20 December 2014

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Dyson at Large: Weak headline defaces decent paper

As a young reporter, I used to marvel at the editor poring over his front pages with the splash sub, tweaking and refining headlines until they sang.

The challenge was twofold: first, choosing meaningful words that would entice readers to stop and buy the paper, with clichés rarely allowed.

And second, making each ragged-right deck as flush as possible, ideally no more than half an em shy, with no squeezing or stretching allowed.

If you were close enough and strained your ears at these crucial moments you could hear these senior wordsmiths quietly mouthing attempted combinations, counting out words and em-lengths on their fingers before a perfect solution was jubilantly found.

These memories came back to me when I picked up the Buxton Advertiser on Thursday 12 June to be met by a flaccid ‘Thumbs up for artisan market’ splash headline.

Not only did the headline start with the most hackneyed phrase, but three out of the four decks were painfully short, one of them by more than a column; and the story wasn’t even worthy of the splash.

Times have changed, of course, with backbenches, metal em rules and chewed blue pencils often replaced by remote and over-worked subbing hubs, predictable page templates and, in some cases, ‘good enough will do’ management attitudes.

This page one weakness was a shame for the Advertiser, owned by Johnston Press, as that week’s edition contained a range of good stories on inside pages.

The best was the page three picture lead – it should have been the splash – which sported a much better example of headline writing, expertly summarising the tale but still teasing you to want more.

‘Ref Stan, 80, not ready to blow final whistle yet’ told how an octogenarian was celebrating more than 60 years of refereeing junior football in the Peaks, with no plans for retirement.

Another sound headline that caught my eye was written for the detailed court report leading page five: ‘Drink-driver took car to buy alcohol’.

Other page leads included readable reports on plans for council cuts to adult care, a public meeting about changes to health services, and how the Royal British Legion had restored Great War memorial gardens.

And ‘Mommy’s Star raises £50k in first year’ leading page 15 was a touching story about a charity helping pregnant women with cancer, founded in memory of a local mum who died two months after giving birth.

In total, there were more than 175 local news, sport and features stories on 40-odd editorial pages in a 56-page book, not a bad read for an 80p cover price (60p for subscribers).

But please note: for as long as publishers want newspapers to be purchased, someone, somewhere should be banging the table about the focused efforts needed to craft great front page headlines.


  1. Oop North

    Strange in the week the Western Morning News publishes a Sunday edition Mr Dyson reviews the Buxton Advertiser!
    Will we be treated to the Great Man’s views on the new look WMN soon, I wonder?
    Here in Pontefract I didn’t get to see a copy, but my South West spies have reported from the battlefield with mixed views….

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  2. fishyphil

    Pages designed to templates = stifled content. This splash is a perfect example. No flexibility means a one-way ticket to Dullsville.

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  3. Juan Direction, Exeter

    I’d suggest Mr Dyson doesn’t waste his time on the Sunday edition of the Western Morning News….I certainly felt like I’d wasted mine after buying it.

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  4. bluestringer

    God in heaven, that front page is dull.
    It screams TEMPLATE – put some words in here and a photograph in here – job done…NEXT.
    It’s what the publishers want, apparently.
    Whether it’s what the readers want seems to be a total irrelevance to them.

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  5. Newsman

    Things have changed for the worse in newspapers since Steve Dyson was a junior reporter. Now subs, if there are any left on the Buxton Advertiser – it is a JP title – are undoubtledly understaffed and overworked. They may even work in some far-flung super hub.

    These days newspapers are all about getting the page to press, not bothering about the luxuries of newspaper production, such as honing headlines.

    Frankly, when people are being required to work well beyond their paid-for hours for no extra pay, who can blame them for not taking the pride in the job they may have had once? You reap what you sow.

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  6. Chris

    An 80-year-old ref a splash? Never. But neither’s the market story.

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  7. fishyphil

    It’s not just dull bluestringer, it’s a total and utter creative mess. No strong headline, no strong visual, no strong masthead – from a distance it all blurs into one and you’ll pass it by on the newsstand.

    I don’t have a problem with some templated designs but their utter inflexibility means they are rarely sympathetic to news when it really matters.

    Although let’s be honest, this example is not really a splash, is it?

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  8. Nick Hudson

    Sadly, with regional readership in terminal decline, the only thing screaming out of today’s pages is yesterday’s news delivered sometime tomorrow.
    Glorious evolution – until today, when newspaper stories on the web talk about an event ‘tomorrow’ which is in fact actually the day after because someone has forgotten to remember that the article is probably going out nearly 24 hours before the printed edition.
    On a memory note: I’m sure Mr Dyson recalls at the Birmingham Mail the halcyon days of plastic caps of the splash headline that replaced hot metal.
    Good times, bad times, now no real news and too many dogs’ cocks in copy!
    STOP PRESS: Knowing Mr D, when he does get round to the WMN review – it will be spot on.

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  9. Mr Angry

    Johnston Press!! Say no more!

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  10. Scribbler

    None of the headlines on the front page are as good as those from the fictitious local rag in Johnny Vegas’s TV series ‘Dead Man Weds’.

    They included: ‘Car found by tree’ and ‘Pensioners make lovely rugs’.

    I live in hope..

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  11. Bob the bulk sale builder

    I believe from a good source that the circulation performance of this reasonably sized weekly is consistently out performing not only all of JP’s weeklies, but the industry as a whole. So, another reason why Mr Dyson’s views should be filed accordingly.

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  12. Trovic Werdlem, Somewhere Manchester way

    I’m taking a wild guess here, but I reckon that splash was purposely chosen because it was thought it’d be a way for the ad manager to attract some much-needed business.
    Oh, and three-deck headers on those single-par teaser shorts? Shocking!

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  13. Jaded Joe

    The loss of a paper’s dedicated sub — to then be replaced with a subbing “super hub” — is a tragedy.
    If it wasn’t for the fact I worked on a local paper, I probably would never pick one up.
    Most are dull, with nothing eye-catching to grab you.
    The industry is haemorrhaging what creativity and pride it once had straight down the drain.
    Good reporters are being driven into the ground…

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  14. Brassington

    None of these headlines holds a candle to those cited in John Marquis’s priceless newspaper memoir, Hard Pressed.

    1 Police will hold balls this year (The Nassau Guardian, Bahamas)

    2 Rape at Dick’s Point (The Tribune, Bahamas)

    3 All set for the daily grind (accompanying pic of two girls standing next to a millstone – The Chronicle and Echo, Northampton)

    4 Last chance to enter Miss Nantwich (a Cheshire newspaper – I forget which one)

    5 Best ‘literal’ – Barry Lines dashed down the left wing and shat over the bar from 30 yards (Chronicle and Echo green ‘un in the 1960s)

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  15. streatham2, South London

    Oh to have a local with “In total, there were more than 175 local news, sport and features stories on 40-odd editorial pages” – including news in briefs, for 50p my local has a total of 29 non-sport news items this week

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