Anatomy of a headline

3 Apr

Some of them are funny, some of them are confusing, some of them are dull, some of them are actionable. But they all start off looking like this:

Picture 13

Headlines, as we discussed briefly a few weeks ago, aren’t typed in as a coup de grace by the reporter who has just written the copy, whatever Hollywood might have you think. Long before the correspondent has filed, the newsdesk has usually told the designer what’s been commissioned, and at what length, and a layout has been sketched out with likely photos, dummy text and display type.

It’s not quite the same everywhere. On tabloids, some pages are designed around the headline: senior subs brainstorm jokes until they find an angle, then hand the gag to the designer and order them to make it fit. But at a broadsheet, page design takes precedence over copy-editing, so when you pick up the headline out of the subs’ queue, it looks something like this: a jumble of space-filling letters, bound in a pre-set box.

And it’s also not true – would that it were – that once the first draft has been put through, the presses immediately start rolling. That only ever happens in State Of Play. In fact, it all goes past several eyes and through several stages before the page is ever passed.

On a typical shift, I might write about six to eight headlines: this is the story of what happened to one of them last Saturday.

The story was a piece of first-person reportage from our Turkey correspondent in the run-up to the local elections. In a divided country, she had visited a loyal stronghold of controversial prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. She had discovered an oasis of calm in an Istanbul full of unrest, and a general view that, even though Erdogan was not standing in these elections, they would in effect be a referendum on his rule and the corruption allegations that surround it.

As it was our first Sunday piece on Turkey for a while, I felt something general was called for – a scene-setting, elections-coming-up, nation-in-ferment kind of thing. And I liked the picture the designer had chosen. So I wrote this:

Picture 12

I struggled with a synonym for “scandalised”. “Divided” was too short to fill out the second line. “Outraged” wasn’t long enough either.  So I talked myself into keeping it, despite its unsuitable Regency connotations,  and sent it through to the revise queue.

The revise sub – who, like all revise subs, can detect weakness in a headline like a tiger scenting blood on the breeze – immediately homed in on “scandalised”. It took her about a minute to find an improvement:

Picture 16

Then, with no other major changes, it and the rest of the story were put through to Finalled: the point at which the page can be proofed and shown to the editor and deputy editor.

Sometimes that’s the job done, and the page is nodded through and sent. At other times, though, the sight of a finished page serves merely to crystallise in the editors’ minds what they were really hoping for in the first place.

This was one of those times. They didn’t like the angle; they didn’t like the headline; they didn’t even like the photo. So the deputy editor called over the picture editor, talked to the designer, and sat down to write the headline himself. And it came out looking like this:

Picture 18

Rather than go for the general, as I did, the right thing to have done would have been to go for the particular. I guessed readers of the Sunday edition would be fresh to the whole story; in fact, the editors wanted to assume a certain amount of familiarity and emphasise the fact that we had a new angle. The picture is lively, colourful and shows an explicitly pro-Erdogan scene, to go with the explicitly pro-Erdogan interviewees in the story. With all the paper’s forces marshalled under the guidance of a senior figure, the whole thing has become sharper and more coherent.

And that’s how it really happens: by proofs and stages, by revisions and increments. At the end of the US remake of State of Play, after Cal McCaffrey has keyed his story straight onto the page, no one even asks to see a page proof, let alone have another crack at the headline. Yes, they’re four hours late, but it’s hard to believe that any editor – especially one played by Helen Mirren – wouldn’t imperiously demand a printout to hold up and sign off. Even if, in real life, by that stage the pre-press manager would be phoning the newsroom every three minutes to bellow himself hoarse.

3 Responses to “Anatomy of a headline”

  1. Picky April 11, 2014 at 3:11 pm #

    Interesting piece. Thank you.
    On a tangent, are people still using page proofs? When I put in an editorial system some years ago I argued that physical proofs were no longer needed: after all, the editor, deputy editor and the rest of the angelic choir had screens they could read on (and I had a very tight budget that was finding it difficult to provide cash for A3 colour printers all over the shop). I lost of course, but I did think the paper proof might just be a temporary pacifier whose days were numbered … evidently not.

    • edlatham April 11, 2014 at 3:34 pm #

      Yes they’re still in use! The ritual of page transmission is even now preceded by the presentation of a proof to the high-ups, and the clouds of CMYK toner that billow out of the printers at cartridge-changing time are as colourful as ever


  1. Fame at last | Ten minutes past deadline - October 27, 2015

    […] that – that – is the sub-editing experience. Hollywood, as we’ve observed before, understands the emotional journeys of other kinds of journalists well: reporters’ […]

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