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By Robert Price
This feedback forum is designed to give readers a way to voice criticisms and compliments or ask questions about The Californian's news coverage. Executive Editor Robert Price answers your questions here each Saturday.
Reader: The front pages from the past are fascinating windows into the events of yesteryear. I'm curious, though, as to when and why the capitalization in news articles' titles changed. Old news articles are titled traditionally like "Stretch Shepherd's Neck on Gallows, Is Prosecutor's Demand" but today's titles look more like sentences without ending punctuation, such as "Auto industry's defect problems pile up to eclipse annual record (nothing)."
-- Pamela Wildermuth
Price: My best guess is that the practice of capitalizing the first letter of every word in newspaper headlines went away about 30 years ago, although I believe a few newspapers still do it. I'm not sure why the practice changed, but I know this: fewer capital letters require less space (particularly when it comes to M's and W's) and subtly enhances comprehension. When headline and text capitalization rules are the same, readers don't have to guess, for example, whether the word "Price" represents a name or a monetary value.
I was interested in learning more about this myself, so I asked the people at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., if they'd ever studied headline style with regard to capitalization. Ann Rauscher, the Newseum's senior exhibits editor, looked into it for us. Here's her report.
Rauscher: I can't find anything definitive about when the style started to change from all capital letters to title case ("Man Bites Dog"), and then to sentence case ("Man bites dog"). But looking through some of our historic newspapers, it appears that the main headlines were in all capital letters until at least the 1940s, although subheads were usually in title case. Even The New York Herald's front-page reports of Lincoln's assassination in 1865 used title case instead of all caps for some of the subheads. Of course, "headlines" at that time were only one-column wide; full banner headlines across the entire page generally did not appear until the late 19th century.
By the 1940s and 1950s, more newspapers in the United States seemed to be using title case instead of all caps for headlines, but many continued to use all caps for their banner headlines. It appears that by the late 1960s and early 1970s, some newspapers were using sentence case for their main headlines, and when USA Today was launched in 1982, all of its headlines were in sentence case. By the 1990s and 2000s, more and more newspapers were switching to sentence case.
Today, I think it's safe to say that the majority of U.S. newspapers use sentence case for most headlines, but banner headlines in all caps are not uncommon for major news events. Most newspapers use a variety of styles, mixing in italics, all caps, different fonts, etc. And lowercase letters take up less space than uppercase, so using sentence case for headlines saves space.
Two prominent newspapers -- The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal -- have not switched to sentence case, and The Washington Post continued to use title case until a major redesign of the newspaper in October 2009. In a special section for readers about the redesign, the new headline style was described as giving "a more conversational look to our headlines." Marcus Brauchli, the Post's executive editor said, "The new approach ... is more readable and allows us to write slightly longer headlines. The old headline style, in which most words were capitalized, was formal and just isn't as readable. I know some people will disagree with that, but we looked at a lot of research and the experience of other papers, and are confident of this approach."
Bear in mind that this is not a comprehensive study, just some observations primarily based on our historic newspaper collection and a quick survey of Today's Front Pages.