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.

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