Sunday, December 20, 2009

Early to bed ...

It is with some sadness that I write this post, because I take no joy in knocking my former colleagues on the copy desk. The news editors, assignment editors, supervisory personnel, the managing editor and editor, they're all fair game, but I'd like to see the copy editors turning out sparkling headlines even at the cost of proving my job was superfluous.

I don't see the print version of my former employer, the Bergen Record, very often. I don't take advantage of the employee subscription discount to which I'm entitled, and when I have breakfast at the Plaza 46 diner my favorite waitress, Ella, usually plunks the New York Daily News or the New York Post in front of me at the counter to read with my eggs over easy, dry whole wheat toast and coffee, hold the potatoes, thanks. Not that I don't like the potatoes, but it helps me pretend I'm trying to watch my weight.

Speaking of which, weight, that is, today she plunked the first two sections of the Record in front of me, because the worst snowstorm in several decades had interrupted delivery of the Post and Daily News, and I was amazed -- you could almost say flabbergasted -- at how lacking in content the paper was. The Post, the News, I can sit there for half an hour reading meaty story after meaty story, stories buried on Page 8 that on a slow news day would be all over Page 1 but there are no slow news days in New York anymore. Today's Record was like Where's the Beef?

It's a funny phenomenon. You look at the Bergen Record from a few feet away, there it is, lying on the counter at the diner, it looks like a newspaper, like a damn good newspaper, a big, splashy picture on Page 1, big headline type, catchy-looking things we used to call ears and refers (pronounced reefers) promising goodies on the inside, informative-looking briefs running down the left hand side of the page.

Speaking of snowstorms, the Daily News used to run the comic strip "Annie," later the basis of a Broadway musical, and I won a monetary prize once, somewhere between $5 and $15, for a headline I wrote when the city was blanketed with upward of a foot of snow. "Bleepin' blizzards" was the headline. I was always kind of proud of that one. But I digress.

The first thing I noticed about today's Record was how vacuous its lead story was. I forget the headline, but the point of the story was that New Jersey is getting almost as much federal stimulus money for highway projects as New York and Pennsylvania (eight hundred and some million for New Jersey and a little over a billion each for New York and Pennsylvania), yet the number of jobs created in New Jersey is strikingly less. So the writer quoted this official and that official as saying that this is only the beginning, and that more jobs will be created down the road, no pun intended. But NOT ONCE did the writer even hint at the possibility that greedy contractors in New Jersey might be pocketing a much bigger chunk of the stimulus money than their counterparts in New York or Pennsylvania, or otherwise try to explain the discrepancy except to say more workers would be added in the future. Not one worker was interviewed, no salary figures were given. And to me the 800 pound gorilla in the article was the possibility that organized crime, not an unfamiliar entity in the state of New Jersey, has its scoop in the pie.

That was the first thing I noticed. But lest my critique run longer than the article itself, I'll move on to the preprint. The preprint is a holiday tradition at the Record, and I don't just mean at Christmastime. Every major holiday, when advertisements swell the paper in size, a part of the news section is printed on Friday night while the rest of the paper is printed Saturday.

The wire editor, as he goes through the day's stories, selects so-called "timeless" features, or long stories that won't fit in the regular news hole and can hold for a day or two without losing their value, and places them in a separate file. These stories are called "evergreen." Then when a holiday rolls around, the wire editor is given a preprint section to fill. It goes in the back of the main news section, and usually contains six to ten pages of what are called "shelfs and rails." A shelf is a story that goes above an ad that fills the width of the page but leaves about a three-inch-deep hole for news at the top. And a rail is an ad that comes to the top of the page but leaves a single column for news running down the side.

A good news editor, with a batch of evergreen in the queue, can lay out a six-page preprint in about two minutes.

I used to like editing preprint stories partially because they were usually from a wire service and were better edited than the staff copy, but mainly because the headlines on the shelves were usually six columns and no larger than 36 point, which gave a copy editor leeway to tap into his or her creativity.

Today's paper, this being the Sunday before Christmas, had a preprint. I daresay, when I opened it, I was terribly disappointed. I knew all the stories already because I'm an Internet news junkie, but that's not what disappointed me.

What bothered me is that the headlines were padded.

Now a little padding can be very attractive in certain parts of the body, if enough clothing is worn to disguise the padding, but there's no excuse, to me, for padding a headline with extraneous and unnecessary words. Well, there is an occasional excuse, if an extra word is needed to keep a line from breaking badly in a two- or a three-deck headline, you may have to choose between the lesser of two evils. But padding a six-column 36 point headline, there's no excuse.

These are the two headlines that bothered me the most.

1) Uproar in N.C. over atheist taking oath of office." What's padded about that, you might ask. "Taking oath of office?" At the very least, the copy editor could have written "Uproar in N.C. over swearing in of atheist," and the N.C. isn't even necessary. The key words here are legislator (which isn't in the headline), atheist, and oath of office. There are a hundred poignant headlines you could write with that kind of space.

2) "Judiciary acknowledges prisoners were beaten to death" -- this I knew to be a reference to Iran, although you'd think the copy editor would have mentioned Iran in the headline (there was a little "world" overline called a "bug" over the headline). Judiciary acknowledges. If that isn't padding, I don't know what is. I'm not saying he was right, because it was one of those rules that are made to be broken, but I once had a copy chief who banned headline words of more than two syllables because he wanted headlines to be easy to read. There is a place in headlines for polysyllabic words and I've used them myself on occasion, but "Judiciary acknowledges"?

During my last few years at the Record, the copy chief, V.B., used to send me headlines that other copy editors had written and ask me to massage them. And I've been out of the newspaper business for a year and a half. But I've got an idea. I just might try revising my resume, and instead of listing my job title as "copy editor," I'll list it as "masseur." Maybe I'll get lucky and my resume will wind up in the hands of an editor with a stiff neck.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Supermodel wife to Tiger: Fore(head)!

Every so often a story comes along that makes me wish I were working, just so I could write a headline that would get me fired all over again. (Editor's note: Actually, I was "restructured," as opposed to being fired but over the years I'd ruffled enough feathers of the loony birds in charge of the Bergen Record that I might as well have been fired).

Nevertheless, the headline above, tongue in cheek as it is, although in the case of Tiger Woods it might have been cheek in tongue, is an example of what you might call my signature headline. That is, taking one word, adding a prefix or a suffix, and giving it an altogether different meaning, or, in the converse, using a part of a word that fits into the headline yet keeping the rest of the word.

That sounds pretty complicated even to me, so here's an example. My goddaughter, who's in medical school, went to California this week, where she had Thanksgiving dinner with her brother and her little nephew, who I would guess is sixish. My goddaughter noted on her facebook page that said nephew felt badly for all the turkeys but gobbled up his dinner nonetheless. Then she noted that his prefrontal cortex won't be fully formed for a few more years, so what can you expect? I commented that she could send him a cortex message.

Without further deconstruction, that was one of the primary tools of my headline writing craft over the years. I'm sure I wrote hundreds of headline using that particular type of pun, but while I used to think I should keep examples I never did, so this will have to do.

Of course any competent editor would flat out reject my Tiger Woods headline with the remark that it hasn't been proved that his wife whacked him in the face with a golf club. He might have just been leaving the house at 2:15 a.m. to go wait in line at Walmart so he could buy a $299 42-inch HDTV for the den. Or said editor might say "Tiger might have been seriously hurt. You can't make fun of such a situation."

In either case, the editor would be right. But this is my blog and I'm sticking to it.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Recycled Ridiculousness

#!):?(ing Labels

Rumor has it that my former employer, the Herald Record of Woodland Park, N.J., has banned colon headlines. Read that, "Editor to copy desk: No more colons," only, as was always the case at my former place of employ, the editor himself or herself was always too much of a wuss to throw down such an edict him-or-herself, so, according to rumor, the order was barked in the form of a memo from an intermediary, something to the effect of "Let's not write headlines with colons in them anymore."

As I've mentioned previously, at one time or another I've seen just about everything you can put in a headline banned except spoons. And personally, I'd like to ban spoons. The kind used by headline writers who write things like "Performance stirs emotions," or "Election result stirs anger." Such headline spooning should be restricted to the food section. "Chef stirs pot," now there's a headline that makes sense.

During a recent discussion of the alack and alas rumored to be doomed colons, I pondered an accomplishment which at the time I deemed to be virtually impossible. If I were still chained to a copy desk, I opined, I'd love someday to write a single headline that included not only a colon but an exclamation point, a question mark, a parenthesis or two, and, of course, it couldn't be a normal straight headline but would have to be a gerund.

Then it dawned on me. Only I daresay in the above headline I cheated a bit by using a faux gerund, as it were. And it isn't a cliche, unless you consider a string of punctuation marks in place of an expletive to be a cliche.

I can see debating whether a colon should be used to place the attribution at the beginning or the end of a headline, as in "Report: Newspaper business at death's doorstep" vs. "Newspaper business at death's doorstep: Report."

But banning colons entirely? If the New York Daily News had banned colon headlines many years ago, the great headline writer Joe Percival might never have been able to write, on a story about a woman who advertised her colon-cleansing services in the back of New York magazine being arrested when one of her clients turned up dead, a headline that read: "Public enema Number 1." On the other hand, I guess he still could have written that, unless some editor banned colons from stories as well.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Disparate housewives

It's apple picking season and I heard on the radio yesterday that Jim Willse -- the reporter pronounced his name without the noisy "e" at the end, so it came out Jim Wills, although she corrected the pronunciation later in the day -- is retiring. Which reminded me of a story.

It was during the Holidays, as usual I forget which year but I was still in the sports department of the Daily News which makes it early 1980s, and Willse was the new managing editor, or editor, at the News.

When I joined the News, the mantra throughout the newsroom went something like: Your typical reader is a housewife in Queens. Maybe I was a little too slow to change, and maybe the housewife in Queens eventually became a desperate housewife, but with the arrival of Willse, that mantra went out the window.

In typical Daily News fashion, the paper broke an important New York story with an exclusive about how a city official owned a piece of property for which he managed to gain tax-exempt status. Only problem was the tenant on that property was a bar called the Mine Shaft, and you can guess the type of clientele it entertained. So far so good, breaking stories like this is what the News was famous for.

But then, there was the big page one headline, in two or three or six hundred point type, screaming "How the city got shafted."

I don't know about the housewife in Queens, but I was offended by the use of such a euphemism. It was absolutely the same as saying "How the city got f----d." But if the headline said that, the New York Post headline the next day might be: "Readers to Daily News: Drop dead." So "shafted" it was.

My reaction was, "What do the editors think, the housewife in Queens is stupid?"

Today a headline like that wouldn't raise eyebrows. But it rattled my thoughts about headline writing. Was I now supposed to write crap like that?

A few days after this, the News had its Christmas party. Like I said, this was in the 1980s, before newspapers began using the euphemism "Holiday party" instead of Christmas party. And if you think the state of the newspaper economy sucks today, things were so bad then that the paper started charging its own employees -- $10, I think it was -- to attend the Christmas party!

So there I was at the Christmas party, and who should I see off in the distance but this new editor guy Willse, surrounded by the usual gaggle of sycophants who suck up to any new big shot at any large paper. I worked my way through the crowd, which was kind of sparse to begin with, and introduced myself to Willse. Then I asked him if he didn't see anything wrong with using a headline like "How the city got shafted"?

"Not at all," he said, or words to that effect. "It's a pretty good pun."

Don't you think?

No I don't.

I'd heard all I needed to hear. This man was clueless. Although, now that I think of it these many years later, his previous job was in San Francisco, so maybe, rather than attempting to move the News' headlines in a provocative new direction, he was simply motivated by his experiences in a different cultural milieu. Maybe he wasn't a fraud after all.

It didn't take long for the new order to take root. Copy editors who'd been trying to sneak suggestive headlines past the slot for years saw the floodgates thrown open. I was still in the sports department at the time, so how risque could you get? Then one night the New Jersey Nets lost their umpteenth game in a row away from home, and the night sports editor -- nobody had to sneak anything past him, since he wrote it himself -- penned a big back page headline that went: "ROAD APPLES."

Now, me being a city boy, I had to ask someone what a road apple was, and when I got the answer, I was appalled. I said to the person who wrote it, "You can't write that."

His response: Why not? If the city can get shafted, the Nets can lay road apples just like horses do. Or words to that effect.

And that, for me, is the connection between one road apple and another.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Quiet days at cliche

Or how a cliche headline got me thrown out of the Daily News sports department and almost got me fired.

The year was -- oh, hell, I don't remember what year it was, it was a long time ago, let's see, it was about halfway through my ten years at the News which ended in 1988, so let's say it was roughly 1983. It was a heady time in the newspaper business, the News had recently launched an afternoon edition called the Daily News Tonight and printed bright yellow promotional news vendor aprons, I still have one tucked away in storage.

Wow, I'm really off. An old New York Magazine article by Nicholas Pileggi that popped up in Google Books pilegged the launch to sometime late in 1980, and it might have lasted a year or a year and a half.

Pileggi put the News' investment in the afternoon edition at $20 million and they hired a slew of people, including a new sports editor named Buddy somethingorother and he brought in a deputy sports editor who shall remain nameless for legal purposes.

It's been my experience that people in positions of authority like to put their own stamp on a product, whether they know what they're doing or not. Such was the case with Mister New Deputy Sports Editor, who handed down an edict saying we copy editors were no long allowed to write cliche headlines.

I love the way headlines get labeled. There are cliche headlines. Label headlines. Question mark headlines. Exclamation point headlines. Colon headlines. Gerund headlines. All except the latter have been banned by someone in authority at some point in my 40 years as a copy editor, often more than once by more than one person in authority. But if anybody ever banned gerund headlines -- those usually beginning with a word ending in "ing," like "Bringing home the bacon" or "Seeing the future of newspapers through rose colored glasses" -- at the Bergen Record, the paper would likely go to print with blank spaces over a third of its stories. But we'll save gerund headlines for another day.

The Daily News goes back a long way, so long in fact that its logo is a drawing of an old fashioned press camera, the kind used in 1930s movies when James Cagney entered the courtroom. And the News' back page goes back to the days of Ruth and Gehrig and Cobb, and I can't say for sure but I'll bet dollars to donuts that when Babe Ruth was traded to the Yankees, the back page headline said "BOSOX DEAL BABE TO YANKS."

Two events more or less converged that altered my alleged career somewhat. First, the new Deputy Sports Editor put out an order that there were to be no more cliche headlines in the section -- you would now say "Red Sox" instead of "Bosox" and "White Sox" instead of "Chisox" for example -- and this was before computer software could squeegee a few extra letters into a headline that spilled off the side of the page. The result was bland headlines like "Yankees triumph" instead of "Yanks whip Chisox."

Second, the new Daily News Tonight wasn't doing too well. In fact, its revenue stream downright sucked. The paper had hired dozens of new staffers who could see the handwriting on the wall, excuse the cliche, and morale was very low.

The editor, or managing editor, I could never figure out the difference, Bill Brink, began going from department to department giving pep talks, only a few weeks before the paper threw in the towel on the Daily News Tonight and laid off dozens of people.

Bill Brink is the editor who claimed to have written the famous headline "Ford to City: Drop Dead," although scuttlebutt at the News was that a copy person suggested it and Brink stole the idea. But that's neither here nor there. At the end of his pep talk, I forget how it went, he said, "Are there any questions?" One hand went up.


"Why is it," I asked, "that we're no longer allowed to write 'Bosox' or 'Chisox' in headlines?"

"I didn't know you weren't," Brink said, or words to that effect. "I don't see anything wrong with them."

"They're cliches," blurted Mister Deputy Sports Editor, "and we don't use cliches in the sports section."

Unbeknownst to me, the paper was considering terminating the Dep, and his somewhat idiotic remark turned out to be the deciding factor. The next day he was no long working at the paper.

Also unbeknownst to me, he was the person who heard on the grapevine that there was an opening for a sports editor at the Daily News, and told his buddy Buddy about it. So Buddy placed the blame for his firing squarely on me, which is probably where it deserved to be. When I arrived at work a day later, I was summoned to his office.

He gave me two choices. I could resign, or I could be transferred to another department. Because it was a unionized paper, at least for editorial peons such as myself, I couldn't be fired without cause, or else he'd have fired me on the spot. I opted for the transfer, and the next day I was on the paper's features desk.

I don't read the Daily News very often, maybe once every two weeks, it's a crapshoot with my favorite waitress Ella at the Plaza 46 Diner, I have breakfast at the counter there maybe four times a week and she'll slip one of three papers next to my plate depending on which papers earlier customers left behind, the papers being the Daily News, the New York Post and the Bergen Record. But still, 25 years after the demise of the Daily News Tonight, the Chisox and Bosox still work their way into the Daily News, only now it's on the inside pages since the "YANKEES WHIP BOSOX" headlines have long given way to gigantic white-on-black graphics like "A-ROID" and "JOBA RULES."

Thursday, September 24, 2009

From Inca Dinka Do to Rinka Dinka Do

The best headline writer I ever knew was the late Hal Frankel at the New York Daily News. Hal was in his sixties but had never grown up, he was a roly poly over-aged kid at heart. He was a throwback to the days when the language in articles was more colorful and varied than it is today, when people opined instead of said. Hal needed to lose a few dozen pounds, had trouble with his legs, lived in a rent-controlled apartment on Houston Street in Manhattan's Greenwich Village and took a taxi to and from work each day, probably spending as much in transportation as copy editors make at smaller papers throughout the country but the Daily News paid pretty well and there was no way his legs would carry him down into the subway and up again.

Every day during our "lunch" break, usually around 7 p.m., Hal would go to a nearby watering hole and return with a coffee cup that he'd sip from for the next three hours, only it wasn't coffee that was in the cup. His eyesight wasn't very good, he needed a cataract operation, and he would sit at his terminal with two pairs of glasses, one atop the other, and his head about five inches from the screen. Len Valenti, the copy chief, knew that the copy Hal handled would need a second read, but the headlines Hal wrote couldn't be matched.

He also smoked, and heavily. Back when it was permissible to smoke in the newsroom, his keyboard was like an ashtray, and his fellow copy editors shunned the idea of sitting next to him; except for me. I loved sitting next to Hal because along with the secondhand smoke I thought perhaps by the very same osmosis I might learn something about writing headlines.

When the New York Giants won the Super Bowl in 1987, the team planned a big celebration at Giants Stadium after their return to New York. Each of the 50,000 or so people who attended was given a kazoo; why I can't recall but the idea, I suppose, was to help them make noise. The story about the party went across two of the News' tabloid pages, I don't recall whether it was Pages 2 and 3 or 4 and 5, but the idea was to have a big ol' headline, don't ask me if it was 80 point or 120 point, that spread across the two pages.

Hal's headline for that story was "Start spreading kazoos."

I can only remember one other headline Hal wrote. The anniversary of Earth Day was approaching -- memory being funny, I always thought it was the 25th, but that would have occurred after I left the Daily News, so it most likely was the 15th -- and there was going to be a "harmonic convergence" in Central Park. This was some kind of ceremony going back to the Inca culture. The headline Hal wrote was "Inca Dinka Do." Of the 40 or so copy chiefs I've worked under -- someday I'll have to make an accurate count -- I'd say 30 would have rejected that headline for one reason or other, the most likely reason being a deficiency in the sense of humor department, but the headline got into the paper.

Hal missed a lot of time his last few years at the paper due to health concerns -- he had the cataract surgery, and started taking some kind of medicine that made him stop drinking -- but the damage was done and his liver just gave out the Thanksgiving weekend after I left the paper in 1988.

I always thought it was after he died, but it must have been while he was on sick leave that the News ran a story about how Donald Trump was going to come to the rescue of the Wollman Skating Rink in Central Park, which had fallen into disrepair. One of the other copy editors, I think it was Jonathan Kaufman but I can't be sure, in tribute to Hal wrote the following headline: "Rinka Dinka Do."

Now this is something copy editors probably shouldn't do except in the most poignant of circumstances, and that's write a headline that has meaning to your fellow co-workers but would lack that special message to the paper's 1.2 million readers in the case of the Daily News. Still, it's always meant a lot to me.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Iron Curtain falls, lands on copy editor's toe

Headlines. Everywhere you look, newspapers, magazines, books -- okay, there they're called "titles," but a headline by any other name etc. -- Google ads, blogs, social networking sites -- often the first thing you see is a headline. Graphic whizbangs might dispute that, oh no, the first thing the eye goes to is the picture, the bigger and more dramatic the better, and maybe they have a point, but the point is debatable, and here's my side of the debate: Look for instructions on how to create enticing graphics, and the first thing you see is: "How to create enticing graphics." Besides, there are textbooks, web sites, expensive software, freeware, tutorials, but look for a tutorial or software package on how to write headlines and you may come up with the first blank page in the history of Google. Tempted as I am to check that out, I'm not going to, as I'm sure there are some tutorials and copy editing forums that deal with the art of writing headlines.

It's been my experience in the newspaper business that if you give the same story to a dozen copy editors, in most cases you'll come up with nine or ten different headlines. On some occasions a headline will virtually write itself, say, when a customer goes into a Taco Bell and finds a chihuaha in his stuffed burrito, four out of five copy editors might write "Man bites dog," whereas the fifth copy editor would say "Oh, the poor dog, how can you make fun of a situation like that?" and spend half an hour trying to come up with something tasteful, or at least better tasting than a chihuaha smothered in refried beans.

I'd like to say you'll learn something about headlines here, and you will, but some of my favorite headlines have gotten the people who wrote them, including me, in hot water with their supervisors. Good headline writing is risky business, and entertaining the reader and giving giving him or her a reason to read a story that shouldn't merit a second glance might not be worth facing the wrath of a supervisor.

Case in point: When I was working at the New York Daily News, which had some of the greatest headline writers in the world, there was a woman on the copy desk who was a Russian emigre. Her name was Mila, and she was in her mid to late forties. One day she was given a restaurant review to edit. Copy desk chiefs like to parcel out stories to editors who might have a bit of expertise in certain fields, and the restaurant served Russian food and was named Caucasus. Mila edited the review and the headline in the paper the next day read: "Ve vas hungry, Soviet." Only a Russian emigre could come up with that. If you asked me what was my favorite all-time headline, that's the one I would point to. The next day, Mila got called into the copy desk chief's office and got her head handed to her, so to speak. The headline had nothing to do with the quality of the food or the service of the restaurant, the copy desk chief blurted.

"But it made people read the review," Mila argued.

And it made me laugh.

Here I should make a note about newsroom dynamics. This very same copy desk chief read the headline and pushed the button sending it to the typesetter, which means he either approved of it or trusted Mila's judgment sufficiently to know that, pressed for time as copy desk chiefs are, he wouldn't have to analyze the story to determine the appropriateness of the headline. So here's what happened, to borrow a line from my favorite obsessive compulsive detective: The restaurant owner complained to the advertising salesperson that the headline was inaccurate, and the advertising salesperson complained to the publisher, and the publisher sent a tearsheet to the managing editor with the headline circled and a scrawled note saying "How did this happen?" And the managing editor put the tearsheet in an interoffice envelope addressed to the copy desk chief, and the next thing Mila was in tears as she left his office.

There's another lesson in that headline. This is just my opinion. That headline was written so long ago that the Soviet Union was still in existence. I left the Daily News in 1988, the headline was written a few years earlier, and the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. Newspaper publishers are streaming crocodile tears these days that younger readers can't relate to them, and if Mila were to write that headline today, she should factor in the possibility that a substantial number of readers wouldn't know what the Soviet Union was, and so their reaction to such a headline might be "Huh?" instead of "ha!" I mentioned earlier that occasionally a headline will write itself. There was one such story recently, in which Bob Dylan was in Asbury Park for a concert, went for a walk late in the evening, and was stopped by two young police officers. He told them who he was and they'd never heard of him, so they walked him back to his hotel and the story became national news. Just about every headline I saw, in newspapers, online, or heard on the radio, went something like "How does it feel?"

I wouldn't have written that, because I believe there are many readers, of newspapers and web sites, who've heard of Bob Dylan but wouldn't identify "How does it feel" as a line from his anthem "Like a Rolling Stone." At an earlier stage of my alleged career I would have written that headline in a heartbeat, but hearing and seeing it in 2009 my reaction was that today's headlines are being crafted and edited by a bunch of fogeys who want to show off how much they know about culture with virtually no sensitivity to the youth of today whose readership they want to attract. Result: While 90 percent of copy editors probably wrote "How does it feel?" I likely would have spent twenty minutes trying to come up with something more identifiable to today's audience.

I should be on the fence about that, but I'm not. And why? Because my instincts tell me I'm right, and a good headline writer will learn to trust his or her instincts.

Thanks for reading.