By guest lecturer, award-winning* journalist Don Gordon-Brown
In rivers-of-gold times when print-media journalism ruled supreme, writing a good heading quickly was an essential skill of any good newspaper sub-editor. A deadline loomed, the chief sub and section editors were screaming about looming deadlines, and the poor sub had three decks of 60pt to write with only seven-and-a-half characters per deck!
Think of the pressure to perform! Especially in the days of old where leaving any deck short by half-a-character was a sackable offence. You were taken out back and shot if you use a question mark. So what, then, makes a good headline? Today the answer is simple. It’s got to be as big as possible and take up as much page space as possible to keep journo numbers on staff to a bare minimum. But that’s the job of modern-day page-layout people. What does the sub do with what they’re given?
Once upon a time, the heading aimed to lure the reader to the body copy. It was a short, sharp telegram of what the story was about: Shark mauls boy, 7. That sort of thing for a news page. Serious and simple. Feature pages and lightweight sections such as travel, food, cinema and the like were where creative subs could shine and show their brilliance.
Too many decks often led to howlers such as:
Too few available characters led to headings like:
But regardless of where they’re used, print-media headings come in only a handful of categories: shithouse, serviceable, clever, very clever (these win Walkleys) and far-too-clever-by-half, also known as shithouse. You only have to look at The Courier-Mail of recent years to see that this last category is very common nowadays where almost by default headings should be as corny and punny as possible. Put another way, the heading no longer has to follow the rules of English or make much sense, for that matter. And for the rest of this lecture, I am indebted to Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald Traveller section (below) to show you examples of all types.
Let’s make a few assumptions about that section. Let’s assume that only the one sub did all the headings, and let’s assume for this exercise that he or she has written them in the order I’ll now suggest. Right now, some of you are probably remembering lesson #4 of Lessons in the Fine Craft of Journalism: never let the facts spoil a good story but, nevertheless, here we go.
It’s early in the shift and our sub, a few coffees downed, should have taken only seconds to come up with the one shown below. Serviceable. Relevant. Not every heading has to be on the lookout for two more to be a Walkley entrant.
Copenhagen is where Hans Christian Andersen hails from. Get it? Another serviceable and relevant heading. So far so good.
Grab another story out of the queue. Hmmm…. Lord Howe Island. How easy is this? Of course, in older times, a sub might just as easily have written: How to lord it in new-look luxury without feeling the need to state the bleeding obvious.
Now our sub has hit peak form, and this one moves into the clever category. Durham Castle was built in the times of William the Conqueror, it seems. So the sub has gone out on a wing and a prayer and would be feeling quite good about life. Sure beats “Durham Castle is very big”.
But here is where our sub is starting to tire or their section editor is screaming for copy.
We know the place is called Sur and Steve McQueen stayed there but this one is getting dangerously close to far-too-clever-by-half or put another way, shithouse. Not quite there but doesn’t smell quite right, all the same.
And now our sub is under the pump or their knockoff time looms and they badly need a drink or 10. And for their final story about Romania, they think: what can I do with Dracula? Or just Drac? What rhymes with Drac? Crack? Lack? Sack? Track? Track!!!! And this is the result. Ending up on a road to nowhere near Gundagai, especially as the story talks about the country’s very good highways so you don’t need to get off the beaten drac.
Who did this sub think he or she was? Renard Peters, Baz McAlister or Scottie “North to a laksa” Dixon?
So, do you think you’ve got what it takes to be a top gun sub? Able to punch out snappy, suitable headings under pressure? Every now and then come up with an absolute gem?
You do! Well, that’s a pity then because there are no subs jobs left.
* B for junior English, scholarship results 1963.