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’Orrible murder! Readallabahtit!

1 Feb

Drugged, disoriented and with something horrific in his jacket pocket, Sir George Fenwick rolls out of bed in a cheap boarding house and stumbles to the window, where a man with a slightly orotund Cockney accent is selling papers on the street below. “Mornin’ paper! All abaht the murder! ‘Orrible murder! Mornin’ paper!”

Fenwick, ashen, gathers his hat and flees the scene, but the next thing that appears on screen, of course, is this:

The scene is from The Woman In Green, one of the classic Sherlock Holmes movies of the 1930s and 40s that starred Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Although the series moved the characters forwards in history to contemporary (ie wartime) Britain, they were made 5,000 miles away in Hollywood, usually to a budget, with the result that London seemed to be populated by an unusual number of left-hand-drive cars and mid-Atlantic accents.

However, authenticity doesn’t seem to be a problem here for the “London Daily C…” (“Chronicle”, perhaps?). The headlines fit well and read well, unlike those in most movie newspapers. There is a story about football (Blackburn and Derby), and one about Oxford’s travails before the Boat Race. There’s even some proper copy for the fictional lead story.

Only one thing really jars: the headline about Puerto Rico. Would news from a US-administered territory really make the top of page 1 in a “Great Daily of the Empire”, and would “Beverley” (presumably James R Beverley, former governor) be a name well-known in Marylebone?*

Well, only that and the other thing, of course. Edgeware? With three E’s? “the Edgeware Road”? Gor blimey, guv, anyone could tell yer not from rahnd ‘ere.

*Also, if it is James R Beverley, he did indeed preside over rescue efforts after a devastating hurricane – but in 1932. He ceased to govern Puerto Rico in 1933, which would make that story several years old in wartime London. Furthermore, online research suggests that the controversy over using “swivels” (swivelling rather than fixed mounts for the oars) was already raging in Oxford rowing circles by the mid-1930s. That raises some interesting questions about how the props department put this edition of the Chronicle together for the screen.

The first uncontested crackerjack of grammatical expertise to appear in film

18 Jan

With a flourish, Alumna (Elisabeth Moss) spins round from a prodigious piece of sentence diagramming on a blackboard and fixes the camera with a proud glare. And another sub-editor (probably) enters the ever-increasing pantheon of Hollywood copydeskers.

This all happened some months ago, of course; given the necessity for masks, this blog is currently unable to attend the cinema without its glasses steaming up, so it has only just caught up with Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch on home premiere. Nonetheless, the story of the Dispatch and its last ever filings from Ennui-sur-Blasé back to Kansas features a strong corps of production types to go with its gifted writers.

I say “probably” a sub-editor because Alumna is a wide-ranging, influential figure whose job is not specified in the credits. It is even suggested in some quarters that she might be a reporter, but look at the photograph. Does a reporter know how to do that? (To save you the trouble, the sentence reads: “They will fail to notice the torn ticket-stub for an unclaimed hat which sits alone on the upper shelf of a cloakroom in a bus depot on the outskirts of a work-a-day town where were apprehended Nickerson and his accomplices.”) She’s also described as the Dispatch’s “uncontested crackerjack of grammatical expertise”, which doesn’t sound much like a reporter either.

However, it’s not 100% clear exactly what she is. If she’s a sub-editor, wouldn’t she have been tempted to intervene in that 41-word sentence rather than simply diagram it? (The verb-subject inversion at the end might have to stay; the Dispatch very much seems to be a writer’s paper.) Also, she seems to be in charge of editorial conference, demanding progress reports and worrying about pagination like a managing editor while Arthur J Howitzer, publisher, sits and listens. Most sub-editors know how hard it is to get in to the interesting meetings, let alone run them.

Furthermore, also in conference is a more junior figure, “The Proof-Reader”. When asked about one piece in production, she reports “three dangling participles, two split infinitives and nine spelling errors in the first sentence alone,” suggesting (i) that she might be more of a sub-editor?; and (ii) that this must be another sentence as long as the example on the blackboard.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with split infinitives, as we know; no doubt that is why Howitzer gently intervenes to say: “Some of those were intentional.” Also, one is left wondering what has happened to the Dispatch’s editorial processes if all these things are only getting picked up at proof stage.

No such problems exist with Howitzer’s very poorly typed will, which appears on screen covered in editorial blue pencil, including at one point where the “permanently” in “permanently cease” has been deleted with the note “cease alone is clear”. However, another hand has firmly struck out this correction and marked “stet”. Quite right too: for a matter as consequential as this, it’s worth a little redundancy to make the meaning quite clear.

Meanwhile, the lawyer is raising distinctly sub-editorial concerns about Herbsaint Sazerac, the “Cycling Reporter”, and his vivid account of Ennui’s lowlife. “Impossible to fact-check. He changes all the names and only writes about hobos, pimps and junkies,” he complains. (Howitzer responds soothingly: “These are his people.”)

So perhaps it’s the kind of small, freewheeling newsroom where everyone does a bit of everything. Certainly the net for opinion is cast wide at conference. Staring at the flatplan on the wall together, Howitzer turns to the waiter from the bar downstairs, who has just brought the drinks. “What do you think?” he asks. The waiter looks at the board and shrugs expressively. “For myself, I would start with M Sazerac.” And so they do.

Images: © Searchlight Pictures 2021

The Third (Actually, First) Sub-Editor Ever To Be Portrayed On Film

9 Jun

‘There’s bound to be a big replate for second edition’. (IMDB/BFI)

The street shimmers. A man trudges towards the camera through an apocalyptic glow, bathed in sweat. A tannoy announces there are “nineteen minutes before countdown” to a scorched, empty city. It looks like Doomsday, but all is not lost: because the man is a journalist, and he’s on his way to the newsroom.

And so begins The Day The Earth Caught Fire, Val Guest’s 1961 film with an exploitation-movie title that in fact manages to be a nuclear thriller, ecological parable and gritty love story all at once. And, almost above all, a film about newspapers.

It stars Edward Judd as washed-up reporter Pete Stenning, Leo McKern as grouchy science editor Bill Maguire, and Janet Munro as Jeannie Craig, a government press officer who knows a secret. The two male characters work at the Daily Express, whose newsroom was exactingly recreated at Shepperton Studios for the film. And although the story concerns America, Russia and the disastrous coincidence of two H-bomb tests, nearly everything that unfolds is viewed from the inside of a newsroom or a bar.

Scene after scene is heavy with the presence of midcentury Fleet Street. Billboards proclaiming disaster are displayed on Evening Standard vans. The wall of a lido where Stenning and Craig, his new girlfriend, meet is covered with a huge advert for the News of the World. The newsroom is led by a commanding Arthur Christiansen-type figure, played by … Arthur Christiansen himself, who was also the film’s technical adviser.  It is a disaster movie, certainly, but it’s about the end of the world in the same oblique way that All The President’s Men is about Nixon.

And the hacks themselves are also very real. Messengers and copyboys are chaffed and ordered about. The troubled Stenning sulks and slacks off, and is confronted about it unsparingly by colleagues (“If you borrow my car for lunch, why bother to hurry back at six-thirty?”). When he gets a sniff of the climate-disaster story, he shows little compunction in forcing Craig, who works at the Air Ministry, to act as his source, exposing her to the fate of a whistleblower. The film was somewhat scandalous in 1961 for its frank love scene, but you suspect it got its X certificate not because of all the sex, but because of all the journalism.

In the opening scenes in the newsroom, as a flash comes in and a shocked desk realises what’s happened, we see a detailed recreation of a post-deadline panic. The news editor dials the switchboard: “Head Printer, fast!” Maguire reappears. “Give me a quick 50 words across three columns. You’ve got five minutes. I’ll write the headline.” The head printer picks up the phone. “Smudge: slip edition coming down in five minutes at most, so get a bloody move on!” (“Don’t we always?”).

Cut to the composing room, where the head printer calls out “front page lead reset!” and dials the press manager to tell him there’s a newsflash. (“OK George. Know what it is? Well as long as they haven’t made beer illegal!”). The press manager goes to the press foreman, and against the din of the machines, raises his index finger and makes an upward gesture, meaning “lift page 1”. Then he goes to the delivery manager to warn him “there’s bound to be a big replate for second edition”. (“Someone up there hates me! All right, I’ll warn them”). He dials the loading bay, where the first edition is being gathered and baled (and where we see Stenning, stumbling in after another lost afternoon, and follow him back up to the newsroom).

‘Why is he trying to alter my heading?’ (BFI)

It’s three minutes of tense Fleet Street life, a vivid glimpse behind the scenes – except that, as you might have noticed, it doesn’t appear to involve sub-editors. The news editor talks straight to the typesetters, writes the headline, and even organises the photographs (“Jock! Find me the biggest mushroom in the file!”). It’s possible that a busy news editor might take on the task of writing a stop-press headline, for speed, but in real life there would be upwards of a dozen subs around who could do it for him.

Fear not, though: in such an exactingly recreated newsroom, sub-editors are indeed present – pre-dating both their appearance in The Paper (1994) and The Post (2017). Earlier in the evening, we saw Maguire – who appears to be the kind of reporter who likes writing his own headlines – kicking up a fuss about changes to his feature on thrombosis. “But why’s he trying to alter my heading?”, he complains to a mild-looking middle-aged man, whose patient demeanour marks him out as a member of the copy desk. “Is he trying to make a job for himself?”

“Bill,” the man replies (with justification), “you can’t print a feature on thrombosis and call it YOU TOO CAN BE THE DEATH OF THE PARTY.”

And when the early copies of the first edition eventually arrive upstairs, Maguire is seen holding one aloft in disgust. “Eight hundred grisly words on thrombosis and look what they do to me: STUBBORN MEN AND THE KILLER THEY COURT. What kind of an impact heading is that? I might as well be working on the Police Gazette!”

I quite like it myself. But anyway, it didn’t matter: the whole thing got pulled for the second edition because the Earth had been blown off its axis.

Hat-tip to Theresa Pitt at Horny Handed Subs of Toil, who recommended the film to the group.

Best Implied Object

18 Feb

Oscars night: the biggest night of the year for glitz, glamour and tabloid sentence constructions. And the competition looks  particularly fierce in one category:

Whereas implied-subject (or “flying verb”) headlines rarely make the red carpet these days, implied-object sentences – that is, sentences containing a normally transitive verb but no direct object – go from strength to strength.

To qualify for this award, the object has to be genuinely needed in the sentence; some naturally “unaccusative” verbs don’t require them. For instance, one may “sparkle” or “glow” in the absence of any observers, perhaps involuntarily,

but to “stun” or “dazzle” clearly implies inducing a reaction in a second party. Contenders must therefore rely on the understood presence of an audience to be parsed correctly.

And the shock winner is: SHOCKS!

The first foreign-language film to win Best Picture: that really did stun. The Academy never ceases to surprise.

The Second Sub-editor Ever To Be Portrayed On Film

23 Jan

Image: 20th Century Fox

The copy chief hands him the file with the typed copy in it, and the man sitting at the desk takes out his pen. The newsroom is dark, the clock is ticking, and the most important and sensitive story he will ever edit has arrived – like all important and sensitive stories – right on deadline. He looks up at his manager, the two men alone in the office at an epochal moment for journalism and America. “You’ve got half an hour,” says his manager gruffly.

For years, only one copy editor had ever appeared as a character in a feature film: Lou the front-page sub in Ron Howard’s 1994 comedy The Paper.* But now there are two, because in Steven Spielberg’s latest film, The Post, the focus is almost as much on newspaper production as it is on newspaper editing and reporting.

The story of the Washington Post and the Pentagon Papers – the leaked documents that destroyed the credibility of the war in Vietnam – is a subject worthy of what my boss at the Tribune refers to as “late-period Spielberg”: those recent films of his that tell huge American stories magisterially, at a medium pace and with limpid period detail. The ethical struggle between the first amendment and the security state is an eternal theme, taken up in several movies. But for someone like me who started their career in the Quark XPress era, it’s the recreation of a 1970s newsroom that’s really mesmerising.

There are enormous ties, and early colour TVs, and people in the background flicking through galleys with a familiar look of rising concern on their faces (is there a page missing here, or is this actually what was filed?). There are linotype machines filmed in fascinating close-up, real slugs coming out and being loaded into formes, famous headlines shown reversed in metal. There is also – and this is the thing I most regret never having seen – a pneumatic-tube messenger system for sending copy to the composing room in metal cylinders.

And there is also a copy editor. Only one, again, as in The Paper (although, to be fair, he and the copy chief had probably stayed behind specially). And he barely speaks, except to ask for a messenger tube. But you can tell he’s a copy editor, because the first thing he does, with the presses trembling, his proprietor under pressure and the reputations of four presidents hanging in the balance, is calmly cross out the first sentence of the story.

Then as now, sometimes the most important cut is the one you make in the first paragraph.  I like to think it said something like “Bombings and deception and McNamara, oh my!”. But it was probably something more like: “It’s official …”.


* To be absolutely accurate, as readers have pointed out previously, Drew Barrymore’s character in Never Been Kissed is also, notionally, a copy editor: but as she (a) appears to have an office to herself and (b) gets sent out on a whim to off-diary feature assignments, you would be forgiven for mistaking her for a columnist.

Crud distinctions

7 Jun

So this is what you don’t do. In the light of last time’s discussion about when you might, in the most uncomfortable of circumstances, be tempted to clean up a quote, here’s a clear example of the vast majority of cases when you wouldn’t and shouldn’t.

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 11.16.51

I could listen to showrunners talk all day, and this splendid roundtable with five of television’s most in-demand producers is a good example of the flair with which the LA Times covers its hometown industry – even in the face of competition from Variety, the film mags and any number of specialist websites. But in the transcription of the interviews beneath the video, that most genteel of vulgar terms, “crud”, has appeared next to the name of Fargo creator Noah Hawley.

Did he really say “crud”? Does anyone ever say that? Well, because we have the video at the top of the page, we can check. And, as you might have suspected, Hawley doesn’t say “crud” (at about the 31.45 mark on the tape); of course, he says “crap”. The word has been censored in print. It’s a classic example, presumably, of the misplaced sense of editorial propriety that Bill Walsh describes in Lapsing Into A Comma:

It’s pretty likely that somewhere someone is watching on CNN as somebody says, “I ain’t saying nothing to you [bleep]er [bleep]ers,” while reading a printed account of the same statement that says, “I respectfully decline to comment, my good man.”

The rest of the roundtable is transcribed punctiliously. And I don’t have a problem with occasional square-bracketed clarifications when they’re inserted into long-form quotes in which interviewees can clearly be heard speaking in their own voice. But it does seem odd, when happily publishing a video of someone saying “crap” on your own website, that you would bother to expurgate the word in the text beneath.

Not that swearing doesn’t present a tricky problem for editors; it does, especially in quotes. The rule here at the Tribune is that obscenities should be printed in full and uncensored within direct quotes, but may not appear anywhere else in the paper. The Associated Press disagrees, and recommends to “replace letters of an offensive word with a hyphen” when there is no compelling need to reproduce the term in full. But it too advises against censorship:

In reporting profanity that normally would use the words “damn” or “god”, lowercase “god” and use the following forms: damn, damn it, goddamn it. Do not, however, change the offending words to euphemisms. Do not, for example, change “damn it” to “darn it”.

All of which doesn’t help much in dealing with the knotty problem that started this whole discussion off a fortnight ago: outfielder Carlos Gomez’s anger at the all-too-accurate transcription of his words as they appeared in the Houston Chronicle.

When a player gives you this as a quote:

For the last year and this year, I not really do much for this team. The fans be angry. They be disappointed.

What’s the correct way to proceed?

  1. Run the quote verbatim, as the Chronicle did? That’s the impeccable journalistic thing to do – except that the player might feel slighted about his halting English, as Gomez now does, other non-native anglophones may detect a whiff of native-speaker condescension, and a difficult debate about social disadvantage could develop over what was meant to be a simple baseball story.
  2. “Clean up” the quote? Definitely not: the amount of work needed to turn it into standard English goes far beyond what even the most lax judge would consider acceptable. Huge amounts of it would have to be changed: “Last year and this year, I haven’t really done much for this team. The fans are angry. They are disappointed”.
  3. Take some the words out of direct speech? You could do – except, again, because every single phrase is in non-standard English, you would have to report the whole thing indirectly, leading to the peculiar situation of a player “speaking to the fans” without giving a single actual quote.
  4. Just not run the story at all? That wouldn’t satisfy anyone – not the reporter who brought the story in, the readers who like to hear from their beloved Astros, or the player who wanted to get a message through to the bleachers. (And how would you explain it to Gomez? “Sorry, Carlos, but we really can’t run this until your English improves”?)

After two weeks of thinking about it, I’m still not sure what I would do.


Fame at last

27 Oct

© 1994 Universal Pictures

© 1994 Universal Pictures

It’s a Hollywood movie about journalists, and it’s got everything you’d hope for: caffeinated news editors, sweaty reporters, babble, hubbub, clattering keys. But also, in the background, is a different, less familiar, sound: the voice of The Only Sub-Editor Ever To Be Portrayed On Film**.

In this scene from The Paper, directed by Ron Howard, it’s gone 6pm on a busy news day at the slightly hapless New York Sun. Metro editor Henry (Michael Keaton) is still chasing down a hot story about a double murder in Brooklyn as a possible new splash. But over in the corner, Lou the layout sub (Geoffrey Owens) is worried about what’s currently on page one: a legally tricky headline about the driver of a crashed subway train.

LOU: Henry, do you really want to run ‘SMASHED’ as the wood on the subway?

HENRY: (distracted) Errrrr … whatever fits. (Moving away to the reporters’ desks) I don’t care.

LOU: (calling after him) The thing is, it implies that he was drunk while he was driving a train. He could have got drunk afterwards.

ANNA: (walking past LOU’s desk) You’re accurate and ethical, and I want you out of this building.

(The camera follows HENRY as he is swept away by reporters clamouring for his attention, leaving LOU staring at the headline. Then a bright idea presents itself)

LOU: (calling faintly across the room) Hey Hen, I’ve got ‘SMASHED?’ with a question mark, what do you think?

(HENRY, intently watching a TV report on the murders, doesn’t reply)

LOU: (walking over) Henry: I’ve got ‘SMASHED?’ with a question mark. What do you think?

HENRY: (still distracted) Not gonna matter.

(JANET, HENRY’s secretary, comes over.)

HENRY: Did McDougall call in?


HENRY: No message at all from McDougall?

JANET: I have no motive for lying, Henry.

LOU: (persisting heroically) I tell you what, Henry, I’ll make a proof of ‘SMASHED?” with a question mark and I’ll show it to you.

HENRY (barely listening): I’m going down to composing, I’ll check it out there.

(A few minutes later, in the composing room)

LOU: What do you think?

HENRY: I hate it.

Now that – that – is the sub-editing experience. Hollywood, as we’ve observed before, understands the emotional journeys of other kinds of journalists well: reporters’ doggedness rewarded, editors’ courage vindicated, whistleblowers’ satisfaction when the truth comes out. The Paper doesn’t get subbing entirely right: there seems to be only two copy editors in a large building heaving with reporters, PAs and management, whereas in any real newsroom production staff are likely to form the largest discrete group. But the idea of agonising over a headline that gets heedlessly swept off the page two hours later aches with verisimilitude. And no other film has ever managed to capture the signature sub-editorial emotion quite so well – that nervous realisation that you’re the only person, in an office of 200 people, who’s noticed something’s wrong.


** UPDATE: As reader Sluggh rightly points out in the comments, Drew Barrymore’s character in Never Been Kissed, although she spends nearly all her time in the film as an undercover reporter, is actually a copy editor for the Chicago Sun-Times. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that The Paper is the only time sub-editing is portrayed on screen. Unless someone knows different?


Film editors

14 Apr

Another submission to IMDb, another response it would be fair to characterise as “robust”:

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 22.51.51

We first encountered the robot editors of the Internet Movie Database last year, attempting to get an episode summary past its stern battery of automatic parsers. Recently, though, another artificial writing assistant, Grammarly, has come to prominence following a high-profile marketing campaign in which the company attempted to grammar-check EL James’s Fifty Shades Of Grey when the film of the book premiered. It ran James’s text and that of several famous historical authors through the system, and presented its findings in a lively press release.

Grammarly is a hugely ambitious undertaking: an algorithm that attempts to read and parse text like a human editor, and check spellings and punctuation in context. Unfortunately, the marketing push didn’t go as well as might have been hoped. As was widely observed, notably by Jonathon Owen at Arrant Pedantry, the worked examples contained several infelicities or mistakes, including some questionable overpunctuating and a suggestion that The Tempest be corrected to “We are such stuff on which dreams are made on“. As Arrant Pedantry concluded, many of the things Grammarly found in its press release weren’t errors and, where it intervened, “the suggested fixes always worsen the writing”.

The IMDb parser is a much less ambitious undertaking. It doesn’t work on free-form text or purport to “read”: instead, it controls inputs tightly by using step-by-step data entry. And yet somehow, it feels so much more like being edited.

Above all, it’s the tone. As ever, the rejection notice at the top is brisk but not wholly discouraging, like a copy editor intercepting a reporter with a question. Then there’s the fact-checking and the resultant queries, and the automatic corrections for house style (surname, first name), done without a song and dance. Then there’s the institutional memory and the ever-so-slight weariness that goes with it: there are 3,304 attributes like this already – are you sure you want to create a new one? Then there’s the encouragement not to touch the type: “If you don’t understand how the ordering should be formatted, please leave it blank.” And, as we saw last time, it enforces word counts ruthlessly and threatens to reassign material elsewhere if it’s not cut to fit.

Maybe Grammarly wouldn’t have stumbled over the cap ‘W’ in “Written” and asked for guidance; IMDb doesn’t do line-by-line context and only really spellchecks the proper nouns already in its database. But this is big-picture, organisational editing for accuracy and factual consistency. Rather than entering the murky, and often highly debatable, world of comma use and the passive voice, it just aims to get things cross-referred and reliable.

In fact, quite a lot of real editors’ work is like the kind of  “database editing” IMDb does. Is that how we normally spell it? Haven’t I read that paragraph somewhere else? Someone else has written a piece about this: what does that say? The parser may not be able to write a headline, but it can certainly keep control of a multi-contributor encyclopaedia.

Assertive,  detail-oriented, unbending about style, weary but polite – and, as we see from the “override” tickboxes, stoical about the possibility of being ignored: doesn’t that sound just like an editor? These robots are getting more lifelike by the day.

The robots are coming

8 May

I wish I had the nerve to talk like this to the newsdesk:

Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 10.11.15

If you’ve ever tried submitting anything to the Internet Movie Database, you may recognise this tone. IMDb is a wiki – that is, an aggregation of user contributions – but it has achieved the status of  a semi-official reference tool at the Tribune, much more so than Wikipedia ever will. And I think that may be because of its fearsome army of robot editors, which intercept and scan everything you submit, and more often than not sling it back like Jason Robards growling “You haven’t got it” to Redford and Hoffman.

No diffident pencilled queries in the margin for IMDb: for example, if you have a couple of pieces of casting information you want to add to a TV show, you’d better have chapter and verse to hand.

Screen Shot 2014-05-06 at 20.56.06

So you say this person was in the show? Here are a list of actors with similar names: it’s easy to get confused. If you’re uncertain, click here and we’ll sort it out for you. Or perhaps you’d just like to give up the whole idea? Choose an option, please. (And by the way, you formatted the request wrongly. It has already been corrected: this is merely a notification.)

That’s the spirit. And if you submit anything as ambitious as a three-line episode summary, you get pulled apart like a rookie screenwriter at a pitch meeting:

Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 10.09.24

There are misspellings. You have written too much: if you insist on overfiling, we will simply move your piece to a different slot inside the site (delicious). And, my favourite bit of all:

“The following fixes have been applied automatically: ‘…’ has been replaced with ‘.’ in accordance with IMDb rules.”

No judicious exceptions, no stretching a point. Ellipses are just banned, rather like the way all semicolons were excised for some years on the Tribune’s sport section. It’s a rule. And I suspect that “surveilling”, even if spelt correctly, will turn out  to be “not in the dictionary”. I’ll just change it now. They won’t like it.

For the first time in my life, I feel like a writer.


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.