Archive | April, 2021

Old-school wrap

27 Apr

There’s nothing this blog likes more, as a rule, than a vintage front page layout. But perhaps not this one:

There are 19 headlines on the page and they are all the same size, set in sans caps ranged left, centre and right, with the result that (i) huge amounts of unintended white space are created, and (ii) almost every kind of word has to be omitted to make them fit. Not just nouns, although there is a flying verb in there – WILL SING MESSIAH – but verbs (REPUBLICAN NATIONAL CONVENTION AT CLEVELAND) and prepositions (BROTHER DYING CONDITION) too.

The page is presented, more in sorrow than in anger, by Radder and Stempel in the second edition of their book Newspaper Editing, Make-up and Headlines, the 1940s treasure trove of old-school techniques first brought to our attention by HeadsUp for its clear chapter-and-verse about using flying verbs (or as it likes to call them, “implied subjects”). It also contains this spectacular example of overdisplay, or “circus make-up”, from the Denver Post:

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a headline above a masthead before, and in practically the same size type as well.

But what’s most interesting about the many front pages in the chapter is not the layouts, good though most of them are, but something else: the number of semicolon headlines they have. I had previously assumed that these were almost unique to the New York Times, and only then brought out for special occasions, but here – in papers large and small, on busy news days and quiet ones – they seem to be quite a regular thing after all.

This edition of the book was published in 1942, and most of the contemporaneous front pages are war-related. So what these headlines all seem to encapsulate is what we at the Tribune would call a “wrap”: a roundup of the day’s events on a number of fronts without a particularly strong lead item. This is something else the semicolon head is suited for: not just huge stories where every paragraph might deserve its own headline, but long-running stories that require a wider perspective to grasp them fully. Give or take a major breakthrough, it seemed newspapers understood even at the time that the war was so all-encompassing as to only be properly understood in the round.

None the less, it’s interesting to see wrap stories running as front-page leads. At the Tribune, they are very much second-order items, destined for an inside spread; you know when you pick up “polswrap23” from the queue that it can be cut without too much anguish from management.* In 1940s America, it was clearly different: perhaps because the war was always the biggest story in town, like the pandemic is today. Even so, though, modern Fleet Street papers would never settle for a roundup as the splash; in their ferociously competitive market, they would usually try to lead with a single-aspect scoop on Covid, however manufactured it might be, and save the wrap for page seven.

Wherever they end up, though, you’ve still got to write furniture for them, which is another reason to mourn the unpopularity of the semicolon hed. The reductive temptation is simply to write a simple headline based only on the first item in the article. If you try to capture the portfolio nature of the piece, modern practice would be to use conjunctions – “as” or “while”. But these hint at a causative, or at least thematic, relationship between the clauses, when what you really want to do is write multiple, unconnected headlines. Semicolons are perfect for that; if only journalism wasn’t so afraid of them.

*In this respect, wrap stories differ significantly from the blow-by-blow, long-form features that back up major front-page investigations. At the Tribune these are, rather unexpectedly, known as “guts”, meaning that otherwise cardigan-wearing desk editors start sounding like Vince Lombardi when they’re late: “Where’s the gut? Have we got the gut?”

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Zeroes and ones, part five

13 Apr

This week on Journalists’ Adventures in Maths: percentage changes are not reversible, or why a 75% rise from 4 to 7 is not a 75% fall from 7 to 4.

Dutifully checking the numbers* in the copy as they come up, I first get a result at variance with the reporter’s:

and then, by swapping the numbers around, get one that agrees:

However, the minus sign at the start of the second answer is the clue: the numbers in that sum are declining from over 400,000 to less than 300,000. But the copy talks about a rise.

The same thing happens with the second pair of numbers: the percentage rise is calculated as though it were a percentage fall.

Why is it not the same? The difference between 8,276 and 12,092 is always constant: 3,816. But in a percentage, of course, you can relate that constant difference to different comparators, and 3,816 is a much larger proportion of 8,276 than it is of 12,092.

This will hardly come as news to people who can do maths. But for arts-heavy newsrooms, this is slightly more perilous territory than the answer just being wrong – it is wrong, but it seems right if you do the sum the wrong way round. You need the strength of mind to remember which number you’re starting with and stick with it. It seems somewhat analogous to the evergreen error of mistaking ancestors for descendants, or confusing “overestimating” and “underestimating”. It’s not just the relationship between the two things that’s important, but the direction of travel too.

*Use of a percentage calculator is highly recommended, of course; I like this one, with its clear, question-based approach.