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The Best New York Times Headline Ever

“When an Eel Climbs a Ramp to Eat Squid from a Clamp…”

Moray eel — https://unsplash.com/photos/V2kr8EI5zlc — Koh Tao

When I read the headline, I was thunderstruck by how good it was. The internet loved it too. A science story about eels is titled:

“When an Eel Climbs a Ramp to Eat Squid from a Clamp, That’s a Moray

The headline perfectly described the experiments with eels to identify whether eels can eat on land (yes) as well as catch prey on land. Moray eels, it turns out, have an extra set of jaws to enable this feat.

Eels, even without feet, can travel notable distances on land.

The headline writer was a science fellow, Sabrina Imbler, two weeks into her fellowship. She also credits the science senior editor, Michael Roston, for coming up with the format that recalls the old Dean Martin song “That’s Amore.”

I do think there is freedom in being new and not having creativity ground out of you yet, especially, I presume, the rules about how to write for The Gray Lady.

The headline is not clickbait. It’s clever. It describes the story. Sabrina Imbler also reports checking three times that a forceps is accurately described by the word clamp.

Typical Twitter reaction? “Next year’s Pulitzers are already decided.”

The New York Post’s infamous headline

In contrast, The New York Post headline writer knew he had glory when a police report came in that a headless body had been found in a bar.

Headless Body Found in Topless Bar

The New York Post screamed the headline. I was living in New York City in 1983, and while it was a heinous crime, I only remember all the laughter, jokes, and banter about the headline.

To fact-check that it was a topless bar, a reporter called neighboring residents until he could confirm that it was, indeed, a bar that hosted topless dancing. Meanwhile, another reporter was sent to the bar itself which was closed. She peeked in the window to confirm the sign “Topless Dancing” inside and affirm the correctness of the headline.

Although, per the story referenced in Politico, different people remember the facts differently about writing the headline. Hmm, from reporters?

An apocryphal headline from Minnesota

Fertile Woman Dies in Climax

Two small towns in Minnesota are close together, Fertile, MN, and Climax, MN. Most states have town names that have unfortunate double meanings or are just silly.

I have always known about this headline, but the problem is when I tried to verify the source — the newspaper that ran the headline, and when that was — I come up with nothing. There are stories citing this erstwhile headline as an example of headline writing, but no attribution for the actual headline.

It fails the grandeur of the other headlines for a couple of reasons.

We don’t know if the alleged writer was intentional or accidental in the writing. It’s a little bit like the schtick Johnny Carson used to do on The Tonight Show when he read headlines, advertisements, or captions that were poorly executed in some humorous way.

It also reminds me of when I wrote headlines for the high school paper and tried to slip a double entendre past the teacher-advisor.

So we have back stories and variations that have lived on in the retelling as lore, describing the creation of legendary headlines.

My takeaway? Have fun. When creativity is accurate and creates laughter, that’s the Trifecta.

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