Jan 20, 2012

Understanding The World Of The Subeditor

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 she

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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19 thoughts on “Understanding The World Of The Subeditor

  1. calyptorhynchus

    I find it odd they assume that people would understand the word Baroque in the musical sense but not the word harpsichord.

    ps Baroque music wasn’t intricate per se, merely intricate compared to what followed.

  2. Bob Hopeful

    Apropos of nothing else, I found this amusing:

    (An example of how one errant letter can lead to a lawsuit)

  3. Indiana Jones

    Brilliant WB. Also something about a famous headline from someplace somewhere: Queen first to piss over bridge.

    Apropos of nothing, just for the lulz.

  4. William Bowe

    I recently had occasion to chase down a masterpiece of this genre which I’d never forgotten from the Herald-Sun in 1999. Evidently the paper was regurgitating a PR blurb which read thus:

    [A RARE collection of elaborate suits of armor from Austria will take Melbourne by storm at the National Gallery from Wednesday.]

    There was a word in there which evidently troubled our subs: Austria. Our readers won’t have heard of it, you can hear the discussion going, and the similarity of the word with Australia will confuse them. In place of the word “Austria” we will need to describe the country in terms that will mean something to them. The exhibition of Renaissance-era museum pieces was consequently described thus:

    [A RARE collection of elaborate suits of armor from film star Arnold Schwarzenegger’s home country will take Melbourne by storm at the National Gallery from Wednesday.]

  5. dendy

    Christ-a-light. I might have expected something like that from the Herald-Sun, but The Age! Jeez…

    Actually, upon reflection I suspect The Herald-Sun wouldn’t have given a rat’s.

  6. Idlaviv

    Could’ve been worse.
    “Master of Baroque on keyboard that was popular before GarageBand.”

    And happy new year to everybody.

  7. SHV

    The site is dedicated to taking the “piss out of” sloppiness and worse sins in our media. I, for one, only do it because I consider the media to be so crucial to the proper functioning of our democracy and society.

    If only the biggest problem with our media was the odd amusing mistake.

  8. Marek Bage

    Well, that settles it.
    ‘Stupid’ is now an official demographic.

    I was so hoping 2012 would be better. Just a little bit.
    I can see disappointment coming over the horizon and closing in fast.

    Bob Hopeful @10.
    Thank you for restoring my faith in the cleverness of humanity with that last line.
    You’re a genius! 🙂


  9. Michael Vaughan

    It’s a pretty soft option to take the piss out of subs without knowing the shit that goes down in a newsroom. Just bear in mind that subs rarely make mistakes … they mostly miss mistakes made by the people who write the shit in the first place. Give us a break. Mickthesub

  10. Bob Hopeful

    I doubt this headline was written for the reasons Jeremy suggests. Sub-editors write filler headlines like that when they want to check spelling or factual info, or just come back later and think up something more clever. But sometimes they forget about it and it goes out ‘as is’.

    Then again, lucky Gustav Leonhard wasn’t known for his skill on the virginal, or who knows what crappy pun they’d have come up with.

  11. Aurgh

    Great article, but the title was a bit confusing.

    Maybe it should read:

    “Understanding The World Of the person responsible for writing headlines in a newspaper”

  12. Jack Sparraaggghhh

    Ta Jeremy, was wondering about my eyesight. To add another quibble, anyone drawn to The Age’s version will read a couple of name misspellings that were corrected at NYT yesterday (local time). Must be a hellish life, being a Sub.

  13. fractious

    Master of Baroque on keyboard that was popular before piano

    I’m a Grauniad reader – does this mean this geezer was like good on a Moog or something?

    And “keyboard”? Since when was a harpsichord a keyboard?

  14. Alister

    I had to click the link – I didn’t believe anyone could actually give an article a heading like that. That’s – I can’t accurately describe how bad that is, so I’ll leave it to the HSSB:

    Badly written article heading is really, really bad.

  15. Jeremy Sear

    Jack – had just added that detail for the curious. (I know there are some smartarses out there who think that anything from the wire or another publication absolves the subeditor of any responsibility for headlines they leave or add themselves.)

  16. phyllis stein

    So this was a keyboard like from a really old computer?

  17. Jack Sparraaggghhh

    The Age’s piece is sourced from the New York Times…

    Gustav Leonhardt, Master Harpsichordist, Dies at 83

    They’ll probably lose a lot of traffic to The Age because of that impenetrable headline.

  18. SHV

    Thanks mystery sub-editor. Now I’ve got “Golden Brown” by ‘The Stranglers’ stuck in my head.

  19. brendan

    Hard to know whether to laugh or cry at this stuff. You end up sitting there looking blankly at the screen trying to process it. That is so dumb.

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