Commence Skimming

James O'Brien

The Thing That Gets His Goat

Much has been made of the dumbing-down of newspapers and magazines in this age of computers and television, but the main thing that gets my, and apparently only my, goat is the mass encroachment of subheads on the written word.

This Is a Subhead

What are subheads? Allow me to explain. I'm not talking about the explanatory secondary headlines that follow the main headlines in any given paper. Those are noble, efficient, one might even say sexy. I'm talking about the pesky and thoroughly unsexy little copy-breakers that various editors or--God forgive them--subhead-snookered writers themselves insert into stories.

Like This One

Like this one, to give you, the "reader," a break from all that tiresome "reading." I suppose you could say that the subhead trend bothers me because I'm a writer and I try desperately to perfect antiquated stuff.

Transitions and Flow

Like transitions and flow, and because I think writing, like most everything else good in life, revolves around flow and rhythm. But the truth is, subheads bug me even more as a reader. Some of the best editors I've ever had have justified subheads to me, explaining that they are necessary "eye candy" and "reader guides" imperative to "reader friendliness."

I'm with Stupid

All I know is that whenever I read a column or story that's been broken up by subheads, especially a syndicated story that appeared somewhere else first without any subheads, my inner reader feels violated.

Walsh: Prima Donna

I'm not saying I detest all subheads--some, in fact, are welcome little pauses; sweet exhales in the giant inhale that is reading a newspaper. But their use is out of control. And, try as I might to ignore them, I can't because whenever I trip on one, all I can picture is some editor sitting at a computer terminal, going through some perfectly graceful copy.

Unlike This Pile of Crap

Copy that would be totally and thrillingly readable and understandable and booty-shaking on its own, with maybe a cool photo or illustration serving as essential aforementioned eye candy. But, because Mr. or Ms. Hack-the-Art has nothing better to do, or has been issued a direct edict from the Corporate Subhead Division or the Let's Foster Skimmers Not Readers Team, what we get are subheads that simply repeat the most obvious language/theme from the upcoming paragraph or artificially created "section." Now, I fully admit that I'm a sick and damaged ink-stained wretch.

See, He's Sick and Damaged. Don't Blame Us

But I've gotten to the point where I don't even read stories with subheads anymore. I just skim the paragraphs to see what language inspired the subheads. I suppose my skimming supports the media consultants' theory that today's newspaper readers are ADD morons.

Can't Keep Their Minds on One Thing

Morons who can't keep their minds on one thing long enough to read a story longer than a horoscope, but I beg to differ. I pine for a simpler time and dream of moments like this one, when readers and writers are on the same page. For inspiration, sometimes I go to the archives at the library to look at old newspapers. No subheads. No splashy graphics. No color. No fancy fonts for headlines. Just words. Gray. Dull. Fabulous. Words.

Dream. On. Gramps.

I've worked in this business long enough to remember a time when subheads didn't exist. These days, editors are so freaked about losing readers and so worried about how little time people spend with newspapers that they've gone subhead nutty.

Pink Slip

The genius editors at this fine rag would never slap mindless subheads on my flawless prose, of course. Now I realize that I've forever screwed this up for readers of this column, and that you'll never again read a story with subheads and not see them in a new boldface light. But I suppose, dear reader,

That Has Been His Intent

that that has been my intent.

Jim Walsh can be reached at jwalsh@ or 612.372.3775.

Popular Stories


Sponsor Content


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >