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.