The Wood

Bloomberg’s very strange headlines are in danger of making sense

September 3, 2013
September 3, 2013

The famously bizarre and inscrutable headlines that often adorn Bloomberg News articles are a cherished joke among journalists, most of all within Bloomberg itself. But they may be in danger of losing their peculiar edge.

Some prototypically odd headlines from the past year:

 Feeding Naked Chef’s Chickens Killing Biggest Bond Rally
 Mao’s Red Flag May Need to Evoke Panda DNA to Beat Audi
 Harvard Women Freed From Urinal 50 Years After First Female MBA
 BMW to Amazon Space Demand Spurs Rush to Inland Empire

That Bloomberg writes sometimes incomprehensible titles for its article is no secret. The phenomenon has a hashtag and a parody Twitter account. But now, to the chagrin of some Bloomberg News staff, someone important has taken notice.

“Several editors acknowledged that headline clarity can sometimes be an issue,” wrote journalist Clark Hoyt last month in a report commissioned by Bloomberg (pdf). He then ticked off a few headlines that had caught his eye:

 DSM’s Flirt With Red Hot Mamas Cuts Investor Love for Plastics
 Brokers Go Gray as Youth Proves Unsustainable With No Cold Calls
• Cold War With Soup Tempts East Europeans to Menus of HBO, Sony
• DoCoMo Cash, Girl Band Help Beat Softbank on Costs: Japan Credit

“I assume that, to them, it makes complete sense what they’ve written,” said the anonymous proprietor of Strange Bloomberg Headlines, a blog that has documented myriad examples since 2011. “They just don’t realize that a reader coming at it for the first time won’t understand what’s going on.”

He added, “The headlines usually make sense once you’ve read the article.”

That may no longer be sufficient. Hoyt’s recommendations, which Bloomberg said it would follow, included the appointment of a standards editor to, among other things, “review headlines for accuracy, clarity, and tone.”

Hoyt, who previously served as public editor of the New York Times, was hired by Bloomberg to review its journalistic ethics after the revelation that reporters had access to information about how Bloomberg customers used the company’s data and news terminals. Several large banks, which are responsible for the bulk of Bloomberg’s revenue, complained about the intrusion.

The Hoyt report ran just 20 pages but covered a lot of journalistic ground, surprising some Bloomberg editors. It’s not clear how seriously his recommendations will be taken, but he remains employed by the company. Bloomberg declined to make Hoyt available for an interview.

There’s a certain art to the Bloomberg headline—a pile of words that somehow adds up to something meaningful, if not understandable. Let’s pause for some more:

 Carney Not Yet With Pink Set Sharing Policies Beyond BOE Circle
 Shark Oil for HIV Shot Takes Cue From Hemingway’s Old Man
 Giraffe Mulling Suicide as ‘Terrorists’ Chant in Cairo
 Kill Your Wife While Sleepwalking or Get Goldman Touch

Most news organizations adopt headline conventions that, over time, become institutional clichés. (The New York Times: In Starting With a Prepositional Phrase, a Way to Sound Intelligent. Business Insider: BOOM: Here Is Something Extraordinarily Mundane. Quartz: Why everything you ever believed is a lie, in charts.) Other headlinese words—mull, see, probe, nix—are artifacts of space constraints imposed by narrow newspaper columns.

Space may also have something to do with how Bloomberg headlines got to be so odd. They are limited to 63 characters (45% of a tweet) to ensure the entire headline can fit on a single line of the terminal, which is the primary context in which Bloomberg News articles are read. “Billionaire Dethrones Kings in Beer to Burgers as Batista Model,” the headline on a profile of a Brazilian private-equity baron, ran exactly 63 characters and probably seemed more legible in the terminal than when the article found its way to the web. Much of Bloomberg’s journalism makes less sense as it gets further away from the terminal.

Inscrutability can also be a ploy for clicks. Bloomberg headlines like “Bieber Joins Ex-Addicts Fighting Chase in Prepaid Market” are often just intriguing enough to find out what the hell they mean. Certain terms alluring to Bloomberg’s clientele will find their way to the top of articles that are really about something else, as in this ur-headline (63 characters long): “Steve Jobs Spurs Harvard MBA to Drop McKinsey for China Website.”

Hoyt observed that Goldman Sachs makes regular appearances in Bloomberg headlines that have nothing to do with the bank: “The most egregious, ‘Ex-Goldmanite Trades on Girl Power of Stiletto Networks: Review,’ was over the review of a book by an author last connected with Goldman 11 years ago as a low-ranking associate.”

OK, just a few more:

 Ganges Turns Fecal Lab as Wealthy Bathe With Nude Mystics
 Where Raptors Roamed Rio’s Dream Stirs Water Worry
 Bin Laden’s Parrots Blood Fuel Boom in Pakistan Artists
 Forex During Birth Shows Asian Women Top Men Private Bankers

Within Bloomberg, the unofficial house style for headlines is beloved by many; choice examples are often emailed around the office. But the practice is hardly without critics at Bloomberg, who say the news organization should strive to be understood above all. Surely, market-moving headlines about breaking financial news, which many Bloomberg customers rely on for making trades, are almost always written with complete clarity. Why, they ask, shouldn’t everything else be held to the same standard?

The Bloomberg Way, a book by editor-in-chief Matt Winkler that serves as a bible for the company’s reporting, doesn’t mention clarity in its section on headlines. It advises that every headline include two or three of the following elements: “names,” “surprise,” “what’s at stake?,” and “conflict and conflict resolution.” Winkler, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment on his approach to headlines.

Some Bloomberg staffers say headline clarity was already improving before Hoyt’s report, driven by some top editors. That assessment was confirmed by the financier who runs Strange Bloomberg Headlines. (He asked not to be named.)

“It’s no longer an easy job to collect these things,” he said in an interview. “My activity slowed down quite a bit after a few months. The number of really obvious nonsense headlines went down a lot.”

Asked if he would rue a significant crackdown on strange headlines, the man said, “I’d miss them, sure. They’re like little puzzles.”

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