Now, about *that* front page from Bedford…

Times and CitizenI think it’s safe to say most of us have seen this front page. At one point, I suspected it was a hoax, but apparently not.

Most of us probably gasped when we saw it, and I daresay many of us have seen the various blog posts which claim it sums up the problems facing the industry: Reduced staff, not enough time etc etc. That said, it is the front page and I guess we’d all like to think we’d have spotted it…

I wasn’t going to mention this until I saw the reaction from Peter Sands to it. The former editor of the Northern Echo sees it as an opportunity to raise what he calls ‘the blight of two-deck headlines’ in the regional press industry. I’m sure we all saw that front page and cussed the problem with two deck headlines.

Anyway, Peter’s point is summed up here:

Since templating became the quick and easy way to produce pages, managers and even subs have forgotten that layout is a journalistic craft. It should be easy – read the story first, write the best headline you can and then build the page around it.

He then cites the example of the George Michael headline in The Sun, which carried the headline ‘Zip me up before you go go.’ The page, he says, was built around the headline – and that had it been a two deck template ‘Pop Star Arrested’ wouldn’t have worked quite so well.

He’s right – but he’s also wrong, in my opinion. The Sun’s actual headline is much better than the one he proposed if was on a template, but the assumption that template = loss of creativity, to me, is wrong. I’ve seen some brilliantly punny headlines on tabloid pages which are clearly templated. Just because headline has to fit a template doesn’t mean it has to be dull.

But that aside, how much does the reader of a local or regional newspaper value the pun in a headline? Peter Barron, editor of the Northern Echo, plays a headline game on Twitter every day, and perhaps those headlines also make it into the paper – but design a whole page around a headline? Surely the reader of a local newspaper puts the quality of the story or the picture ahead of the wittiness of the headline when deciding whether to buy it?

My friend and colleague Alison Gow made a similar point when discussing the over emphasis put on ‘the book’ in newsrooms. She makes the point that the ad shapes in newspapers dictate how we display content, and adds:

yes, print headlines can be awesome but I’d rather have compelling content than a clever header. plus there’s nothing inspiring about knowing you have space for 350 words and one upright pic.

In other words, it’s the content that matters. Surely templates can be built to suit the content, and then selected for the page. It can, because I’ve seen it done. Building a page around a headline defeat the purpose of providing what the reader wants.

(By the way, I think we all know we need the book as a starting point for the paper, but if the book isn’t working for the content, surely it’s time to review the way the book works).

And perhaps there are some occasions when a punny headline is potentially a very dangerous thing in a local newspaper. It might be a funny twist to those in the office, but I’ve known occasions when a clever headline has actually upset the person being written about. I guess the headline was the last thing George Michael was worried about when he saw himself on the front of The Sun, but seeking to copy the nationals on local newspapers has never been a way to win local people over.

Should pages always be templated? Probably not – and most newsrooms have the ability to break into a news page and rip it up when the story dictates. But templating hasn’t killed the art of headline writing, it’s just made it more challenging.

The crucial question should be: Does the reader care? I suspect the answer is no. And I’m too sure a punny headline about plans for an incinerator in Bedford would have made much of a difference either.

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