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."

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