Guest Blog: Confessions of a Sun Sub-Editor
The title of a Channel 4 documentary grabbed my attention as I browsed the TV listings recently. It was “My Daughter the Teenage Nudist”.
The focus on young female flesh and Freudian tension took me back to my days trying to cram impact into headlines about sex-crime stories while a sub-editor for The Sun newspaper.
The task would be to tap into the readership’s base instincts – which might include fear, repulsion and (whisper it) intrigue – then use this perspective to maximise headline impact. I would imagine what emotions a story might provoke, then hone in, prod and vitalise.
It felt very wrong at times. But I found ways to flick my brain’s moral switch off. And I made sure to pray every night after work.
Like good copywriting or product design, writing for The Sun was about hooking into needs and fulfilling those needs in the end product. But as importantly, there was the brand to consider.
The Sun, like it or loathe it (and take it from me, many of its journalists are loathe to like it), is a newspaper that tries to capture, represent and lead the mood and values of Britain.
Like a slightly perverse Ukip-voting uncle – it projects as patriotic and paternalistic, while battling to subdue an unhealthy obsession with sex and the female form.
So the Sun’s brand positioning involved a tightrope walk. And (to extend the metaphor) the Sun stayed up there with Britain’s most successful and identifiable brands for decades.
A large part of this success can be attributed to the paper’s writing style.
The Sun was renowned for using the clearest of language. Its sub-editors were granted time to re-work news until accessible and digestible for all but the illiterate. Brevity was key.
Use of wit was also important. Not only for day-to-day entertainment, but for bringing the brand closer to Britons, who see humour as a defining part of their identity.
The question Sun sub-editors are asked the most is: “What’s your funniest headline?” **
Yet the best headlines aren’t always funny. Evoking a mood about a terror attack or a death in a few words might be just as challenging.
I learnt about evoking mood while working for six months at The Daily Mail. Its story introductions are notoriously insidious – addressing perceived reader perceptions about subjects in order to pique interest and form knowing bonds with readers.
For example, a story about Wayne Rooney helping children at a hospital might start as follows: “He endures the image of a thuggish Neanderthal with a penchant for prostitution, but Wayne Rooney showed a caring side yesterday.”
Cue nodding blue rinses across Middle England.
Yet Sun subs had greater freedom than Mail contemporaries to be creative with stories.
When Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak resigned following weeks of violence and revolt, the Sun’s Walks Like an Egyptian front page seemed an appropriate way to help readers assimilate unsettling events.
Trivialising news of course has a societal cost. But The Sun’s raison d’être is less to inform and more to inject its character into articles. Like all good brands, it wants to tell its own unique, impactful stories.
So there may have been unedifying moments at The Sun. And there may have been a night I missed out on mating with an attractive feminist after she found out my job. But as a brand writer, I’m thankful for my time at the paper.
** I subbed a story about two police officers having sex in a patrol car with the CB radio on for all to hear at the station. Headline: Are you receiving?
About the Author
Duncan was a news sub-editor at the Sun for six years, and has also had stints at the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail. Before that, he was a national news reporter. He now works as a freelance copywriter. You can email him here.