In My Opinion: Bill Heaney: Why templates are a pain in the tail

WE live in the age of the template – all the news that’s printed to fit, as a colleague once said, making a play on the words of the New York Times’ motto: All the News That’s Fit to Print.

Templates are a pain in the tail for grizzled veterans like me.

This is because I was trained at the Scottish Daily Express during the 1960s, when it was selling at a remarkable 700,000 copies per day.

The Express had some of the best sub-editors around: legends like Clive Sandground, Bill Merrifield, Vincent Hastie, Matt Lynch and Ian Jack.

It also had the best news editor in Scotland in Ian Brown, the man they called the ‘Bomber’.

Daily Record contemporaries will, of course, argue that Fergie Millar deserves that accolade, but we can argue about that some other time over a pint in Tom’s.

Brown was a hard taskmaster who wanted every fact, every quote, every picture and every ‘collect’ from every story you ever went out on and wrote.

His message to young reporters like me was: “Write a really good intro and then do the who, what, why, where and when. The subs will decide how much they want to use. They’ll cut what they don’t want. That’s their job after all.

“Always remember that it is much easier to cut copy than to add to a story because, if the editor wants more, the subs have to come back to us and us to you – and that’s both time-consuming and embarrassing.”

Nowadays, newspapers are governed by templates, which dictate the number of words, the shapes on the page, the depth of a heading and the size of the pictures.

I’ve just had a journalist come back to me after I sent her an important obituary – free, gratis and for nothing, which is the usual fee from most weeklies nowadays – curtly asking me to cut it back.

Obituaries should be around 500 words, can you please amend and resend?

My reply was equally curt: “Don’t be so lazy and sub it yourself – unless you are going to pay for it, of course.”

I haven’t heard back from her yet, but her e-mail was in stark contrast to one I received on Friday from Ian McCormack, editor of the West Highland Free Press.

Ian thanked me for the obituary and put me right on a minor error in the text, which I was able to correct for the papers and radio stations I had already sent it to.

Some weekly papers may, allegedly, have no money, but it is heartening to note that good manners haven’t entirely been consigned to the waste bucket along with the cheque book for correspondents’ accounts.

Bill Heaney is an award-winning journalist who edited the Lennox Herald for many years and was a special adviser, on the regional Press, at Holyrood and a media adviser at Westminster. He is now retired but continues to operate as a columnist with the Lennox Herald and a pro bono media consultant to a number of churches and charities.