Thursday, October 21, 2010

Fertilizer in the Garden, by George

My good friend and former colleague Victor writes a blog critical of the newspaper at which we both used to work. Exhaustive research on the Internet has led me to the sobering conclusion that there is no statute of limitations on a non-disparagement clause in a separation agreement -- a common practice in this down newspaper economy -- and so I have had to refrain from making comments on his blog on an occasion or two.

Today I was reminded of a rule that was clad in iron when I worked at the paper. The newspaper had in its readership area what likely was a close also-ran when they selected the Seven Wonders of the World: The George Washington Bridge. If you worked on the copy desk and wanted to have your head handed to you, you would insert the phrase "by George" in a headline. The copy chief begrudgingly allowed one usage of "by George" per copy editor per year, which met with little opposition.

That newspaper was on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge. New Jersey's nickname is "The Garden State." So today, after New Jersey lost some 20,000 jobs in the latest Labor Department report, Victor took issue, rightfully so, with a teaser headline on the front page that announced "Jobs not growing/ in Garden State." His issue, however, was with the fact that the paper failed to acknowledge its own role in the weak employment market that has plagued the state for the past three years.

My issue with the teaser headline is the same as my former supervisors' issue with headlines playing on the phrase "by George" and the George Washington Bridge. I mean, Garden/grow, to quote my favorite sportscaster Warner Wolf, "Come ooonnnn!"

In the Garden State, that would be a cliche. In a previous post I defended the use of cliches in headlines. I still believe they're okay. Which is why, in a case like this, I would opt for the "one Garden State/grow" headline per copy editor per year.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Ironically, that's such a coincidence

This has little to do with headlines, but I've always been fascinated by the usagillogical differences between irony and coincidence, and I'm sure I've misused them myself on occasion.

A couple of weeks ago, a newscaster on the radio said, "Ironically, the inventor of 'The Club' was killed today in an automobile accident." I was like "Huh?" What's ironic about that? The Club is designed to prevent auto theft. If it were designed to prevent accidents, that would be ironic. Ditto if somebody bopped him over the head with the Club. I'm not even sure the connection between the auto theft and his demise in an auto accident is coincidental, other than the automotive connection.

Then today I heard on the radio that, again ironically, the man who owns the Segway scooter company died in a Segway scooter accident, when he scooted his scooter over a cliff. (All that scooting was not provided by the newscaster but by yours somewhat truly). Now this would indeed be ironic -- if it were a tragic accident that claimed his life. If, however, this wealthy Segway scooter company owner were depressed because, say, his pants were being sued off by a tutor who tooted a flute but whose scooter ran over his foot, and decided to take his own life by scooting his scooter over a cliff, then there's nothing at all ironic about that.

Coincidentally, I might be a bit depressed about the lack of jobs for people 60-plus in the newspaper business, but I'm not about to drive a Segway scooter over a cliff, or even jump out of my basement window. How ironic is that?*

*Not very.**

**Well, apparently it was a tragic accident that occurred while the Segway Scooter Company owner was out riding on some rough terrain with a special rugged Segway when he went over a cliff and into a river, and was later pronounced dead. So the death is indeed ironic. On the other hand, if his last words were "Oops a daisy," and a few days later he's pushing up daisies, so to speak, that would be coincidental.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Coverage of Vick, as in Sick

Holy Moly! My last post was about the potentially impending demise of the Philly Inquirer. Today's post is about the Philly Daily News, which has lost its sense of propriety, if it ever had one. That I can't say because I don't read it regularly. But I noticed a blog post critical of its headline regarding Michael Vick's elevation to a starting role on the Eagles: Top Dog.

That headline is sick. No embellishing or analyzing necessary. The sad thing is, I'll bet some editor at the Philly Daily News thought that was clever.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Mandatory retirement and me

As I await the arrival of my first piddling pension check, with my checking account overdrawn and my credit cards maxed out thanks to two years and three months without a job in the newspaper industry, a couple of items, one from the Paleozoic Era of Journalism, the other a Facebook post, come to mind.

This will be a lengthy post, so if you're on deadline, Hasta la vista Mista, or Ms (you were expecting maybe Miss from a dinosaur like moi? Why, I'm so up to date I was going to tweet this blog post only it's about 276,000 characters too long. Of course, I could tweet it in installments, a la the New Yorker's long-ago capsule review of "The Fantasticks," which was in the form of another sentence, or part of a sentence, or part of a participle, from "Finnegan's Wake" each week until either the Fantasticks finally closed or James Joyce's estate ordered it to cease and desist.) But I desist, I mean digress.

Ironically, the two incidents are related. So called ink stained wretches the nation over are boo-hooing the demise of the newspaper industry but the newspapers I worked for were demising as far back as I can remember, which is roughly 42 years. New York City once had an astounding number of competing newspapers, morning newspapers, afternoon newspapers, evening newspapers, and all of those newspapers had several editions, bulldog editions, late sports editions, early sports editions, 2 o'clock cup of coffee editions. There was a World and a Tribune and a Sun and a Journal and a Herald and a Telegram and the Post and the Daily News and probably a couple of others I'm forgetting (like the New York Times!), and none of them were owned by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon.

The first night I went to work at the old Journal-American building which the New York Post had bought I took a taxi from the subway. When I asked the cabbie if he knew where the Journal-American building was he said, "You mean the Journal building?" He knew it from before it merged with the American. Newspapers in New York City in the first half of the 20th century did more folding than an old lady in a Chinese laundry.

When I left the Post to work at the Daily News, my new colleagues on the copy desk were making jokes about the small size of their Christmas bonuses. I had never even heard the word "bonus" at the Post. And my new News colleagues were lamenting the days, not long past, when if a staffer even thought he or she might have to call in sick, he or she would call ahead and the paper would call in an extra "just in case."

When I left the Daily News and arrived at the Bergen Record it was only a matter of time before profit-sharing, a term I had never heard used at the Daily News or the Post, was discontinued, and there was even a round of layoffs about 15 years ago. At the time the newspaper industry was healthy by today's standards, so I thought there must be a black cloud following me around, sort of like Linus in the "Peanuts" comic strip. I'm sure some of my former supervisors at the Record would agree, as they have clutched at every straw in the book, if you'll pardon the mangled metaphor, to explain the paper's financial difficulties.

Which brings me, by way of a poor transition, to my former colleague's Facebook post of a couple of days ago. He posted a link to an article about the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he used to work. The Inquirer is in bankruptcy court, and a deal to sell it to its creditors was torpedoed because the Teamsters Union, which represents the drivers, refused to void the paper's contractual obligation to pay into a pension fund and create 401(k)s instead.

A commenter on the Facebook page wrote "We'll survive no matter what," and my former colleague wrote "You damn well better."

I applaud the Teamsters for taking a stand. The bankruptcy court will tear up the contract anyway. I didn't dare make such a comment on Facebook as I would hate for him to think I'm rooting for all those "Inky" staffers to wind up in the same boat as me, which I'm not. But the action of the Teamsters, and the pending arrival of that piddling pension check, a double dose of dreaded "R" words -- recession and retirement -- made me think of the time about forty years ago, I can't recall the precise year, when the picket lines were up outside the New York Post, owner Dorothy Schiff was threatening to close the paper if the unions struck, and only two items remained on the table: mandatory retirement and me.

First, mandatory retirement. Even then, most people couldn't afford to retire. There was one writer at the Post, Archer Winston, who was 92 if he was a day and he still wrote a skiing column. Okay, maybe he was only 78 but he sure looked 92. But there were many workers who would be out of a job, for whatever reasons they were still working, whether it was due to a lack of funds to retire or because it kept them from being henpecked 24 hours of the day, if mandatory retirement were accepted. (One of my all time favorite Daily News headlines, "YANKS WISC. MILWAUKEE," was written by a copy editor who should have retired years earlier but couldn't stand spending that much time with his wife).

I forget what the proposed mandatory retirement age was, maybe 62, maybe 65. As newspaper work is for the most part cerebral if Damon Runyon were still alive he'd probably still be writing for a newspaper. Even back then, this was a marvelous ploy to get rid of longtime workers with high salaries and lots of vacation and replace them with younger, lower-paid workers.

And now for "and me." Circa  1969 I was working as a clerk in the sports department of the Post. That department was legendary, probably the best in the nation, with writers like Jimmy Cannon and Milt Gross and Larry Merchant and Vic Ziegel, who still writes a column for the Daily News and is as sharp as ever. The writers would cover their games and file their stories with Western Union, which sent the stories over a teletype machine. But that ol' divvel economy was nipping at the heels of Western Union -- oops, another mangled metaphor, if I were paying me to write this blog I'd give me a virtual rap on the knuckles -- and it eliminated the "night press rate." Overnight the cost of filing the stories with Western Union increased sevenfold. Whether it went from $1 a page to $7 a page or 2 cents a word to 14 cents a word I couldn't tell you, all I know is "sevenfold."

Step back a little further in time with me to seventh grade at Joan of Arc Junior High School when for one period a day my class took typing. Little did I know how that would influence my life. Okay, fast forward to 1969, zzzzzzziippp. The Post bought two reel to reel tape recorders, and soon I was recording one sportswriter while transcribing another. I would arrive at 8 p.m., and it was not unusual, before the first fax machine was invented, for me to type up 21 stories in the course of a shift, which often lasted until 5 a.m. And if you thought those early fax machines were a time saver, fuhgeddabouddit, the print quality on the thermal paper was so poor that I had to strain my eyes and type them over anyway.

The Post was a union shop then, and jobs were classified as Group this and Group that. A copy person, for instance, the lowest rung on the totem pole, was Group 1. A copy editor, the highest rung on the totem pole below management, was Group 10. I was Group 4.

The record/transcribe setup, I'm sure, saved the paper a bundle of money. So much so that the news desk on occasion asked if we could handle a couple of stories for them. Not a problem, especially since it was compensated with a bit of overtime.

Soon, however, the news desk created a position similar to mine to handle the three to five stories a night that news reporters phoned in. That position, which entailed a fraction of the transcribing that I was doing, was created at Group 5. I filed a grievance with the union.

The grievance was never quite resolved, and wound up as a contract issue in a protracted round of labor negotiations. The union assured me I had an airtight case, although I was sure I would make a pretty good bargaining chip for some other hard-to-resolve issue.

I don't remember the date, but the contract went down to the wire, and talks were extended. They weren't going well, and the picket lines went up, although the workers were not yet officially on strike. At this point, two issues remained unresolved: Mandatory retirement and Aaron Elson, which is how my case was referred.

Finally, Dorothy Schiff relented on mandatory retirement, an issue worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions. The union negotiators said, "How about Aaron Elson," an issue worth maybe fifty dollars a week. Dorothy refused to budge. The union, god bless 'em, budged. I don't begrudge them that.

A few weeks later I was given a tryout as a copy editor, so the issue was essentially  moot.

The contract negotiations were in September, and by the holiday season I was editing copy instead of typing, Group 10, pretty good money. Dorothy Schiff, who would soon sell the Post to Rupert Murdoch, made an appearance at the Christmas party. My editor, Ike Gellis, asked if I would like to meet her.

He brought me over and introduced me. "This is Aaron Elson," he said.

Dorothy Schiff, without saying a word, promptly turned and walked away.

Without unions like the Teamsters, newspapers have long since replaced mandatory retirement with age discrimination. Do the math. Fifty-eight years old plus five weeks' vacation equals ten-four, out the door, or so it was in my case.

The Philly Inquirer is a wonderful newspaper. I hope it survives. From time to time I hear about former colleagues who are still employed by the newspaper that laid me off. Their salaries have been slashed, their workloads increased, and their morale has never been lower. They have been warned that posting on certain blogs critical of the newspaper is a fireable offense.

That's why I applaud the Teamsters. Sometimes you have to take a stand, whatever the cost.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A letter to the editor

Before I was laid off, I used to fill in on occasion for the person who edited the letters to the editor. In all my years as a copy editor, I had little contact with the readers, and I was amazed at how passionate people could be over seemingly little issues. The hot button issues like the Middle East or health care reform, forget about it.

As for myself, I'd never written a letter to the editor. Until last week. A column appeared in the paper that got under my skin, so I sent the columnist an e-mail about my objections, and he didn't respond.

I thought if I had been the copy editor handling that column, I would have called the columnist and suggested he double check the facts. And the headline, although it accurately reflected the lead of the column, really bothered me. So here's the poop:

The nickname of the columnist is the "road warrior," and he's supposed to write about commuting issues in New Jersey. The headline on this particular column was "A chance to improve N.J.'s Third World rest stops."

That already bothered me, because there is nothing "Third World" about the rest stops along New Jersey's "non-toll" roads, which is what the column was about. I'll chalk the headline up to the copy editor's attempt at hyperbole which in my opinion fell short, but there's nothing wrong with trying.

The headline and the lead were plural, however, and only one rest stop was referenced. And the columnist didn't bother to go and see the rest stop for himself, but rather wrote his column from his desk in the form of an answer to an e-mail, although he may have called and had a conversation with the person who sent the e-mail to verify that she existed and get a little more description.

The rest stop about which she complained is one that is dear to my heart. It's not a service plaza -- far from it. It has no facilities. And most of the time it's entrance to exit big rigs, and a regular little old car is lucky to find a nook between the 18-wheelers in which to squeeze for an hour or so. But many years ago when I was returning from an oral history interviewing trip I got caught in a terrible snowstorm, and I was able to ride it out in that very "Third World" rest stop.

So I dug a little deeper into the column. The original e-mailer noted that she was returning from her daughter's wedding in the Outer Banks of North Carolina to her home in Ringwood. The rest stop in question is on Route 78. Wait a second, thought I, if she's coming from the Outer Banks to Ringwood, N.J., she would come right up the Route 95 corridor through Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and onto the New Jersey Turnpike. I'm not hurling accusations or anything, but this raised the possibility that she detoured over to Pennsylvania -- the "scenic route," so to speak -- to avoid paying the tolls.

I would at the very least have asked the columnist to check out this possibility. Nevertheless, I Mapquested the route from the Outer Banks to Ringwood and, lo and behold, there actually was a 4.3 mile stretch she would have driven on Route 78. This of course would have involved passing several excellent service plazas on the turnpike if she did indeed take that road more than halfway through New Jersey. But maybe it was a Sunday and she wanted to avoid the long gas lines and the long Starbucks line in the service plazas, or maybe she didn't feel the urge to pull into a rest stop until she was on Route 78.

I'm not even sure there is a rest stop along that stretch. Also, and I discovered this while researching the situation, while the sign indeed says "rest area," the rest stops on Route 78 -- and there are only three in New Jersey, two going west and one going east -- are not real rest stops but are "turnouts," or simply a place to park. If the truckers didn't have this option they would clog the exit ramps to get their mandated rest time. And if the turnout had restrooms, it would encourage use by more cars, which due to the small area would have to mingle with the trucks, creating a dangerous situation.

The reason the lack of facilities was mentioned in the email was because the writer witnessed a man urinating in the woods, and saw "evidence" that others had done the same on the pavement. I can't imagine what this "evidence" was, but that's neither here nor there. At least the fellow was pissing in the woods. This hardly, in my opinion, rates a "Third World" comparison. It isn't like he pissed on one of her tires. But I digress.

I was surprised at my passionate reaction to the misinformation in this column, but I attribute it to my fondness for that particular rest area, the failure of the columnist to know what the f*** he was writing about, and the failure of the copy desk to query him on what seemed to me some obvious difficulties with the column.

So I wrote a letter to the editor, and pointed out that if indeed this woman were avoiding paying tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike by detouring through Pennsylvania, she was cheating the state out of needed road funds and thus had no right to criticize the rest stops on its non-toll roads.

I pointed out to the editor of the letters page, who I used to fill in for, that if he printed my letter he might be fired, since I've been considered persona non grata by the management of this particular newspaper ever since I testified on behalf of a former colleague who was suing them for age discrimination. He still might print the letter which, if I know the paper's loyal letter to the editor writers, should stir up a wasp's nest of responses.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Another nail in the coffin of my career

Two online headlines grabbed my attention this morning -- well, they didn't exactly grab it, I just threw that in as an action verb to grab your attention, they really just intrigued me. Most of the headlines I read these days are online since newspapers are too expensive for a 99er like me who doesn't know where his next month's minimum credit card payments are coming from. Ahh, those heady days when I was a card-carrying member of the middle class. But I digress.

The first was one of those heads that gave me pause ... that is, there was just something about it that didn't work, at least for me. "Chinese 'iPod' aims to skin Apple." The story was about some 22 year old whiz kid in China who designed a contraption that fits over an iPod Touch like an outer skin, and converts it into an iPhone, making for a much more cost effective iPhone than the iPhone itself. So yes, this was a skin for an iPod, but when you "skin" something, you're removing the skin, not adding it. Here we go again with the "poetic license" defense.

But that's neither here nor there. I'll give the headline writer credit for trying, for putting it out there to see if it works, whether it works or not. Sometimes you have to do that.

It was another head that troubled me, not because it was a poor headline, but because it was a good headline. A little background. The very first story I wrote as a cub reporter for The Campus, one of two school newspapers at the City College of New York, back in 1967 was about a series of old movies that were to be shown in the South Campus cafeteria. When I opened the paper and looked at the story, the headline said "Welcome now to Rick's Cafe." I was like "Huh?" Let me rephrase that. I was 17 years old and had never seen "Casablanca," a still from which accompanied the article.

The lesson I learned way back then was that a good copy editor has to keep abreast of culture. I can still remember the thrill I had at the New York Daily News the first time I was able to sneak the word "Yo!" into a headline, following the success of "Rocky." Don't ask me what the rest of the headline said, I don't remember. That was a long time ago, and that's the problem.

The headline that intrigued me today said "Police dare Switchfoot singer to move." My initial reaction was that this was some kind of "Are you feeling lucky, punk?" kind of story. It was actually about a singer for the band Switchfoot -- which I'd never heard of -- who gave an impromptu concert in Tampa after opening for the Goo Goo Dolls. At least I'd heard of them.

These days so many jobs in the media business have been merged that I'm guessing the writer wrote his own headline, just as copy editors now have to lay out the stories they edit, because it appeared that the last two paragraphs of the story were written to explain the headline.

Switchfoot, the writer noted, is a San Diego-based Christian rock group whose mainstream hit "Dare you to move" was featured on the U.K. version of the "Spiderman 2" soundtrack.

Well, I thought, so much for me keeping abreast of modern pop culture. Now if you'll excuse me, I think I hear the Christian rock ringtone on my iPod Touch phone.

THIS JUST IN: On the other hand, there are some advantages to being a dinosaur, in addition to being able to chow down on nerdy scientists. A teaser headline on that I saw only moments ago said "Tea Company Is Closing 25 Stores." Tea Company? Obviously, the tech-savvy youngster who wrote that could probably whistle the U.K. soundtrack for Spiderman 2 backward, but is too wet behind the ears to know that the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company is commonly referred to as A&P, not Tea Company. I'm reminded of the fool who created the New Jersey Turnpike sign directing travelers to the James Cooper rest area. That person probably thought Fenimore, who needs a middle name like that, when we can save a few bucks on the signage, but at least he wasn't a copy editor.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Alliteration Shmalliteration

Today I read a headline online that said "Ships steam to safety as storm guns for Gulf" (this was later changed to " storm enters Gulf"). I wonder if the copy editor even gave a thought to the percentage of the thousand or so boats and various other vessels out there battling the giant oil spill that are powered by steam. No doubt zero. Which no doubt would bring the copy editor's save-get response: poetic license.

The other day I saw a job listing -- although I've been unemployed too long for even the Podunk Press to take a chance on a dinosaur such as moi, I still peruse the journalismjobs bulletin board if for no other reason than to see which papers I applied to a year ago and never heard from have relisted the copy editor/page designer job -- and was struck by a job description. The paper is looking to hire a copy editor who knows the difference between effect and affect. You'd think I'd think "Good luck!" but that's not what I thought. I thought, "You really should be looking for a copy editor who knows the difference between mull and consider. Or between assail and criticize. I used to work with a copy editor who put "assail" in every headline he could, so that he could pretend he was working for the New York Times.

I've been guilty of writing headlines that say things like "So and so mulls retirement" or "North Korea weighs dropping nuclear bomb on U.S. carrier." And I won't even blame it on the fact that copy editors, like baseball players, can get in a slump. I wrote headlines like that because that's the way you did things, and many, I dare say most, still do. But one day -- actually, the headlines in general were so bad at my former employer that they brought in a headline consultant to give a couple of seminars, and that's what opened my eyes to what I already instinctively knew -- I realized that it's more important for every word in a headline to be accurate, rather than just to be an "action verb" for the sake of having an action verb: mulls, weighs, stirs, you name it. Notice how all of those are relatively short words, that's why they're so popular. But you stir a pot, you don't stir emotions. "Oh my god, you've stirred my emotion!"

Funny thing is, I wasn't the only person who attended that seminar. A couple of other copy editors got the point, but the majority were back making the same mistakes -- well, they're not really mistakes in the sense of typographical errors, they're just dull conventions, but to me they're mistakes -- within days.

But I ramble. So I think I'll say "thanks for reading," and get in my car and steam on over to the diner and get some breakfast.

Monday, June 14, 2010


My entry into the newspaper business came with a question on a copy editing test at my college paper, The Campus, some 43 years ago.

The question: What is bfulc?

My answer: Those were the glasses Ben Franklin invented.

My exit from the newspaper business came with an email from the editor of a midsize newspaper: "Thank you very much for your interest in our page design/copy editing position. We had a flood of 80 applicants including many who were highly qualified and it was a very difficult choice, but we have filled the position."

That's it for me. Ten four, out the door. I used to tell kids if they could write a good headline, they could always get a job in this business. That advice is now as useless as this blog, although some copy editors might still learn something from my occasional entries.

My former newspaper, the Bergen Record, would like to consider me retired, but I'm not. I'm just beginning my second career, reinventing myself as it were, as an oral historian. It's an uphill climb, but I need the exercise.

When I started in the newspaper business, as a cub reporter at my college paper, there was a tradition when seniors graduated, or even if they didn't graduate but finally moved on to a real newspaper after six or seven years dodging classes in the school paper office, a little hole in the wall, capacity about eight with a couple of desks and a few typewriters and paper all over the place, look at this, a run-on sentence, tsk, tsk, I must be getting copyheimer's disease, but anyway, they got to write what was known as a "Thirty" column. I wrote one in my fifth year when I finally negotiated my way into a degree, trading all my "incompletes" for F's and emerging with a 2.1 grade point average, a smidgin above the requirement to graduate. I forget what I said in my Thirty column.

By the time I graduated I was already working full-time, at the New York Post, where I started as a copyboy in the summer of my freshman year.

In real businesses -- newspapers, after all, were never real businesses, still aren't, although they've come to think they are -- people get a gold watch after 25 years. In newspapers, whatever the number of years, they got something much more personal. The cartoonist would do a big drawing and everybody would sign it. When I was at the Daily News there was one fellow who up and went to Hollywood because an old friend of his was now a famous screenwriter and was going to help him get started. The staff held a party for him and the artist, I think it was my alltime favorite newspaper artist, Jerry Schlamp, did a big caricature of him lying in a king-size bed with a horse's head sticking out from under the sheets, two empty bottles of booze with three x's rising from the top of each, and a nurse wearing nothing but panties with a red cross on them and a bra and saying "Now about that screen test ..." I got to sign that along with everybody else, although I suppose if he were to look at that today, he wouldn't know who the heck I was.

That's what I aspired to in the newspaper business, but it never came to pass. I left the Post in the exodus that followed Rupert Murdoch's purchase of the paper, and went to the New York Daily News. Ten years later I left the Daily News in a mass downsizing and wound up at the Bergen Record. I left the Record twenty years later in a "restructuring," please step into my office, you're not being offered a job, goodbye, a few days later some of my copy desk colleagues took me and another laid off copy editor to a diner and that was it, no cartoon. They did get me some kind of Hallmark card and signed it, but that's not the same.

"Thirty," in the Pleistocene Era of Journalism, is what reporters would put at the end of their story so that the people working the linotype machines would know that it was finished.

Oh, and bfulc stood for bold face, upper lower case.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Go Read Something Else (Wait! I don't Mean That)

A headline is supposed to entice a reader to delve into a story, ideally to capture the essence of that story in a few words. A caption is supposed to supplement a story; combined with a picture it offers, in new media lingo, a supplementary entry point into the story. A caption also is supposed to avoid stating the obvious. If the photo shows a man drinking a glass of water, for instance, the copy editor would not write "Man drinks glass of water," but rather something informative like "Unaware that New Jersey's drinking water contains particulates of thousands of antibiotics and prescription drugs that have been flushed down the toilet, man tempts fate with glass of water." I'm kidding, sort of. But I would need several hands and a couple of extra feet to count on my fingers and toes the number of memos I've seen sent to the copy desk reminding editors not to state the obvious in captions.

So imagine when a headline states the obvious. I passed one of those honor boxes with a stack of Bergen Records in it today and the headline marching across the front page read: "Anger at Fare Hikes." Hel-lo. The story could have been thirty column inches, forty column inches, sixty column inches with a fancy graphic, how many ways can you say commuters who ride NJ Transit trains and buses -- the likely fare increases of 30 percent led the paper and was all over the radio the day before -- don't want to see their fares go up. Of course they're angry.

Personally, I'd have fired not the schmo who wrote the headline but the slot person who pushed the typeset button who should know better. Unless, of course, the headline was dictated by the managing editor or editor, both of whom a former colleague likes to refer to as dysfunctional. It's one thing for morale to be so low, as the rumor mill has it to be at the Record, that copy editors don't give a s--t what they write and slot people don't give a damn what they typeset, but it's another thing to not take the least bit of pride in your work.

Any of a dozen heads would at least have given a reader cause to glance at the first paragraph, or to consider plunking 50 cents (or is it more now?) into the vending machine: "Commuters up in arms," "Riders blast NJ Transit." As Warner Wolf would say, "Come onnn!"

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Good, the Bad and the Copy Desk

This week I drove from New Jersey to Dallas. Sometimes on the open road, I'll turn the radio off and think. I'll thnk about headlines, and before I know it I'll find myself thinking about Hill 122, a book I've begun writing; then with no transition I'll be thinking about the Kassel Mission, the subject of this interviewing trip; and somehow the radio will be playing again and I'll find myself wondering how I never got diagnosed with ADHD.

I thought about my last blog post, the good headline/bad headline one, and something troubled me. I asked myself, if a headline shouldn't make light of injury or death, how is it that "Headless body in topless bar" is such a classic? Along with another of my favorite heads, written by the great Joe Percival, a longtime very low-key super headline writer at the Daily News when I was there. It was one of those little two-paragraph stories about a woman who advertised her colon-cleansing services in the back of New York magazine. One of her clients turned up dead and she was arrested. Joe's headline was: "Public enema Number 1." Was this just the breaking of a rule that was meant to be broken, or was something else at play?

The answer, I thought before turning the radio back on, was the latter. The difference between a driver getting his head squashed when a tractor trailer is blown onto the top of his Honda and a patron of a topless bar getting his noggin severed is the difference between innocent and maybe not so innocent, I mean, it's not like he walked into the strip joint to order a Diet Coke and watch a football game. Same thing with the guy whose colon was punctured under less than wholesome circumstances.

So I'll amend my recommendation for walking that line between humor and bad taste. People on the seamier side of life are fair game, whereas innocent victims of harmful events deserve a headline writer's sympathies.

That said, wasn't the Super Bowl great this year? I could hardly take my eyes off the game, although I did think the Diet Coke at Scores was kind of watered down.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The worst headline I ever wrote

The line between a really really good headline, the kind that makes readers say to their buds "Did you see that headline in the Such and Such?" as opposed to "Did you see that story in the Such and Such?" -- and a really really bad headline is a thin one, razor thin you might say. I walked that line for years and have the stripes on my soles to prove it. Figuratively speaking, of course, I mean I did tend to wear socks in the newsroom, although the Orange County Register used to take out a front page ad in Editor & Publisher showing its copy editors sitting at their desks on the beach, and I'll bet they have the jellyfish stings to prove it. But I digress.

Sometimes a headline looks good on a computer screen but loses in the translation to print, because a word is pronounced differently in common usage than it may appear phonetically on paper. That generally makes for a clunky, albeit not a terrible, headline. In general, really really bad headlines cross a different kind of line, not one that separates funny from not funny, but rather good taste from bad.

Which brings me to what I've always felt was one of the better headlines I wrote, and what I believe may be one of the worst. First the good one, so to speak. It never got published, but that's another story, which I'll relate here so as not to keep anybody guessing.

The Bergen Record was breaking in a new backup slot person, a young copy editor who'd been on the staff for a couple of years, a decent all-around editor although he tended to miss a lot of the nuances in stories that required massaging, and his headlines were somewhat less than inspired. But he had an affable personality and a seemingly good future at the paper, which has proved true -- he's now some kind of assistant news editor and is one of the few "good guys" on a largely dysfunctional editorial staff. But I was a former backup slot person and was perceived as a "loose cannon," and the copy chief and his deputy were wary that I might try to undermine the new backup's authority, which couldn't have been farther from the case.

However, I did give him a hard time over a headline. It was what in the vernacular was called an "overline" for a picture, the little headline that goes on top of a photo while the caption goes below. Honda at the time had a big advertising campaign for its redesigned Accord, and the theme was "Introducing the Honda Accord," which of course had been around for decades but the word "introducing" made it seem newer. The day of the headline in question was an exceptionally windy one, and a photographer had captured a picture of a parked 18-wheeler that got blown over onto its side, crushing an unoccupied Honda Accord. The key word here, to me at least, is unoccupied. The owner wasn't in the car, and wasn't even in the picture.

Sometimes you have to scramble your brain to come up with a good line -- I spent about eight months faithfully submitting entries to the New Yorker's cartoon caption writing contest and never even got an honorable mention -- and sometimes a headline "Wham!" just plain kind of smacks you in the head, no pun intended. This was one of those Whams. Onto my computer screen, almost without thinking, I typed: "Introducing the Honda Accordion." I then wrote a modest caption and hit the send button.

A short while later, my message light started blinking, and I called up a note from the in-training backup slot person, who often was given my copy to slot because it was generally clean and not likely to get him in trouble for missing the kind of stuff that might get the paper sued. "We can't run this," the note said. "Somebody might have gotten hurt."

"Might." This is the operative word here. Nobody was in the car, and, without thinking, I quietly went ballistic. I fired off a note to the copy chief saying "We've got to talk," and after the edition was put to bed -- another silly newspaper term -- the copy chief, deputy copy chief, new backup slot person and I had a conference, at which I went ballistic a little more loudly and the interpretation was that I was obviously attempting to undermine the new backup's authority. Which I can see made a lot of sense, but I was really only defending my headline. I later realized the dynamic at play and wished I had acted in a more subdued fashion. But in general I would prefer a copy editor to take enough pride in his or her work to argue over a rejected headline rather than "dumb it down" to avoid getting any grief.

But that is neither here nor there. If somebody was sitting in the Accord and had their head turned into a pancake, I never would have written a humorous headline. Unless, maybe, the 18-wheeler was delivering a load of maple syrup. Just kidding.

This episode, however, broaches the subject of good taste/poor taste, which brings me to what may have been the worst headline I ever wrote, several years earlier at the New York Daily News, not because it wasn't a clever headline, but because in this case, people did get hurt, killed even.

A couple of days earlier, there had been a deadly tornado in Texas, 24 people were killed. At the time, it was one of the deadliest tornadoes in years, although there have been many deadly tornadoes since. But it was big news at the time and stayed in the front pages for a few days. On the second or third day, somebody pulled a dog alive out of the rubble of a building. The headline I submitted, which wound up in the paper along with a picture of the dog and its rescuer, was: "Toto! Toto! You're Alive."

That was in poor taste. Very bad taste. I admit it. But I wrote it and learned from it, although I don't think the impact of the lesson sank in for several years, like an epiphany, I just woke up one day and thought, "Gee, that headline was in really bad taste."

Which is not to say that a copy editor shouldn't walk that line between good headline/bad headline, good taste/poor taste. It may take years to develop the instincts that keep you on the good headline side most of the time, but the journey is worth it.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Rhymes With Hyperbole

I once had an argument with a colleague at the Daily News Tonight. I don't remember whether I won the argument or lost it, but I think I won it not because I was right, which of course I was, but because I was in the slot. The argument was over the headline on a sports story about some big event, it might have been a Super Bowl or a World Series or a boxing match, and the copy editor wrote a headline stating something to the effect that this was going to be like "World War 3." I also forget whether he used the word "like," but I said to him, "You can't write that."

"Why not?" he shot back.

Now I might note here that this was at the height of the Cold War, or at least during it, since I really don't know where the height of the Cold War was, maybe the Bay of Pigs, or the shootdown of Francis Gary Powers' U-2 spy plane, or the Cuban Missile Crisis -- that sounds about right -- but I digress.

"This is a sporting event," I said. I might have used the word "game." "World War 3, that's atomic bombs blowing up all over the place, nuclear winter, your grandmother evaporating before your eyes, fireballs, hell on earth," and again, I doubt that I was quite so eloquent in my remonstrations.

"It's hyperbole," my former colleague contended.

"Hyperbole? Tell that to the poor schmoes who survived the firebombing of Dresden or the A-bomb at Hiroshima," and again, I'm embellishing my own eloquence here, I'm not even sure I'd heard of the firebombing of Dresden at that point in my life. But the essence of my point was something similar. "Tell them World War 3 is hyperbole."

When two journalists argue, no minds ever get changed, and the winner is almost always the one with the higher standing in the establishment's pecking order. So I'm sure whoever it was I argued with those 25 or so years before has gone on to write a dozen "World War 3" headlines that received nary a second glance from the slot.

I'm not even a hundred percent sure I'm right. I just know I'd never use the term "World War 3" to describe a sporting event, not even Ali-Frazier, Rocky Balboa and that Russian guy with the short blond hair, Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal, Britney Spears-Kevin Federline ... well, maybe that last one ... and if anybody challenged me on it, I'd say "Didn't you ever hear of hyperbole?"

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Kinder, Gentler Fingernail Puller Outers

I admit it. I don't read the New York Times very often, so what I'm about to lambaste may be an aberration but the fact is I never liked their headlines. They remind me of the character in "Good Morning, Vietnam" who kept telling Robin Williams, "Now, this is funny."

I had little choice but to read the Times today while I waited for the auto repair shop to complete $792 worth of work on my car, which took from 7:30 a.m. until 2:15 p.m. I wasn't going to spend $1 for the Daily News at Starbucks, heck, I wasn't even going to spend three bucks for a latte, although I did eventually do that after spending about two hours ingesting four croissants at Bon Appetit in Mahwah, N.J. It was there that the woman at the next table abandoned her Times, and I stealthily slipped over and spirited it away before another patron grabbed it.

It was one of the front page headlines that made me wonder if some of their copy editors bother to read beyond the first paragraph of an article before firing off the head. Actually, I'm guessing some overpaid idiot patted him or herself on the back for this one. It was a single-column, three line head that said: "Taliban Using/ Lighter Touch/ To Win Allies." Oh, how clever.

Now, to that first paragraph, dateline Kabul: "The Taliban have embarked on a sophisticated information war, using modern media tools as well as some old-fashioned ones, to soften their image and win favor with local Afghans. ..."

They're softening their image, all right. Cut to the second paragraph, which outlines the new rules laid down by Mullah Omar: "The dictates include bans on suicide bombings against civilians, burning down schools, or cutting off ears, lips and tongues."

Of course the author qualifies this in paragraph 3: The code ... has been spottily enforced."

Spottily my eye, as my dear ol' mum used to say.

Give me my ear back, you Taliban cur. Haven't you heard about Mullah Omar's new dictates? What? I can't hear you.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Civil War in Tweets

Just thought of a great idea for a book: The Civil War in Tweets. Fer example:

Bull Run no picnic, was like Roll Over, Pamplona

Little Round Top, like WOW, didn't know my uncle was in the Civil War

Appomattox, didn't his great-grandson pitch for the Braves?

Stonewall Jackson, bet he taught his cavalry horses to moonwalk

Spotsylvania, I dunno, looks like a GE lightbulb to me

General Lee bombed at Gettysburg but rocked in Dukes, right Daisy Mae?

Your suggestions and contributions are welcome!