The fiction: Spider-Man, released 2002. Director: Sam Raimi. Property master: Robin L Miller.
The newspaper: Daily Bugle
One thing I never considered when I started editing newspaper copy is that almost nobody knows how to write “Spider-Man”. That’s capital S, capital M and a hyphen in between. Reporters get it wrong all the time (usually it’s in the context of a rented superhero costume at a charity fundraiser). If you ran a newspaper that regularly covered the wall-crawler himself, you’d need to keep a tight leash on this point of style. In fact, you would need somebody fearsome, hard-edged and always demanding the best out of his team. And they don’t come any better than J Jonah Jameson.
But sadly, this is not Jameson’s film and we begin with Peter Parker. He is no stranger to newspapers himself, despite being a teenager in 2002. This is slightly before everybody got their news from the internet (and before they replaced that with fake news from the internet, too), and he lives with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben who have read the paper enough to get it delivered. Peter even eyes up a car in the paper, which spurs him to use his spider-powers in a wrestling match so he can afford it.
After Uncle Ben delivers his mantra and gets killed for the trouble, Peter turns to the life of crime-fighting that the audience came to watch the movie for. Even in bustling New York city it’s hard to stop robbers dressed in a skintight blue-and-red costume without being noticed, so inevitably the press picks up on the story.
Yet again on this blog we have the American habit of Capitalising Every Headline Word, even in the smaller downpage stories. (I’m British, and we do not do that usually, so it annoys me.) It’s also indented from the start and the first word is not in all-caps, which goes against all my ingrained style instincts but is not bad, in and of itself. I would also add a colon after “John Young said” and then cap up the W of “we’ve” to make the quote a sentence in its own right, which is clearly how it’s written.
While it may seem odd that Spider-Man’s first recorded public outing is made with little fanfare, it’s very in keeping with how this sort of news works. At first, it is an unsupported oddity; amusing witness statements but without any pictures to back it up and nothing much to report about the basic crime. Although, there is a whisper of further reports at the end of the article, which would set any keen news editor’s alarm bells off.
This may not be in the Bugle, it’s hard to say. But if it was, then J Jonah Jameson has clearly told his reporters to be on the lookout for more, because it’s not long before they deliver.
Now the story has grown considerably, with a huge headline that doesn’t even need to mention the masked vigilante in its two words. “ANOTHER SIGHTING” signals that the Bugle is already turning the “web slinger” (which I would hyphenate) into a running story. Vigilante action like this can easily be turned into a long-runner, especially when the hero wears a mask — after all, you could have any number of masked vigilantes and pretend it’s all the same person. The only better continuing story that will bring readers back every day would be a serial killer prowling the streets, but even they tend to be more sporadic than Spider-Man’s outburst of philanthropic action. Note also the subhead’s use of “New Yorkers”, solidifying this as very much part of the paper’s patch.
Along with Tobey Maguire’s not-entirely-convincingly-teenaged face we see two stories here. The first one is “Gunmen Found Trapped in Goo”, credited to François Audouy (who just happens to be an assistant art director on the film). Which we get a clearer look at here:
If they are suspected gunmen (as the copy declares) then there should be some legal safety quote marks around that word in the headline, otherwise the paper is literally calling these men “gunmen” and prejudicing their impending trial. Judges do not take kindly to such disregard for the law. (Well, not in the UK. Anyone with extensive US media law knowledge is free to correct me.)
Although Jameson does know his law, like any good editor should. Later on, Peter Parker says the Bugle has been printing slander and Jameson responds with every good journalist’s stock response: “It is not. I resent that. Slander is spoken. In print, it’s libel.”
But while the Bugle copy editor on this story needs a bit of a legal training s/he does recognise the most eye-catching part of the story, that the trio of ne’er-do-wells were trapped in a giant spider web, which was relegated out of the intro by journalist Mr Audouy. A good copy editor might here move that part of the story into the intro, but if they were rushed perhaps sticking it in the headline is the best one could ask for.
And, again, we have an unhyphenated “web slinger”. (I went onto Marvel’s website to see how they style it, saw Spidey referred to as “the Webslinger” and immediately left.)
The other story is by Anne Clements (the name of the film’s set decoration co-ordinator), which is headlined entirely in quote marks like the other story should have been: “‘Man Could Climb Walls Like Spider’”, subhead “Eyewitnesses Reveal Details”.
“He climbed up the wall just like a spider,” said third grader Jessica Flaherty. Third grade teacher Heidi Fugeman was also present during the incident.
“We saw him for just a brief…
Later on the in article, and duplicated in the fourth column:
Police claim that he is not a member of their elite police force and not on city payroll, but a private citizen whose intentions are unknown at this time.
It’s quite fun to imagine a police spokesman trying to deny any official ties to Spider-Man, and this is a convincingly worded denial.
This rush of Bugle stories paint up a picture for the public of the mysterious masked man swinging around the city and fighting crime, so they are primed and ready to go along with it when J Jonah Jameson’s demand for pictures bears some blurry fruit.
Although the question mark is a little bit too far away from the N for my liking, I do like this front page. The picture is given huge prominence for a poster-style splash with a bold, direct white-on-black (or “WOB”, in the industry parlance) interrogation of the reader. But it’s not just framed as a question now that the Bugle has acquired a picture, because there’s a very real news angle attached to the development highlight in a box: “Subway Crash Victims Saved by Costumed Figure”. It’s not the most excitingly written tease — how many victims were saved? — but it adds to the worthiness of the story, in the way that questioning a mysterious identity just does not.
The bottom of the paper trails a giveaway of lottery tickets, too, making this Daily Bugle — with an imposing, almost Soviet-esque masthead that announces itself proudly and loudly — one to really grab attention on the newsstands. Indeed, at one point we hear that a Spider-Man story sells out four print runs of the Bugle in one day, much to Jameson’s glee.
And the Bugle certainly needs to grab readers’ attention because only shortly before the Spider-Man craze came across Jameson’s desk he was splashing on weaker business stories. (Although he has also done the excellent-sounding story of “STATUE OF LIBERTY HARBORS DRUGS”.)
Quite apart from the odd shifting size of the headline typeface, this is a weird layout — bifurcated in the middle half to separate an undeserved WOB and a thoroughly undeserved exclamation mark. There’s a reason papers have separate business sections, because most readers are not terribly interested in their stories. OsCorp is surely a big employer, but not big enough to be the city’s biggest news story, is it? But that “EXCLUSIVE” claim perhaps explains the paper’s eagerness to run the story — you don’t want to waste hours of investigative effort only to dump it on a little-read left-hand page halfway through the paper.
It’s got one reader’s attention, however: OsCorp owner Norman Osborn.
Norman is perturbed to be reading the Bugle’s exclusive. On the one hand, why wouldn’t he be disturbed to learn of some business being poached by a rival? But more importantly, why had the Bugle not told him? Basic journalistic ethics would see a journalist call Osborn, or at the least OsCorp press team, and ask for a reaction or comment on the story. With such a sensitive story they would probably just retaliate with a “no comment” — but even if you know that’s coming you should still ask. Unless OsCorp is so badly run that that’s what did happen, but nobody told Norman.
Then again, he does then talk to himself/his Goblin personality in a mirror, so it’s possible one of them did not get the memo.
Here the perils of capitalising the ‘main’ words of your headline become apparent so, while it may be the norm in the American press, I’ll still point it out. The capital E of “End” just looks ugly surrounded by lower-case text, and the remaining capitals have a strong reason to stay that way.
Besides my gripe, that “Wall Street Asks:” tag is unusual. It’s too small to be part of the headline and it’s not even that essential in setting up the question of the headline. I suspect that “Wall Street Asks” is a regular column/feature of the Bugle’s business pages, taking a whole page — possibly more — to explore in depth a burning issue of the day. But if this is a regular layout I don’t know how that subhead has stayed where it has. Stuck in between two columns it appears more like a pull-quote but the writing style is unquestionably headlinese, that magnificently splintered and slightly mangled form of English sub-editors delight in producing.
You may also have noticed that in this article the Bugle’s style for is to camelCase the name of Osborn’s company. I never like seeing company names that look like mountain ranges with their maverick capital letters, but they sort of force you into it because I especially don’t like seeing them written wrongly.
But others may disagree.
After Norman goes a little mad and kills off part of the OsCorp board at some kind of parade/celebration, the Bugle is on the scene, even datelining the article “NEW YORK”. I assumed that the Bugle was a New York-centric paper, although I suppose it could have a wider national distribution. Although as it is largely reminiscent of the New York Post — especially with the dramatic splash front pages — I’m not sure quite how far wide distribution the Bugle would be getting.
Wherever it’s going, it’s certainly being read. This article by Ford Mastick (for once not a member of the production crew) may be negligent in its style, calling OsCorp “Oscorp”, but the prose here is on fire.
The hopeful sentiments of Oscorp’s World Unity Festival were shattered yesterday afternoon by some kind of weird freak from another world who used a rocket-powered skateboard device to wreak havoc throughout Times Square as thousands of innocent bystanders were put in to harm’s way by the thoughtless and violent acts perpetrated by this evildoer of unknown origin.
It may break the rules of journalistic brevity for an intro — at a hefty 57 words — but on the plus side it reads like a particularly trippy Hunter S Thompson off-cut. The description of the Green Goblin’s glider as a “rocket-powered skateboard device” is even better than the one sample in the pull-quote, “high-tech one-man flying device”.
But Mr Mastick isn’t done, and after summarising the violent deaths of businessmen gets right in to sarcastic commentary.
…almost half of New York turned out to celebrate the nebulous theme of “Unity.” Before could swallow their corn-dogs however, the Green Freak appeared…
The sniping continues as he lays into the battle between the Goblin and your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man, where they are blasted for causing damage and our hero’s lifesaving is derided as a way to get laid:
…they bounced themselves off of buildings through picture windows, and into lamp posts, until the entire area looked like a garbage dump.
Although these two freaks managed to bring great damage to property and people, nothing seemed to stop their drive to out-do each other. Spider-Man made a few easy saves of innocent civilians, and it is conjectured that he uses catastrophes like this as a means to impress the ladies.
And for good measure he also suggests Mary Jane Watson is a prostitute.
Witnesses saw Spider-Man saying tender nothings into the ear of a red-haired woman whom he saved from a falling balcony. Perhaps the vice-squad should investigate Spider-Man’s personal activities for wrong-doing.
It’s an exciting read and certainly keeps you interested throughout (although the text does end up being duplicated), and with its casual insults and the hint of sex it’s a sure-fire tabloid hit. The readers will definitely pick up the Bugle next time there’s a Spidey story on the cover, even if the ethics here are dubious.
What J Jonah Jameson wants even more than this thrilling story, however, is also hinted at in Mr Mastick’s breathless reporting:
Any of you who do choose to brave the streets however, are urged to take along a camera in case the last thing you see happens to be one of these inhuman terrors.
He had one for the front page in this case anyway, but he’s hungry for more. It is, of course, not the first plea Jameson has made for pictures of the web-slinger, going so far as to use his entire front page for the purpose earlier in the movie.
Peter dutifully sets up his camera — in webbing, which is cute — and brings Jameson the pictures he so politely requests. And while Peter is in the office, we get a taste of some of the Bugle’s other front pages, framed around the office. They include “KABOOM!”…
…and “TAKE A WALK!” I hope this one is a reference to Philippe Petit’s wirewalk between the Twin Towers.
Clearly they are fans of exclamation marks.
Oh look, it’s another one!
Jameson has taken the editorial decision to completely rubbish Spider-Man, and devotes a haphazard front page to damning the apparent menace. “BIG APPLE DREADS SPIDER BITE!” is fine as a piece of fear-mongering, although presumably the “exclusive” part of the story is the police chief’s warning alluded to in the subhead.
Above that blocky masthead we have a wonderful example of avoiding repetition. I’ve mentioned previously — talking about Iron Man 3 — that it’s best practice to avoid repeating words on the same page in a newspaper, especially when referring to the same story. Jameson’s crack team of designers have not let him down here. With “spider” used up in the biggest headline, quite logically, he becomes “the bug” in the puff for his victim count and referenced in a pun about “pest control” in the top-right corner. You might not agree with Jameson’s stance, but it’s a canny piece of layout work.
The journalism done in Jameson’s name, then, is a fairly impressive body of work for an unapologetically sensational tabloid newspaper with a fondness for bold splashes and a hefty dose of red ink. He doesn’t pay his freelance photographer Peter Parker a great deal of money, which is bad for our hero but good as a business decision. As Spider-Man looks set to be a rolling story, Jameson should be negotiating for full rights over the pictures, licensing them to other outlets without showing Peter another penny. It’s not great behaviour, but it’s 2002 and eventually the web is going to affect the paper’s finances, so they may as well save the pennies while they can.
Well, that and the fact that Jameson deems the pictures to be “megacrap”.
Also bad for business is annoying the powerful, although this is a terrible reason not to do one’s job as a journalist. Wrongs need exposing and truths need telling, although Jameson’s tabloid tendencies have also gone down the other route of news, which is insulting folks. Most victims of negative press attention don’t get to bomb the newspaper’s office and terrify the editor — thank goodness, although we have all had threats along those lines — but you don’t get that luxury if you’ve annoyed the Green Goblin.
Being a sort of selfless chap — but also one who needs to sell loads more photos of Spider-Man — Peter Parker shows up in his costume to save the day and the editor’s life.
What must also be noted, however, is that Jameson defends his sources in this scene. The Goblin asks who’s been taking pictures of Spider-Man and Jameson refuses to say. This further indicates that the Bugle owns the pictures completely, to the point where they need not give Peter Parker any printed credit in the newspaper by his photos. It’s a bad deal for Peter, but with a less scrupulous editor it could have been a whole lot worse.
You could say that such a chaotic event as happens when the Goblin arrives lends itself to all sorts of interpretations that we, as the audience, can see are misguided. Which might be why it makes the news in a very Bugle way…
It is not often that journalists get to make themselves part of the story, though it appeals to the same inflated sense of vanity that also means some people go for decades using the same byline photo. But when your office is attacked, and when you’re the over-the-top Bugle, what is a reporter to do?
Jameson, who has a habit of dictating front page headlines like all great fictional editors (earlier on he dreams up the classic Bugle line “Spider-Man, Hero or Menace? Exclusive Daily Bugle Photos”), makes sure he gets top billing. That’s right — a newspaper under attack and nobody managed to get a photo, so here’s one of the editor-in-chief. It’s a pretty stern picture, too, so I hope it’s a standard JJJ byline headshot and all his columns are him being angry about things.
Sadly, in the rush to capitalise on his own part in the story, Jameson has not noticed the glaring error of that huge WOB headline: “SPIDER-MAN GREEN GOBLIN TERRORIZE BUGLE”. At the very least it needs an ampersand.
One of the reasons a reporter should not insert themselves into the story is partly to maintain the purity of their observations, especially if they get so involved that their story overwhelms the real point of the story. In other words, J Jonah Jameson might end up reporting that he “braves attack” in a breathless sub-head when the reality looked a little less courageous…
Better luck next time, JJ!