Don't devalue the sub's art

How important are headlines? This was the question posed by Radio 4’s media programme, The Message, a couple of weeks ago.

I’m normally a Five Live kind of girl but I do think this 30-minute nugget is worth tuning over to. And I was on the programme, so that’s how I know what was discussed.

The item was sparked by an interesting piece in Media Guardian by Simon Hattenstone. Referring to The Sun’s recent Shipman suicide headline, “Ship Ship Hooray”, he argued how tasteless many of the headlines in that organ had become recently.

And not just tasteless. Some, including the aforementioned, were just very poor examples of the art of the newspaper pun.

His views were backed up by Chris Horrie, the other London contributor (the programme is broadcast out of Manchester, which makes a pleasant change). Horrie, author of the book Stick it up your Junta – The Rise and Fall of The Sun, felt standards had dropped since Kelvin MacKenzie’s heyday.

He gave several reasons for this, including a lack of alcohol-laden hacks in newsrooms, fewer staff and the fact that subs are now middleclass, university-educated types who have not lived a gritty enough life to come up with great headlines.

Now, I’m not here to defend The Sun but I did think both men were in danger of looking at the past through rose-tinted specs.

Yes there were some great, memorable headlines under MacKenzie. In fact, presenter Jenni Murray brought up the “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster” example, and we were both mildly shocked and amused to learn of its sexual connotation – sort of live on air. Clearly neither of us has lived that gritty life.

But there were plenty of headlines that were considered extremely tasteless back then, even though they may have subsequently gone down in folklore and are now remembered fondly.

Personally, I think the tabloids still produce a wealth of funny headlines day in, day out – and not all, I suspect, written by Sebastian from Dorking who has a degree in media studies.

Even the Shipman headline is subjective.

The two people I mentioned it to both laughed, even if they felt slightly guilty doing so.

And on the day the programme aired, The Sun carried a follow-up story of the British student who had been arrested in the US for pretending she was carrying an incendiary device in her rucksack. Over a picture of her with said bag on her back, the brilliant headline ran “Does My Bomb Look Big In This?”. I rest my case.

The regional press also has a reputation for coming up with great headlines on a regular basis – as a weekly glance at Press Gazette’s Headline of the Month feature will confirm.

But here I do worry that this may become a dying art. With fewer talented young journalists wanting to become subs or designers, the job is in danger of being devalued.

New technology may help speed the production process up, but the end result is fewer people actually working on the words and headlines.

Many regional newspaper groups are quite open about wanting to shift the emphasis on to content, and who can argue with that? But unless the balance is right, they could be moving towards a system which produces great stories without the right talented resource to entice people to read them.

And with many papers using templates for nearly all their pages, the days of thinking of a great headline and designing the page around it may soon be a distant memory.

Instead we are in danger of staff having a time quota to fill a pre-set page – not the best way to get the creative juices flowing perhaps.

As time and progress will not stand still, the trick is perhaps to ensure your early right-handers and spreads are still available to be lavished with care and attention from the best people you have.

I always found it amazing on an evening paper that we would often end up spending the least amount of time trying to come up with a front-page splash headline as it was inevitably the last page to go, right on deadline.

And yet, when your main opposition in a city is The Sun or Daily Mirror, and you are still reliant on a large chunk of casual sale, the front page is hugely important.

And that’s not to underestimate the buzz in a newsroom when someone comes up with that perfect funny headline which you know will have people chuckling on the bus on the way home.

This time 20 years ago I was on the pre-entry NCTJ course at Harlow, which is actually too depressing to dwell on for long.

About 60 young things spent nine months writing about Oxdown and trying to find a good night out in that Essex new town (this would tax the most competent investigative journalist).

Most of us were fairly wet behind the ears and I dare say a good few have ventured far from the profession since.

However, there was one student who stood out from day one.

Admittedly he was a few years older than most of us, was also a fair deal taller and, on first impression, had a menacing air about him.

This was due to a combination of a shaved head, a large motorbike and a softly spoken voice.

He had done loads of work experience on the intellectual national broadsheets while I was proud of my few nibs on the East London Advertiser.

We weren’t a completely hopeless bunch. Fellow students went on to be the BBC’s social affairs correspondent (Christine Stewart), Splash news agency co-founder (Kevin Smith), Radio 1 DJ (Steve Lemacq) and a London television presenter (Nick Clark).

But all in all it was obvious this mystery student was the winner of the most likely to succeed award, if indeed one had existed.

And so I was interested to read recently that he has been promoted to home editor on The Times, for it is none other than Ian Cobain.

I have lost touch with Ian over the years, but have regularly seen his byline on a variety of top newspapers and have always enjoyed his work.

It was he who followed up the the Interpol fiasco story when duff FBI information led to a 72-year-old grandfather from Bristol languishing in a South African jail for weeks.

Instead of doing a straight story, Ian looked at the list of Brits on Interpol’s ‘most wanted’ list and managed to track down four of the eight of them – in one hour and 22 minutes.

I loved this story so much I now use it on an investigative journalism course I run on how to gain information easily and quickly.

Ian may have been the most talented on the course, but he was also the most modest, so I know he will hate the fact I have drawn attention to him or am mentioning I am still grateful for the lifts he occasionally gave me on his bike to and from Stoke Newington.

But it is reassuring to see the people with the most potential realising this in the nepotistic environment we work in.  Alison Hastings is a media consultant and trainer and former editor of the Evening Chronicle, Newcastle.

E-mail her at ajh@alisonhastings.demon.co.uk. She’ll be back in four weeks.

Next week: Chris Shaw

by Alison Hastings

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