Monday, 15 October 2012

The art of writing newspaper bills ...

I was pleased to see this news bill in Tunbridge Wells recently. It certainly teases the reader and had the Courier flying off the shelves. It was a contrast to another bill I saw in the same town a few years ago that said Door slightly damaged in T. Wells Post Office raid. The use of the word 'slightly' was classic. Bills have been topical on Twitter in the last few weeks, not least because Radio 2's @ asked his followers to send him bizarre examples - and they duly obliged. 

They included this one, which carried the comment 'it's all kicking off in Brecon and Radnor'. So, with so many bad bills around, I thought it would be timely to revisit my guidelines and show some that work and some that don't. 

Bills have been tools for selling newspapers for decades, as this one from the Daily Telegraph shows. They can be hugely effective. What other industry has the opportunity to get several different messages on the streets every day? A few years ago research by Press Ahead showed clearly that people were influenced by bills, particularly those with local news stories. Yet the nationals don't bother any more and I have more bad examples than good ones from the regions, suggesting newspaper staff don't have the knowledge, time or inclination to do them properly. 

So let's start at the beginning ... why we use news bills. The sole purpose is to persuade a casual reader to walk into a newsagents and buy the paper. You won't do that if you simply stick five meaningless or bland words on a poster. Persuading someone to change their routine (a routine of not buying the paper), stop in their tracks, go into the shop and fork out their cash, requires thought, work and time.  So, here are my tips for the bill writers:


1. Tease the reader
Always leave one key question unanswered. Give them a reason to want to buy the paper. Tell them it’s a well-known publican who has been up to no good but not which one; tell them it's a big signing but not who. When Ingrid Bergman died I put out an evening newspaper bill that said World's greatest actress dies. It was a quote, so legitimate, and we sold droves. People not only wanted to know who had died ... but who the world's greatest actress was. All three above have sufficient intrigue to arouse a potential reader's curiosity.

2. Understand who the bill is aimed at
There is no point in billing the One Direction poster in an area dominated by pensioners or the luxury cruise offers in the run-down council estates. Know who lives where and what their interests are.

3. Use place names ...
... but don't expect them to work if the rest of the bill is dull. People are fascinated by interesting things that happen where they live. But a place name will not save a boring bill.

4. Boring bills have a detrimental effect
I once saw a bill that said Council discusses pollution policy. If people think that is the best story you have on offer, it will probably make them decide not to buy the paper (even if they had originally intended to). A quality general bill is better.

5. Think bills all the time
They shouldn't be an afterthought at the end of a busy production shift. Every time a journalist is presented with a story, he or she should go through their own checklist ... will it make a story, will it make a headline, does it need a picture, should there be a graphic, will it make someone buy the paper, can I write a bill? The checklist starts with the reporter.

6. Keep them short
Readers can take in about five, maybe six, words at once ... after that you have probably lost them. 

7. Don't forget the non-editorial stuff
Free beer, free tickets to the races, money off Tesco vouchers, 400 jobs today (those were the days) ... may all trigger a sale. Oh, and as the above example shows, just be careful when putting bills next to each other.

8. Keep it fresh
People will not buy a paper on the promise of being told something they already know. Keep up to date ... know what’s been online, on the radio, the TV or in the rival papers.

9. Ask how and why
Why I'm changing sex - Oxford teacher; Why I quit - Keegan; How child killer was caught - can all be effective. 

10. It's OK to ask questions
Is this the biggest crook in Darlington? Are these the worst dressed men in Cambridge? These would work even better on a picture bill.

11. Names sell papers
We live in a celebrity culture - and that includes local celebrities. People are essentially interested in people.

12. Use words that build pictures in the reader's mind
Words such as boost, shock, drama, carnage, probe and horror tell us nothing. Use specific words that build pictures.

13. The promise of a picture can work wonders
Albert Dryden, the full story in pictures helped put thousands of copies on to The Northern Echo in one day. And putting pictures on a bill can be a real attention grabber.

14. Have impact but be legible
Choose a good typeface or a bill writer with good calligraphy skills. A font that fills in or a spidery handwritten scrawl, aren't going to stand out. And don't always opt for caps. Road signs and warnings on cigarette packets are in lower case ... because they are easier to read. 

15. Location, location, location
Where the bill goes is a key factor - make sure people can’t miss it. Go where the crowds are.

16. Don’t give the game away on Page 1
If the bill has teased the reader off the street - then don’t spoil it by telling him what the story is in the splash headline. Keep on teasing.

17. Don’t con the reader
If you have a reputation for over-larding the story, the readers won’t fall for it for long. 

18. Watch out for legals
A bill is a publication. It can be libellous or in contempt on its own, even if the story it refers to is not. And sometimes, if it isn't legally dodgy, it can still cause irritation. I once put a bill out that said 'Jack Ford shot dead'. It referred to the hero, played by James Bolam, of the TV series When the Boat Comes In. It was huge in the North-East. We found out exclusively that Ford was to die in the last episode. I received an irate letter from a reader saying we had made him buy the paper on a false pretence. He said we had confused fact and fiction - that he thought it was the American president - and he was going to complain to the Press Council. I wrote to explain the former president was in fact Gerald Ford and he replied saying: "I will never buy your paper again. The next time I see a placard that says Bloodbath At The Palace I will expect a review of Hamlet.' Ouch. 

19. Watch out for double meanings
Death row doctor can be read two ways and I still have a copy of my favourite  Princess Anne in Bath - pics.

20. Don't leave old bills out there
It confuses the reader and destroys your credibility. Change them every day, or every week if you are a weekly. Date them. Weeklies can pre-bill before the day of publication ... and then put a new bill out when the paper comes out.

21. Please, please watch the spelling
... otherwise your credibility will be tarnished and you will be doing the rounds on Twitter - or on this blog.

22. And, finally...
... do ask yourself if what you are billing really is a story in the first place.

1 comment:

  1. In the days when you could buy it, I got conned into buying the Evening Standard by a bill in the Strand that said something like "DR WHO ACTOR IN MURDER PROBE". Turned out to be a downpage story about a guy who'd once played third Dalek from the left and who'd allegedly bumped off his boyfriend.