The Nature of Headlines

vintage photo of women reading newspaper in 1950s
February 6, 2021
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Two moves ago, my husband and I were spread out on the floor sorting through a dozen, 20” x 24” archival boxes that contained significant newspaper clippings we had collected over the years: 

  • “Man Walks on the Moon”
  • “Nixon Resigns”
  • “Death of Nelson Mandela”
  • “Death of Princess Diana”
  • “The Challenger Explosion”
  • “9-11”

We also had the Life Magazine covers from the years we were born. The December 1952 cover was the coronation of Queen Elizabeth that I had purchased at The Lantern Bookshop, a wonderful Georgetown haunt of rare documents and books I’d always visit when in DC on business. To toss or keep these covers?

The July 21, 1969 front page of the “St. Louis Post-Dispatch,” where a headline soon to be recorded in history, read: “One Small Step for Mankind” and a photo of Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon. I was 17 and the editor of my high school newspaper. Of course, I kept that front page. 

And collected once in Florida, a rare newspaper - the only one in existence according to the Library of Congress Collection - that we’ll never part with, is The Fredericksburg, VA, Virginia Herald, Dec. 22, 1819 issue. It contains the full printing of the Adams-Onis Treaty with Spain, in which Spain ceded to the U.S. East and West Florida and is signed by John Quincy Adams and Luis de Onis. This was significant in that it opened up valuable territory that would serve as a naval and army base for the region. 

But why do we save these headlines?

A Record of History, Great and Small

During the Silent Generation era and the Baby Boomer days that followed, most of our early relationships with our hometown newspapers were a collection of local clippings. Everything was worth mentioning: the recap of the high school football game, local high school students getting accepted to major universities and military academies, proud parents placing the birth announcement of their baby in the paper—and, years later, announcing that same child’s engagement or wedding. These moments, while important to family and friends, aren’t “news” in the strictest sense. So why did we abide by these rituals?

In its simplicity, newspapers have historically “drafted the first version of history,” whether at the community, city, state, national, or international level. The phrase has been attributed to the former Washington Post President and Publisher, Philip Graham from a 1953 speech to the American Society of Public Administration, and earlier to Alan Barth in a 1943 New Republic book review. 

Graham’s quote as published in the 1953 Public Administration Review:

“The inescapable hurry of the press inevitably means a certain degree of superficiality. It is neither within our power nor our province to be ultimately profound. We write 365 days a year, the first draft of history, and that is a very great task.”

How would our grandchildren read about these truly historic events when today, there remain only 1,279 daily newspapers from which to build students’ history curriculums, down from 1,760 morning papers and 1,454 afternoon newspapers in 1955? What does today’s history curriculum contain for students in terms of this recent history and its context to our past? 

Today’s Headlines

Scanning the front pages of the last 2 weeks, the headlines in our hometown, Kansas City and even New England papers are about the Super Bowl. Yes, big headlines, the kind that produce keepsake newspapers, and have historically been more often about great achievements in the world of sports and business than politics. That’s why we save them. We love our sports teams. 

This Sunday, February 7, that Super Bowl will be another, first-in-history event when the Tampa Bay Bucs will play for the Vince Lombardi trophy in their own hometown Raymond-James stadium. Big headline #1. And historic headline #2? Tom Brady will most likely break yet another NFL record and take home his 10th Super Bowl ring and trophy. 

Monday’s papers will become yet another collector’s item and even the digital versions will find their way to print to provide adoring fans yet another first draft of history.  

Aside from the headlines we can predict and foresee, are the unexpected and shocking front page stories we never expect. For example, headlines on front pages the morning after George Floyd’s murder on May 25th last year became a blur as riots erupted across the country and communities painted the mantra “Black Lives Matter” on their streets. 

In contrast, spontaneous celebrations erupted in the streets across America on Saturday afternoon, Nov. 7, 2020, when it became official that Biden would be the 46th president-elect and the promising news led the next morning’s front pages. 

Yet, we closed the first full month of 2021 and already our front pages had recorded four historic events; 1) the unimaginable insurrection on the Capitol, our sacred home of democracy, 2) a record month, +456,000 Covid-19 deaths, 3) the first president to be impeached twice by the House, and 4) the swearing in of Senator Kamala Harris, the first Black woman and first South Asian American to be elected Vice President, sworn in by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first woman of color to serve on the Supreme Court.  

CNN commentator and former Ohio governor and presidential candidate John Kasich said: 

“This is a patch of history people are going to want to read.” 

Headlines are perceived differently than they used to be—they’re less focused on the small moments, and published more frequently because of the simplicity of online publishing. As a result, it’s becoming difficult to sift through and distinguish fact from fiction, news coverage from personal opinion, and history from “clickbait.”

For this very reason, it’s important that we preserve and support our newspapers, which work to maintain the highest standards for journalistic integrity. The delivery method—print or digital—is not a factor. Most papers offer a digital version which enables easy sharing for example. It’s the content that’s important and providing the opinion pieces that provoke healthy conversations.  The NIE Newspapers in Education program works to bring news literacy to our students—a collaboration between schools, businesses and the local paper, promotes and increases children’s literacy by using the newspaper as a teaching tool and to build an early understanding of what it means to be an informed citizen. 

Your Legacy, in Headlines

If you had to look back at headline moments of your own life, about which ones would you be proudest of? Do these headlines reflect your impact on your employees or your community?  In your vision for your future as a leader, what headlines do you want to write? 

Leading boldly, guiding your team, making intelligent decisions in moments of crisis, and mapping out a succession plan for you and your business is incredibly important when defining your legacy and forging your organization’s path. Now is your time to make history and create the headlines worth saving. Who knows, maybe you’ll end up in someone’s collection one day. 

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