started getting tabloid-y?
Mr. SHAW: I think it was back a little bit before that, and I think they were probably even a little bit more over the top back then than they are now. I think we're a tabloid newspaper, and we're not ashamed about that or anything like that. And that's how we go about our business. We sell a lot of newspapers on the street. We have to catch your attention with our headlines, but I think we do it better than anybody.
STEWART: "Fairy Godfather." This is one about a mob boss being gay. How many letters did you get from GLAAD and from gay rights groups? And is that a consideration when you're deciding whether or not to put something on the cover?
Mr. SHAW: It is something we consider, and we're certainly on speed dial of a lot of places. But I think sometimes we push it, and we let our readers, really, honestly, tell us if we've gone too far.
STEWART: Has there been one that someone that you've really seen a deluge of like, OK, I love you guys at the New York Post, but this one...
Mr. SHAW: Yes. I mean, look...
STEWART: Made me uncomfortable.
Mr. SHAW: Yes, there are a handful of examples of those over the years, but the truth is that our circulation is how we determine whether or not our readers like the product or not like that. And we are the only paper in the country that has seen its circulation grow. You have to understand, our story is, in 2001, we were selling about 440,000 newspapers. We now sell over 720,000 newspapers a day. Now, this is in an industry that has declines in circulation. So, I think the readers tell us that we're doing OK.
STEWART: We're speaking to Chris Shaw from the New York Post, a former managing editor, currently VP of digital media for the paper, about their new book just celebrating all the crazy headlines that have ended up on the New York Post. "Axis of Weasel." This is a great one, and you - I know the story behind this one already. I'm not even going to play like I don't. Tell us who developed this one.
Mr. SHAW: Well, Joe Cunningham, who is now on our copy-desk, was a 21-year-old copy kid. And the term "axis of evil" was around at the time and the story broke, and the editor-in-chief was literally walking around the news room, and he's looking for the headline. He's talking to the editors, and Joe, as a 21-year-old copy kid who shouldn't be saying anything to anyone, just chimes up in the background of the newsroom, "Axis of Weasel." He points at him, he nailed it, and I think it's really one of the best ones we've ever written, and it got himself a job, actually.
STEWART: Also, something I think is really interesting. I remember this. I think I actually have the cover of the New York Post which was incorrect when John Kerry was picking a running mate. They have "Dems Pick Gephardt as VP Candidate," because I get up at a ridiculously early hour. Then there was another one, so you had to re-issue the cover.
Mr. SHAW: Well, we didn't have to re-issue the cover.
STEWART: Oh, yeah, you did. Come on, now.
Mr. SHAW: We obviously knew early the next morning, and there's nothing you can do about it. The paper's on the street, it's on the web, and it's there. So, you have to make a decision. We're going to take a shot, people are going to come after us, and so we thought the best way to do it was do it with a little bit of a sense of humor.
And so, we could control what our message was going to be, and I think that the editor-in-chief brilliantly went about making what, really, to me, is the best correction in newspaper history.
STEWART: It's very funny. It says "Kerry's Choice: Dems pick Edwards as VP Candidate (Really)." Not exclusive.
Mr. SHAW: Very, very, very well done.
STEWART: I was also interested in - obviously it's very text-heavy, but at some point, it started to become graphic-heavy as well. I'm thinking of the Barry Bonds cover with 756 spelled out in hypodermic needles. When did you make that leap?
Mr. SHAW: Yep. Well, I think - look, technology has allowed us to get more graphic-heavy, and in terms of the newspaper, the biggest change for us came in late 2001 when we built a new plant in the Bronx, and we changed from a black and white to a colored newspaper. And so, all of a sudden, the graphics were able to really pop off the pages.
We've always tried to combine the illustrations or the images with the headlines on the cover, but it's really been the last six years. With that story in particular, we knew what we wanted to portray on that. We had talked about that for weeks. We're like, how are we going to portray this? I mean, we feel we have a responsibility, sometimes, to get this right?
Mr. SHAW: You guys are talking about it. What's the Post going to say tomorrow? So we know we have to do it.
STEWART: Well, you can vote for that 756 cover. There's a whole bunch of other ones on the newyorkpost.com. They're having their own competition. You can vote for your favorite Post cover. Chris Shaw, thanks for coming in.
Mr. SHAW: Thanks for having me, guys.
MARTIN: Hey, next up, a Reporter's Notebook with NPR foreign correspondent Ivan Watson. He usually lives in Istanbul, but he came by our BPP studios. We'll talk with him next. This is the BPP from NPR News.
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