First you read the headline. Then you read the picture caption, if any. Finally you turn to the text of the story.
Yes, as alert readers will have noticed, that was how this column began last week. Well, here we are again, confronted with another failure to take on board the implications of that truism about how people read the material on a newspaper page.
Wednesday's Notebook page was written by Susie Rushton. She began: "Did you know there's an important England football match tomorrow?" There followed about 100 words of enthusiasm about the bright prospects of the England team on the pitch, and their high standards of behaviour off it. Then came the revelation: "The trouble with this particular England team is to be found inside their baggy white shorts: they're women." The piece, it turned out, was a denunciation of the nation's and the media's failure to notice women's football.
That kind of opening to an article is known in the trade as a slow burn. The effect depends, obviously, on the reader not being told in advance what kind of firework will go off after the first paragraph or two.
In this case, the headline played the game admirably: "A historic day for English football". But next door someone had placed a large picture of two persons of indubitably female sex, wearing football strip and captioned thus: "Women's football is on a roll, thanks in part to players like England stars Kelly Smith, left, and Eniola Aluko. But you'd never know it from an indifferent media."
That's it then, the entire argument of the piece revealed, and the slow burn snuffed out.
Achtung! Matthew Norman is justly admired for the tight-rope walker's daring with which he wins through to the end of a thrillingly long sentence. But his skill betrayed him on Wednesday, when he wrote this: "Watching the Tea Party crush centrist Republicans in race after race regardless of the damage this will do to the GOP in November, noting the fanaticism at the rallies headlined by Palin and Beck, and recalling from his own childhood the power of crazed but charismatic rhetoric over a middle class grown poor and confused in Wehrmacht Germany, Noam Chomsky sniffs fascism on the breeze."
That should of course be Weimar Germany. How could the anachronistic irruption into the sentence of the Wehrmacht's goose-stepping Nazi legions pass unnoticed by both writer and editors? Very easily, when it happens at the very climax of this syntactical tour de force. By that point the reader, battling to hold on to the details of the sentence until the main verb arrives, agog to find out at last who is doing all this watching, noting and recalling, is in no condition to distinguish a fragile liberal republic from an all-conquering military machine.
Still there: "Former" is one of those words, like "famous" and "unique", that are nearly always wrong. A news story last Saturday dealt with the talented family of the actor Will Smith: "The youngest Smith has secured a record deal with the rapper Jay-Z, who has compared her vocal skills to those of the former singing legend Michael Jackson." Is there such a thing as a former legend? Once a legend, always a legend, surely. Jackson may no longer be alive, but he is still a legend.
Out of order: Here is the beginning of a news story published on Wednesday: "Plans are being drawn up for the Pope to hold private meetings with people who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of clerics during this week's visit to Britain."
No, they didn't suffer sexual abuse at the hands of clerics during this week's visit to Britain. The phrase "during this week's visit to Britain" has to be moved to a position immediately after "meetings". The penalty is that the mention of sexual abuse is relegated to the end of the sentence, but that cannot be helped.
Journalese: A feature article on Monday was headed "London calling", and the adjacent blurb began: "With Fashion Week kicking off in the capital on Friday ..." Nobody employs the lame synonym "the capital" except to avoid repeating "London".