A new series at Pure Poison, where in an effort to include silly media quibbles that amuse us but don’t technically qualify as “intellectual dishonesty”, we explore them as shedding light on the shadowy world of the unknown but influential newspaper subeditor.

Today’s episode: How to avoid confusing headline-skimming obituary readers

Overheard at a fictional sub’s desk at Spencer St

Hypothetical Subeditor Section Boss (“HSSB”): What the hell is this?
Hypothetical Subeditor (“Sub”): It’s an obituary we’re reprinting from the NYT of an accomplished harpsichordist.
HSSB: I can read. But your headline – “Master of Baroque on Harpsichord”? What the f*ck is that?
Sub: It’s a style of intricate classical music that was popular in the seventeenth and eighteen centuries, although there a…
HSSB: I know what f*cking Baroque means. No, what is a bloody “harpsichord”?
Sub: It’s a musical instrument that looks a bit like a piano, but is older and was popular before they invented…
HSSB: Well why didn’t you say that? The ignorant masses who turn straight to the obituary section when they open the paper aren’t going to know what a harpsichord is. When you work for the f*cking Herald Sun you can assume they know about obscure classical musical trivia, but these are Age readers. Tits and footy, that’s what you can assume they know about.
Sub: I did put a line in the article after the first mention of harpsichord, explaining what it was.
HSSB: But it’s not clear from the headline! “Master of Baroque” might be catchy enough to grab their interest, but if you expect them to know what a “harpsichord” is without explaining, they’ll skim right to the next obituary. Think of your audience, lad. And remember, Wikipedia is down.
Sub: It’ll be back by the time this goes up.
HSSB: Will it? I can’t tell without looking it up on Wikipedia. Change the f*cking headline so that it elegantly explains what the f*ck the story is about.
Sub: How about…?

HSSB: Perfect! Now we’re talking website hits!

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