Short headlines in a style that imitates national red-tops are often used by regional ‘evening’ papers, like these recent examples: ‘Fight for life’; ‘Bin men U-turn’; ‘Named and shamed’; and ‘Sacked – for speaking out’.
The headline is sometimes reduced to a single word or two when the papers feel there is something to really shout about, capitalised and blown up to a huge point size to fill the width, like these: ‘UNMASKED’; ‘SO BRAVE’; ‘GUILTY’; and ‘SICK!’.
Like many existing and former ‘evening’ editors, I have used many of the above and countless similar headlines; they impressed a certain urgency (we assumed), implied breaking news (we hoped) and were designed to shock the public into buying (please!).
But they don’t any more, do they? Shock the public into buying the paper, that is. What I mean is that the mentality of the ‘headline grabber’ for papers in an age when people are constantly besieged by breaking news on air, online and on phones is just not retaining enough readers.
All this came to mind when analysing the latest ABCs, which revealed that no regional UK dailies saw their sales increase, with many of the biggest suffering double-digit declines.
The best-performing regional daily was The Guernsey Press and Star, which only recorded a 1pc fall to 15,013 in the six months to July 2012 – just 500 copies less than it was selling three years ago.
What, if anything, is the paper more commonly known as the Guernsey Press doing differently to achieve this enviable trend? The first thing I noticed on Monday 20 August was that the splash headline was lengthy, telling an exact story in a compelling way.
‘Angry drunk man tries to make police kill him’ leaves you in no doubt about the seriousness of the story, but creates enough of a cliff-hanger to make you want to read on about why, when and how.
‘Ten-inch knife held to friend’s throat during “suicide-by-cop” attempt’ is the even longer sub-heading that increases the drama with clear, descriptive facts.
And rather than repeating an element of the splash headline on the page two turn, which is often what papers do, the Guernsey Press takes the story forward with the words ‘Police professionalism denies his death wish’.
The same happened on Wednesday 22 August when the Guernsey Press splashed on ‘Drunken idiots run boat out of fuel then dial 999’.
There were two sub-headings this time – ‘Lifeboat rescue costs £1,400-plus in diesel alone’ and ‘The sort of incident that could lead to breath tests’.
For an island community, this was big news, and when the story turned into a page two package a pull-out quote that summed up most readers’ thoughts was used as a sub-heading: ‘Those of us who support the lifeboat don’t give money for it to be used on idiots like this’.
The Guernsey Press’s skill, it seems to me, is in creating headlines that mean you know exactly what you are about to buy and read, making sure the story lives up to that expectation and, where appropriate, reflecting islanders’ views.
The tabloid-style alternatives could have been ‘Just shoot me!’ for the first story and ‘Drunken idiots rescued’ for the second, but these would arguably have bored a public now dulled by generic blurbs and instead looking for specific information.
Am I really suggesting that regional dailies could improve their circulation trends with the use of longer splash headlines?
Of course not – content quality, newsworthiness, product timing, availability, price, loyalty, competition and all manner of other factors play their parts.
But for the Guernsey Press, which sells to nearly 60pc of the island’s 26,000 households every day, its precise, detailed and calm front page headlines, as opposed to all-sweeping, wild splashes, seem to strengthen its offering.
Priced at 50p, the Guernsey Press from 20 August contained around 135 news, features and sports stories on 28 editorial pages, in a total book of 40 pages.
This is not the largest paper in the UK, nor is its content volume the biggest, but publishing detailed stories that report, analyse, celebrate and comment on island life are evidently what its readers enjoy.
It’s worth noting that the neighbouring Jersey Evening Post’s circulation trends are similarly steady, and it also recorded a respectable 1pc drop in the latest ABCs.
The two Channel Island papers exist in self-contained communities, of course, and Post editor Chris Bright has been quoted recently on how important this is: “It retains community cohesion more than in some parts of the UK and we’re a part of that.”
What is also interesting is that both papers have proudly retained on-day, ‘live’ deadlines – just like the Wolverhampton Express and Star, now the UK’s best-selling regional daily, and the somewhat rural Shropshire Star, which boasts the UK’s fifth biggest circulation.
All four traditional evening papers are owned by the private Claverley Group.