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.