May 16, 2011, 12:00 AM — Headlines have been considered high art (although sometimes fine-but-low art, too) for as long as newspapers (and probably news) have been around.
For readers, headlines are summaries of the information available on the page – tiny dust jackets or tables of contents for every page of stories, whether on a web news page or on a page of the dead-tree variety.
For journalists, headlines are a mixed blessing; good ones sell your story in a way cleverer than you could have done yourself, burdened as you are by the need to write something that both informs and entices readers, without misstating the point or overselling the promise of the story itself – in 8 words or less eight words or fewer (headlines are written by copyeditors, who see so large a difference between the previous two phrases they will believe it must have been fixed by a dedicated copyeditor after the writer and the top editor both managed to get more things wrong than there are words in the phrase).
News people love good headlines; except for the size and proximity of their bylines to the hed, though, they usually don't care about anything other than the words.
Magazine writers – a separate genus of homo journalists whose senses are more acute, aesthetics are more refined and ability to write thousands of elegant words about subjects a news dog couldn't even identify without remedial tutlelage (and possibly a shovel) – have a much different perception of and use for headlines.
Headlines on a magazine story don't have to summarize the story, pull out the single factoid that makes a story irresistible, or use gross stereotypes of sex, violence or fear to draw a reader in. Magazines have far more tools than that.
Cover images and teasers pull readers into taking the issue off the newstand shelf; table-of-contents teasers and graphics reinforce that there are a lot of compelling stories in the issue the reader holds and is about to pay $4.95 for; editor forwards pimp both the story and the writer (though just as often it's the photographer being promoted).
On the story itself, the headline is an artful graphic, succinctly referring to a mesh of other references, hints and teasers on the page – the big main photo or illustration, caption on a smaller chart, paragraph-length subhed with a dramatic setup of the conflict at the heart of the story, the expression on the victim, villain or sad, abused observer who embodies for the reader a narrative that is less the summary of a trend than the explication of universal truths focused through the experience of just one or two people, whose individual experience is singular but whose significance is universal.