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.