Saturday, February 23, 2013

Eftsoons the twain shall meet

Heimboldshausen, Germany, April 3, 1945

   For the past two decades I've led a fairly productive double life as a headline writer and an oral historian. Rarely have the twain met, except on twacks like the ones above. But just the other day they collided again.
   I was thinking how sometimes, when I corner a listener and start relating the stories of the 712th Tank Battalion as they were told to me by veterans who have since passed away, I'm a little like the Ancient Mariner cornering the poor wedding guest. So on a whim, I googled the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which I hadn't read since high school (Mr. Jennings' class at Stuyvesant H.S. if I remember correctly), and I was amazed -- stunned, floored, wowed, thank you Mister Roget -- at how many headlines I've written over the years owe their origin to the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.
   My goodness, every time the Weather Channel sends a few drops of rain my newspaper's way, I think I've written a headline that said "Water Water Everywhere."
   I knew that came from the Ancient Mariner, but look at all these other great lines:
   "Alone, alone, all all alone..."
   "Oh sleep it is a gentle thing"
   As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean"
   A sadder and a wiser man he woke the morrow morn."

   I mean, that's four lines of poetry that have launched a thousand headlines, sorry about that Helen, and after reading and re-reading The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, I have but one regret: that had I known the newspaper I used to edit copy and write clever headlines for would throw me away like yesterday's fish wrap, I would have tried harder to sneak a headline past the slot employing the word "Eftsoons."

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Your paper could die without a sense of humor

An article in the April 7, 1944 edition of the Berkshire Eagle
   I just read in my friend Victor's "Eye on the Record" blog of a further round of cutbacks and prospective layoffs at a newspaper where I used to work, and thought the above article, which one of my World War II interviewees had in a scrapbook, might provide a little comic relief.
   When I worked at the New York Daily News, I learned a very important lesson: that a newspaper department, or even a newspaper itself, reflects the personality of its department head, or in the latter case, its publisher; look at how the New York Post, and more recently the Wall Street Journal, reflects the personality, especially the politics, of Rupert Murdoch.
   But it was really on a more microcosmal basis that this point was driven home; for instance, the food section of the Daily News when I was there reflected the personality of Arthur Schwartz, the great food writer who was the head of its department; the New York Post sports department back in the 1970s reflected the personality of Ike Gellis, and even though I'm not a big sports fan that probably was one of the great sports departments of all time. Again on a microcosmic level the sports copy desk on which I cut my teeth reflected the personality of its night slot editor, the late Vic Ziegel. And what a personality that was. Even today when I look at a certain type of humor I think, that's the type of thing Vic Ziegel might have written, and that personality permeated to the people working around him.
   The areas of the newspaper where I spent 20 years trying to do the best job that I could under trying circumstances also reflected the personality of the person in charge. The managers under whom I fared best generally had a good sense of humor. Vic Ziegel when he was at the New York Post, before going to the Daily News, for instance, was under such pressure to meet deadlines that he devised a little scheme to relieve the pressure. On Saturday nights, when the paper compiled, with the help of the Associated Press, the score of just about every college football game in America, Vic would stop everything, and take a few minutes to peruse the seemingly mile long agate list of college football scores, and then at the very bottom, with its own headline, he would choose one score and call it "In the Big One." And that would be the most eye catching name of two college opponents, like Slippery Rock State 21, Columbia School of Journalism 6 (who knew they had a football team, okay, I made that up, sue me ... wait, I forgot about that non disclosure agreement).
   I spent a few years in the business department of the former employer that is likely to lay off several more employees, and the business editor's position was like a revolving door. But for a while the editor had a sense of humor -- which, IMHO, was a rarity at that establishment, and the bottom right hand corner of the front page of the business section had a daily feature displaying a story like the one at the top of this entry. The stories were short, lively and above all, funny, and produced what I consider to have been some of my best headlines. With a change of business editors, that feature disappeared.
   More recently, the newspaper seems to reflect the personality of its publisher, which to get a better idea of I recommend Victor Sasson's blog. I will say, however, that a good newspaper should have the ability to laugh at itself once in a while, as the Berkshire Eagle did in 1944 -- the rest of that front page was filled with news about World War II. I no longer read the newspaper where I spent 20 years on various copy desks, but from following Victor's blog, it would seem that the newspaper has lost any semblance of a sense of humor. Which is a shame.