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Dyson at Large: Headlines that slap readers in the face

Take a look at this splash from the Haverhill Echo on Thursday 12 July 2012 and tell me what you think.

I’ve always been against centralised headlines and, as an editor, insisted they were set ragged-right, preferring each deck to be within an em of flush.

Even with papers whose house style insists on centralised heads, I’ve generally baulked at those that end up looking like hour glasses when subs lump for the first phrase that fits the story without bothering to fill out the lines.

Despite this, on a table full of local and regional papers that I came across a fortnight ago, it was the Haverhill Echo that slapped me in the face and made me pick it up to read.

The headline ‘KILLER HEARD VOICES’ with almost a column of white space on either side brought a front page focus I rarely experience – the equivalent of a sudden cold draught in a dark cellar.

Mad, brutal facts were then made realistic in the way that only comes with well-penned court stories, the chilling intro demanding the whole story be read: ‘A Haverhill carer accused of bludgeoning her 77-year-old lover to death with a claw hammer has said she heard voices saying ‘dead, dead, dead’ before the attack, a court heard.’

At the end of a gripping 18 pars, all on page one, there was a perfect link to the paper’s website: ‘The judge Mr Justice Saunders was directing the jury before they retired to consider their verdict, as the Echo went to press. See our website for verdict.’

Along with what I suspect was the majority of Echo readers, this immediately prompted me to do just that, and the updated online story told me the accused had been convicted of murder and jailed for life.

It was an impressive start for a paper that sometimes grappled awkwardly with design but often hit the spot with all important content. Production flaws included:

  • A messy boost above the splash, with Spiderman seemingly getting his bum scorched by the Olympic flame in the right-hand picture.
  • The centralised headlines that strangely worked for me on page one then grated on various inside pages – ‘Thefts from vans and cars reported in town’ on five decks across a column on page four an example of how to induce sea-sickness in readers.
  • The odd use of bright yellow on headlines placed on top of pictures for Olympic torch spreads on pages seven and nine.
  • A stray boost on page 22 urging readers to follow Bury Free Press editor Barry Peters on Twitter – which would mean little to Haverhill Echo readers, (even when Echo staff move 18 miles to the Bury St Edmunds office next month).

The Echo is owned by Johnston Press which, like so many mass owners, has centralised production lines churning out pages for dozens of different papers at the same time, so perhaps these glitches were due to that.

More encouraging for a paper that only sells 3,778 copies a week was the story quality from what appeared to be a three-person content team, which on top of the murder splash included:

  • ‘£300k extra to destroy school’ leading page three, revealing the extra cost of a planned demolition after an arson attack.
  • ‘Tributes paid after fatal road crash’ leading page four, with detailed quotes and details from the mourning family.
  • ‘Windfarm opponents celebrate their victory as BT drops plans’ leading page five.

There was a total of around 160 stories on 34 sometimes very tight news, features and sports pages – not too low a count in a 48-page book with a cover price of 50p.


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  • August 1, 2012 at 9:12 am

    I get what you’re saying about impact Steve, but that’s a headline that isn’t correctly centred.

    And the overall front page is very hard to navigate, not helped by having the advert in the top right hand corner. It kind of merges into the Olympic Torch pic, which isn’t helped by a lack of headline, or the tight crop on the horizontal but not the vertical.

    Would rather that white space around the headline was given to the torch pic, which would have made it stronger and given the front page a better chance of being easier for the eye to work round.

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  • August 1, 2012 at 10:42 am

    Looks awful but at least the intro isn’t ragged right like some of the new JP templates I’ve seen. Have they got rid of all the subs?

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  • August 1, 2012 at 1:05 pm

    In this age of constant cuts to staffing levels and the skills available, I find myself asking this question on a weekly basis: “Why does Dyson’s critique have a place on this website week after week?”
    The unbelievable pressure placed on subs – if they still manage to retain that title and aren’t now ‘page production’ – in the modern newsroom offers little scope for real creativity and thought. Sometimes, it really is a case of slap it on the page as quick as you can.
    While he briefly acknowledges the restructuring going on at some papers, I feel these harsh reviews of papers do no favours for production staff who are under extreme pressure. Imagine if an MD reads this drivel and punishes the subs! Senior management have no real idea of the pressures in a newsroom and could easily take it out on shop floor staff. Steve Dyson’s ‘At Large’ has no constructive place in the newspaper industry in the state it’s in. Talk about kicking people when they’re down!

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  • August 2, 2012 at 8:51 am

    @say it as you see it
    Is that one very sour line the best you can come up with? How inspired you must have been!
    Before you thoughtlessly criticise another journalist’s work in these hard times, perhaps you should consider the most important aspect of this: what did the readers think?
    If the editor of the Haverhill Echo is able to post on here in a couple of weeks that this issue was the best-selling of the year, as I suspect it was, then your snobbish dismissal of this front page can go where the sun don’t shine.
    But I expect the Ed will have better things to worry about than you and your legacy thinking. Like increasing sales.

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  • August 3, 2012 at 9:53 am

    Can’t read the full story in print – but am I right in assuming the carer had admitted manslaughter but denied murder? If there was solely a murder charge, the accused has been convicted by the headline.

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  • August 3, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    And … I forgot to say, we did sell out while carrying the murder story, at many outlets.

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  • August 3, 2012 at 12:31 pm

    Thanks for your comments. As editor of the Haverhill Echo, I’d like to answer some of the questions raised.
    Yes, the accused had admitted manslaughter, so was a killer at the time we published the story. She was later convicted of murder and sentenced to life (11 years).
    Yes, the front page puffs and the Olympic torch pages, which attracted some criticism, were designed by a busy central hub. The rest of the paper apart from sport and the leisure section was put together here in Haverhill, where headlines and all content was written. Yes, Mr Dyson, it is a minor miracle that 3 people produce and write the edition every week; with fewer hands during holiday times.
    We are proud of strong stories – content is king.
    As a JP title we will be having our design makeover next month.
    Thanks for the review and your comments. Very useful.

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