That's a vulnerable headline. You just knew it would touch off a firestorm.
The cover of the 9 March 2011 Wellington “Times” showed five swans gliding rather gracefully past the camera lens. The caption ran: “Spring thaw: a herd of swans finds open water as the winter’s ice and snow retreat from the harbour in Wellington.”
A herd, isn’t that reserved for sheep and cows? Well, actually, it isn’t. The term, correctly used, was far too prosaic for Diane Riley of Wellington, who in a letter published in the March 16 issue bewailed the lost opportunity to use another collective noun from “one of the richest languages on the planet.” Angry mobs threatened to sack and burn the offices of the “Times,” after the caption appeared obviously had similar sentiments.ï¿½
The “Times” was fortunate to avoid a grammatical pratfall. I guarantee you, that if the paper ran a headline, indicating, “World to end on Sunday after Japans’ nuclear meltdown,” its mailbox would fill with letters from readers outraged at the misplacement of the apostrophe. Failed punctuation is a far better harbinger of the end of civilization as we know it than some far off nuclear meltdown.
So acute is punctuation sensitivity that the biggest gaffe during Peter Mertens’ otherwise leisurely stroll to the mayoralty was an ad that read “Peter Merten’s priorities.” That was obviously Homer Simpson-sized wrong; and he couldn’t afford to alienate the sizeable grammarian vote. What correction was required? Traditionalists argued for “Mertens’,” and only begrudgingly accepted the more modern “Mertens’s,” a style that has been adopted by the Times itself. I guess a sense of the modern is important these days.ï¿½
The “Times” was also fortunate in avoiding a classic inadvertent double meaning, do you recall, “Shot off woman’s leg helps Nicklaus to 66.” It can sneak up on you in an instant. For example, another, less distinguished, county paper said last fall, and I paraphrase, ‘County celebrates as new sewage plant goes online.’ The hyperbole is unfortunate, but the difficulty compounded with a headline on a nearby page that stated, ‘County students benefit from online experience.’
Grammar and clarity was not Ms. Riley’s subject. Her complaint was with pedestrian language. I think she’s on to something. It’s worth considering because the “Times” will shortly be undergoing a style upgrade. Take last week’s paper. The editorial was entitled “A good story.” Alternatively, the headline might read, “A compelling tale” or “Weaving a convincing yarn.” Only imagination is stopping the “Times” from selling more copies.
I’d go a step further. Ask any journalist, "What is the most important aspect of a story." Nine of ten times, she, he or it tells you it’s the headline. Newspapers make their reputations on headlines. If the “Globe and Mail” got hold of the swan story, it would lead with something likeï¿½
ï¿½“Canada’s dirty secret: swan care, an in depth five-part series. Today: the perils of cold water.” If it were a Toronto “Star” story, it would read “GTA unaffected by swan sightings.” If the Toronto “Sun” had the story, it might read “Snow, ice retreat. Swans move in. Are your kids safe?” All three of those alternative headlines pack a little more punch than the original.ï¿½
So why does the Times settle for bland headlines? One theory has it that the editors are so tired at the end of a newsgathering week that it has little or no gas in the tank for imaginative, action-oriented headlines. Another postulates that the swan story was actually an alternative use of the normal technique of softening us up with a cute ‘child’ cover in order to slap us senseless with a deftly argued editorial about sewage plant depreciation rates. A third suggests that it is a calculated setup: evoke letters to the editor to show advertisers that readers care.
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that life in and around Wellington in the dog days of winter is a little - not dull, but uneventful perhaps. After all, how exciting is life, if your front-page story is about snow and ice retreating? That’s only a superficial view. We got more going on than you can imagine. We got Maple in the County, a dustup over development charges, a copper theft ring, the Dukes sailing through the playoffs, Quick Wits & Thick as Bricks County History Quiz Night on 23 March Speakeasy Night on March 26, the Windy Village Open Stage on March 30, and Happy Feet, Head for Hillier on April 2.That explanation doesn’t wash.
Whatever the reason, I’m with Diane Riley. Let’s give those headlines more oomph. “Sloppy op flops, stops as top cops drop copper tube ring”: I hope to read it here soon.
Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose, not infrequently laced with savage humour. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Mike Barnacle, the late Jimmy Breslin and Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington, Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.
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