My Back Pages

I AM about to close the pages on a 28 year career in magazine and newspaper journalism with more than just a tinge of sadness and nostalgia.

During those years I have worked on weekly and daily newspapers, glossy magazines, sports publications, county council journals, in-house buzz feeds and too many supplements to list.

But now it is all change and I view the future with an excitement I have not felt since I was 12 years old.

I am writing a more considered piece on my time in journalism for later publication, but turn my head now to headlines and howlers that accompanied me along the way.

I am proud of creating a few great headlines – along with far too many crap ones – over those years and remember five of them with particular fondness.

The first was during my tenure as editor of the Argyllshire Advertiser way back in 1991. We landed a genuine exclusive that Strathclyde Police detectives were investigating allegations of potential property development fraud within the local council.

The story was massive and it called out for a full page headline FRAUD SQUAD MOVE IN ON COUNCIL.

Two memorable headlines were gifts while I edited the Galloway Gazette in 1998.

The first of these involved some brilliant investigative and painstaking journalism by one of my reporters to identify that seven county councillors were claiming expenses and allowances which would have puts the MPs’ expenses scandal to shame. None of them could properly justify why they had claimed so much from the public purse.

My answer was simple… to line up seven pictures of these councillors across the top of our broadsheet front pages under a banner headline: THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN.

The second of the Gazette pair was a simple piece of amusement. It involved the world famous artist and sculptor Hideo Furuta working with local school children to create circular murals for the town’s church clock – which was away being repaired.

So it had to be: HIDEO THRILLED THE RADIAL STARS.

The final two headline memories are more recent and come from my tenure as editor of The Denbighshire Free Press (2006-2013).

For the first I have to thank my former chief reporter Adele Forrest for her help. In early 2009 she investigated and wrote a truly gobsmacking front page exposing the county council as it struggled to turn round a failing education department. Adele discovered that in their battle to improve matters the council had employed a new education director who lived in Lanzarote and commuted weekly by plane to her job in Ruthin in North Wales, while being put up at tax payers’ expense in a local hotel.

The headline took some work, but we never regretted: PLANE POTTY TO COMMUTE FROM LANZAROTE.

And I close this section with a headline from just a few months ago.

In the wake of the recent horsemeat scandal, my reporter Kirstie Dolphin undertook a blind steak tasting test comparing horse, beef, zebra, and others meats. She voted horse as the tastiest of all the steaks tested, but that didn’t matter because we had a readymade headline: DOLPHIN EATS HORSE SHOCK.

But my headlines were amateurish compared with the real pros.

I worked for a short time in the early 1990s with former national tabloid sub the late Ged Phelan. His penchant for witty and eye-catching headlines was unsurpassed. For one story regarding Sotheby’s valuation of an old Stradivarius violin discovered in the cupboard of a local church vestry, his wording was timeless: MILLION POUND FIDDLE AND NO STRINGS ATTACHED.

Another great colleague and headline writer was The Scotsman’s former deputy features editor Clare Flowers. She excelled in simplicity. On a feature about the release of long lost out-takes by The Beatles, she titled it THE QUALITY OF MERSEY.

And for one of my own pieces about pesticide poisoning of a large area of Kent countryside she scribed the brilliant:  GREEN UNPLEASANT LAND.

But my favourite headline of all time was written by a sports sub at the same paper and related to former Middlesbrough football star Emerson arriving back late from South America. At the time he was linked in transfer talks with Italian club Parma. So the headline had to be: EMERSON LATE AND LINKED WITH PARMA.

Headlines and stories are the bread and butter of newspapers. But real unexpected howlers keep us going.

The most famous I can recall was from a High Court divorce hearing in the mid 1980s, when a wife cited that her husband was often away seeing Bruce Springsteen. In innocent pomposity the judge asked: “And this Mr Springsteen, is he a friend of the family?”

But one howler cost a colleague his job in 1992. At the time I was Editor of the Argyllshire Advertiser and Campbeltown Courier in which this public notice advertisement appeared: “Southend Church, Campbeltown, service times for Sunday: 8.30am Early morning service, 11am Family Service, 2pm Sunday School, 6.30pm Evensong followed by anti-christ barbeque on the beach.”

The final line should have read: “followed by readings in the ante-room”. Unfortunately for the ad man responsible, not only was his error deliberate, but the church in question was regularly attended by the commercial director’s mother.”

My own worst nightmare was reporting from Colwyn Bay magistrates court 24 years ago, when the 19-year-old son of the Chief Constable was up for motoring offences. Throughout my entire court copy for the next day’s paper I put the father’s Christian name instead of the son’s. To make matters worse the son still lived at home with his parents, so the two shared the same address. The copy passed through news desk, subs and editor unnoticed.

Thankfully my career was saved by a sharp-eyed stone sub, just as the plate was being winged away to the press.

And that, as they say, is the news.

Author: seagullnic

Writer, editor, lecturer and part-time musician. Passions in life: my family, Bob Dylan, music of many genres, Brighton and Hove Albion FC, cooking plus good food and wine.

5 thoughts on “My Back Pages”

  1. A new start is what we all crave as time passes I think. I am inventing myself as a writer – well trying to – and I sure whatever you do will be wonderful. I have been caught up with family dramas of late and so please forgive me for not being here that often and commenting. Perhaps by the end of next week I shall have time to read, reflect and comment here. I hope all goes well until then. Keep the faith! 🙂 Enjoy your new freedom.

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