Several times a week, one of the reporters in the office will notice me staring in their direction, but not at them, per se, more like at something off in the distance that’s just out of reach.

It’s my headline-writing stare.

Headlines are a whole scene.

Whenever people call or email or meet with us in person to talk about a story they’re upset with, what usually ends up being revealed is that it’s not really the story itself that angered them – it’s that short string of words that sits on top of it.

Here’s how the process works. A reporter does all the work of researching, interviewing, more researching, observing, fact-checking and writing and puts it all together in a story. Then, either me, or Scott Lewis, or both, edits the story, and adds a headline. There are a lot of elements to address.

However hard it is to distill a complex topic like a land use fight or a criminal case with lots of elements into a 1,200-word story – imagine how much harder it is to capture those elements and complexities in just a handful of words, while still enticing people to invest in the story and, if you can manage, have some fun too. It’s hard.

That’s what can make them great – headlines are such a challenge, and nailing one can be so satisfying.

But man, do they set people off. The No. 1 complaint I get about headlines is that they doesn’t capture every unique detail about a story. That’s the thing, though – they’re not supposed to. A headline isn’t its own shorter version of a story, it’s an entry point. A welcome mat.

Another common gripe with headlines is that they focused on a certain point within the story, and they should have instead focused on a different point within the story. The subtext of that complaint: You didn’t interpret the story the exact same way I did, and that’s why I’m mad!

Maybe I’m being a little defensive. Some headlines do miss the mark. But I also believe people have built up some unreasonable expectations about what they should accomplish. If a headline told you everything you needed to know, the stories would be obsolete.

A final word on headlines.

What VOSD Learned This Week

Journalism can make an impact, baby. We knew this to be true, but learned it over again this week with a series of developments on different stories we’ve been reporting. A rundown:

We wrote that County Supervisor Bill Horn might have a substantial conflict of interest in voting on the Lilac Hills Ranch development. This week, the state Fair Political Practices Commission agreed. Horn didn’t like that.

We wrote that the city’s sporadic approach to code enforcement allowed slumlords to go virtually unchallenged, sometimes leaving residents in dangerous living conditions with no recourse. That provoked an audit at the city. This week, the city auditor released a scathing report on the department. (Hear Councilman Scott Sherman talk about the bizarre workflow that complaints to code enforcement go through on our podcast.)

We wrote that despite Logan Heights wanting more development and having all the makings of an area ripe for smart-growth, the new community plan for the area was keeping the status quo. This week, we learned that the planning group for the area will recommend a version of the plan that includes more smart-growth after all.

We wrote that a student suffered a devastating brain injury while playing football for La Jolla High, possibly after he was made to keep playing after suffering an earlier blow. This week, the family of the student filed suit against San Diego Unified, making national news.


 Many people took a big transit study released last week to mean that San Diego trolley stops themselves are really bad. But Andrew Keatts writes that the study actually offered a far more damning indictment: “It quantified a phenomenon that’s long been apparent anecdotally: Local leaders support smart growth – urban development that’s crucial for transit ridership – in theory, but not in practice.”

 Magnet schools represent a big hiccup in San Diego Unified’s grand vision to have a quality school in every neighborhood. School board trustee Kevin Beiser put it well: “This I think points to the challenge we have with the emphasis on going to your local neighborhood school – it may result in you going to school with no diversity in the student body.”

 Poway Unified had to remind staff members that the political email blasts they’re sending out on district servers are, well, illegal.

 I honestly don’t think I can explain this story by Lisa Halverstadt better than Keatts did in a tweet, so here’s that:

Environmental groups use environmental law to halt environmental initiative, collect millions in the process:

— Andrew Keatts (@andy_keatts) October 16, 2015

 The guy the San Diego Opera hired to take more risks with the company is turning out to be a risk himself (but the Opera’s fine with it).

  One group is really excited about California’s new law that automatically registers people to vote: signature-gatherers.

What I’m Reading

Perfect Pairings

 I love politics. I love sandwiches. I love this Food & Wine post comparing each of the Democratic presidential candidates to sandwiches. Don’t be fooled – there are actually some sharp observations here.

 Two of the greatest women in pop culture, Rihanna and Miranda July, realize how great the other is. Then, once assured of each other’s greatness, they talk about vagina depth. (New York Times Magazine)

Our Changing Media

 The downfall of the paparazzi. (Buzzfeed)

 The “Serial” podcast made us rethink everything from how we consume radio to how long-term investigations are best presented. The case the show followed in Season 1 is still taking interesting turns – this week a key witness against Adnan Sayed announced he wants to recant his testimony. (Serial)

Getting Literary

 How awesome is it that we have a president who does stuff like this? (New York Review of Books)

 This excerpt has me super pumped for Sleater-Kinney/”Portlandia” star Carrie Brownstein’s new book. (New Yorker)

Line of the Week

“His given name is Kwok Cheung Chow; Lo calls him Raymond, the name a teacher gave him during the one month he attended high school. Shrimp Boy calls himself Shrimp Boy.” – From a New York Times Magazine profile of – you guessed it – Shrimp Boy.

Sara Libby

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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