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The Year of the Pun-demic

One thing that has raised a rare daily smile during the Covid gloom has been the resurgence of the tabloid headline. Peter Sands celebrates the craft of the headline writer.

By Peter Sands

The Year of the Pun-demic
“Anything that raises a smile is to be cherished.”

With so much death, economic hardship and lockdown misery around, it is a credit to the headline writers that they have done their best to give us all a little respite from the grimness.

Since the late 60s, the tabloid headline has been part of British culture. There was always the risqué pun: "Elton takes David up the aisle" or "Paddy Pantsdown". Songs were a reliable source: "Super Caley go ballistic Celtic are atrocious", "Zip me up before you go go", "How do you solve a problem like Korea?" and "Do you know the way to sign Jose?" (when there was a clamour for Mourinho to become England manager). And, sometimes, headlines just had what we used to call the FMD factor, (for the uninitiated, the last two words are Me and Doris), such as "Freddie Starr ate my hamster", "Girl eats 4,000 washing sponges" or "Man who made love to pavements".

Google doesn't have a sense of humour and pun headlines leave it baffled.

Not search engine friendly

The Sun was, of course, the pace-setter. But as newspapers moved to digital, the pun appeared under threat. Search Engine Optimisation, a phrase guaranteed to raise the blood pressure of every inky-fingered sub, does its best to make the jokey headline redundant. Google doesn't have a sense of humour and pun headlines leave it baffled. Roo, Mrs T and Fergie, for Wayne Rooney, Margaret Thatcher and Sir Alex Ferguson, were all tabloid headline writers’ inventions. But nobody searches terms like those online. There is also a digital-savvy generation who find puns a bit of an antiquated curiosity. When we do headline reviews, I often hear trainees say, "that one’s a bit of a dad-joke". The extra space online does offer many headline advantages of course. MailOnline uses the lack of restrictions to build vivid pictures: "Blind bisexual goose named Thomas who spent six years in a love triangle with two swans and raised 68 babies dies at the ripe old age of 40" ... sort of thing.

And The Sun’s online headline writers balance digital needs while retaining the humour in its kickers. It is, after all, part of the paper's DNA.

But instead of discussing digital, I want to highlight the new lease of life that we have seen in print headlines and to celebrate the pun-demic.

Three titles have led the way - The Sun, the Daily Star and Metro. So, I asked executives from each for an insight into their headline approach and to highlight some of their favourites.

With a story as bleak as the pandemic, headlines need to be treated with sensitivity.

Team effort at The Sun

At The Sun, the splash headlines usually fall to the night editor, deputy editor and one of the assistant editors. But inside, although the backbench are the main players, everyone from the picture desk to the newsdesk pitches in. Assistant night-editor Jaymes Bryla reckons they are "a team of headline supremos". The quest for clever headlines is helped by a competitive spirit. Bryla says: "We have an internal headline of the month competition with voucher prizes to spice things up and we're not shy of letting each other know if something doesn't work, or if there's another idea worth throwing into the mix. I view these prizes as the equivalent to the Baftas for my profession. Sadly, the proper industry award ceremonies fail to recognise we backroom toilers." With a story as bleak as the pandemic, headlines need to be treated with sensitivity and The Sun's punsters have focused their fire on the less sombre aspects - lockdown, rule-breachers, vaccines and the like.

Peter Nuttall, deputy night editor, says: "On the newspaper, we are always using puns, wordplay and jokes to sell our stories in the most entertaining way. If it’s a serious story, you want to use the most powerful combination of words at your disposal to draw the reader in. My favourite headlines are ones that can be sung. A lot of the songs we use are 30, 40 and even 50 years old. This is what we ironically refer to as a 'modern cultural reference'. Unfortunately, in the digital age, it’s rare for a current song lyric to be recognisable to the readers."

It is not The Sun, though, that has been providing us with the zaniest front pages.

Resurgence at the Daily Star

That award goes to the Daily Star which boldly declares it is "10p cheaper than the Sun and a lot more fun". Its front pages, including an often brutal but funny Thought For The Day, have pulled no punches with cut-out-and-keep Dominic Cummings masks and Matt Hancock portrayed as Coco the clown. It is a strategy that has attracted a new following. Tweets such as "I never thought I'd see the day when a comedy newspaper like the Daily Star would be regularly giving the Government a good kicking for its dishonesty and hypocrisy. Good on them", are not untypical. The Star began its resurgence when Mirror veteran Jon Clark took over as editor in 2018.

He says: "I have heard us described as a Viz / Private Eye hybrid. Well, I respect both those publications but we plough our own furrow. The general rule of thumb is if it makes me laugh, there's a good chance it will make the reader laugh. And in these tough times, we all certainly need a laugh."

Where do the Star’s ideas come from? "We have a very small team of exceptionally talented people. Many have donkey's years of experience on backbenches across many national papers but we also like to draw on ideas from all our colleagues throughout the paper. For instance, the Dry January gag (when the paper produced a ‘truly historic’ edition on January 31, 2020 not to celebrate Brexit … but the end of Dry January) came from a quip I overheard one of our art team saying to a colleague. The Universally Challenged headline came from our news editor on the Daily Star Sunday who texted me with the idea."

He adds: "Our readers are a great bunch of people. They work hard and buy us to be informed, entertained and uplifted. Our sales have held up remarkably well considering we have endured three lockdowns and our brand is enjoying a real boost so that is very encouraging."

Does Clark have any tips for aspiring headline writers? "Headline writing is what tabloid newspapers are all about. That and witty content / observations that reflect what affects our readers. I grew up reading The Sun in the 80s and 90s when it was at its irreverent peak. Those kind of classic newspaper headlines tend to stay with you forever and I hope some of our Page Ones will also stand the test of time."

I want my front page to be the best front page every morning.

Metro magic

Meanwhile, the headlines at Metro have also flourished under the editorship of Ted Young who has a strong tabloid headline pedigree. He was formerly editor of London Lite, MailOnline, online editor at the New York Daily News, night-editor of The Sun and executive editor of the Express (although I like to think he learned his craft at The Northern Echo). He says: "A clever headline gets the readers into the story and will make them want to come back for more. Metro is never dull, never boring. We make a real effort to make the paper stand out from the others. I want my front page to be the best front page every morning. That is all.

"We are a fantastic team. I like to throw headlines around. Normally this is in the newsroom but now it’s on Slack or Zoom. Everyone comes up with ideas and then I can take the credit. Simple! The subs are always producing belters, as are the news desk."

His team call on popular culture, rhymes (Grab a £10 Rishi Dishi) and songs (He ain’t heavy). He says: "It’s a blank canvas and I have a fabulous art director, Gavin Billenness, who takes my rough drafts and turns them into memorable pages.

"We do get readers saying they love our front pages, mainly on Twitter but sometimes they write into Metro Talk. They particularly loved Stay Elite about Dominic Cummings staying on despite breaking all the rules to go to Barnard Castle.

"But the most important thing is that the paper gets picked up around the country and our returns, despite the lockdown, prove we have kept our readership."

I was brought up on the art of the tabloid headline and it would be a sad day if it was confined to history. Anything that raises a smile in newspapers (or anywhere for that matter) is to be cherished. So, let’s celebrate the pun-demic and have a collective clap for the backroom champions whose creativity and humour have raised our spirits during the bleakest of times.

Tabloid headline tips

  • Let the headline shape the page rather than trying to squeeze it into pre-drawn boxes (unless a picture is the splash)
  • Look up rhymes of key words and see if anything chimes
  • Look up synonyms and see if there's something to hook on to
  • Have a good knowledge of popular songs
  • Be smart not cryptic - will readers understand that obscure lyric?
  • Don't be afraid to go off on a tangent
  • If the main fact of the story is amazing (has the FMD factor) do you even need a pun?
  • Don't be afraid to ask colleagues for input. A fresh eye can sometimes crack it
  • There’s nothing worse than a lazy pun such as "Wheely great" or "Just the ticket"

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.