Perfect penning of the past

The headline outlived the actual crime in the memory of newspaper readers

He penned what many consider the greatest headline ever written and, last week, Vincent Musetto was honoured as the esteemed New York Times published a tribute following his death at the age of 74.

Musetto was an editor at the New York Post — the Oscar to Felix in the journalism world — in 1983 when he created the headline to serve as a kicker to all headlines: Headless Body In Topless Bar.

As Times reporter Margalit Fox described in her well-written ode to Musetto:

“The crime behind the headline was lurid even by tabloid standards. On April 13, 1983, Charles Dingle, drinking in a tavern in the Jamaica section of Queens, argued with the owner, Herbert Cummings, and shot him to death. He then took several women hostage, raping one and forcing another, in an apparent bid to confound the police, to cut off Mr. Cummings’s head. Apprehended the next day, Mr. Dingle was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life. Denied parole several times, he died in the Wende Correctional Facility near Buffalo in 2012.”

As Fox noted, the headline outlived the actual crime in the memory of newspaper readers.

When he wrote that headline, Musetto was an anonymous desker, a guy in the newsroom who toiled in the shadows of the star reporters, a guy who wrote headlines and did some editing.

Today, in newspapers large and small, there is not the financial luxury to employ newsroom staffers to focus on such specialties.

Today, with the Internet siphoning advertising revenue and many newspapers fighting hard to remain alive, a guy like Musetto would need to be writing headlines, penning stories, proofing pages, banging out briefs, typesetting letters, rushing out to take a photo, laying out pages, uploading stories to the website, updating the newspaper’s Facebook page, shooting and uploading video to the website, sending out tweets on a timely basis, answering calls in the newsroom, responding to emails from readers, greeting visitors at the front desk — and maybe delivering papers on the way to work and selling an ad or two on the way home.

The reality is the newspaper business that Musetto knew in 1983 would be unrecognizable to him today in any paper, be it Kamloops This Week, the Globe and Mail or his scrappy old New York Post.

This is why it is a delight to sit back and take in a beauty of a landmark headline like Headless Body In Topless Bar — and to read the background in the New York Times’ tribute.

It evokes a time when information had a slower, more methodical flow, when the newspaper, the top-of-the-hour radio newscast and the six o’clock TV news were the Holy Trinity of current events — when getting the story right was always more important than simply getting it first.

It demanded patience and it delivered depth.

It existed in an era that afforded enough time and care to practise a craft as particular and precise as writing headlines.

I’d like to think Musetto is looking down (or up, considering he was at the New York Post) and creating everlasting headlines from the carnage that comprises this crazy world.


– Christopher Foulds is editor of Kamloops This Week.