Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Top ten ways you can tell someone has been writing headlines too long

1) Believes Trump has a stake in Google because he keeps encouraging crowds to chant "Look her up!"

2) Former colleague notes on Facebook that he's a Leo and you respond so that's why you're named Claude

3) Thinks Wait Wait Don't Tell Me is a diet show

4) Doesn't know who invented the Internet, but is quick to point out that it's driven by Al Gore-ithms.

5) Takes a cue from gas rationing and lawn watering: On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays hyphenates Wal-Mart, and on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays doesn't. (Alternates on Sundays if he can remember what he did the previous Sunday). This also applies to health care/healthcare and various other copy-editing scenarios.

6) When asks what type he likes, he says 120 point.

7) Asked what he thinks Trump's chances of winning are he says "As good as the chances of the Cubs winning the World Series. Ha ha."

8) Believes "Ford to city: Drop dead" was about an automotive recall.

9) Gets thrown out of France for asking which came first, the Liberte or the Eggalite?

10) Goes to a topless bar hoping to find a headless body

Sunday, November 27, 2016

An existential crisis

   Over the years -- okay, okay, decades -- I've kept enough food on my desk while plowing my way through a nine hour shift of writing headlines and editing copy to open a restaurant, neigh (how did a horse get in here?), maybe a chain of restaurants, Aaron's Copy Desk Diner. Every Halloween I scare up a few dozen extra mini Kit Kats and about Three Dozen Mini Musketeers and secrete them in the back compartment of the bottom drawer on the right hand side of my desk, while the bottom drawer on the left hand side of the desk, behind a batch of file folders which contain I have no idea what because they were left by the former employee whose desk I appropriated or maybe even the employee before that, is where I place whichever cookies I've brought in to get me through the evening. These I pull out from time to time to have with two or three cups of coffee thanks to Mr. Coffee and Mrs. S., the human resources maven who bought the coffee maker for the staff despite the fact that I'm one of only three people in the entire newsroom, and that includes advertising people, who drink coffee at work. The last managing editor kept all kinds of exotic tea bags and a bottle of honey on his desk; he only lasted about a year before losing his temper and his job; imagine how short his career would have been if he drank the kind of rotgut coffee I brew up at the start of my shift. But I digress.
   The 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor is fast approaching, heck, by the time you read this it will probably have been three weeks or a year ago, and my publisher asked if I could find a few local citizens and write about what they remembered about that day. So one morning last week, I was running late, but I decided to walk the five blocks or so to the local senior center to see what I could find. When I introduced myself at the front desk, the senor center director came out and said something to the effect that gee, that was a long time ago, anyone who remembered what they were doing that day would have to be at least 75 years old, and if they were only 75, all they could remember was being born. But, he said, let's take a walk through the facility and see what we could find. In the gym area we found a 93 year old man but the director said he probably wouldn't remember what he was doing the day Pearl Harbor was attacked because he was in Poland or Siberia at the time. What the heck, I said, I had my tape recorder with me and I recorded a 20 minute interview with him, maybe a bit longer, about Poland and Siberia and Baghdad and his time in the Polish resistance, pretty dramatic stuff if I can understand what he was saying, I'll listen to it later.
   But that was it. I found one lady who refused to tell me her name and didn't want it in the paper, but she was at a friend's birthday party the day Pearl Harbor was attacked. You must have been seven or eight, I said. She didn't answer.
   And that was it.
   By now I was late for work and I had no food to get me through the shift; even my Halloween stash was whittled down by a month's worth of nibbling. Nibbling. In the realm of literature, that's what might be called "foreshadowing." There still were a few Lindor truffles that I bought about two years ago but they were hard as a rock and were classified as for emergencies only.
   On the walk to my office I passed a C-Town supermarket, which caters to the large Hispanic and Latino population in the neighborhood. I ventured inside and was amazed at the great selection of mangoes and avocados which are way overpriced and underripe at the supermarkets where I usually shop. But it wasn't Take an Avocado to Work Day, and never should be, it was Take a Cookie to Work Day. Browsing the cookie aisle all I could find on sale was a large bag of Oreo cookies that was on sale for $2.50, so I bought a bag, figuring it would last three or four days.
   When I arrived at the office, sat at my desk and entered the password for my computer, I opened the bag of oreos while I waited, and took four cookies out. I didn't have to make coffee because it was one of the rare days when our IT guy, another caffeine fiend, made the coffee, so I poured myself a cup, set my four cookies in front of me, and placed the opened bag of Oreos in the rear compartment of the lower left hand desk drawer.
   Can you see where this is going?
   Now, this is the middle of November. It wasn't a cold November of the soul, but it wasn't Tahiti in July out either. Now do you see where this is going?
   A copy desk shift at the paper where I work has moments of intense pressure followed by moments with little to do followed by moments of intense pressure. It's during those moments of intense pressure that I like to pop a cookie or a half a mini Kit Kat into my choppers or take my half finished cup of coffee to the microwave in the back and pop it in for thirty seconds.
   Such was the case on this particular evening when, having long finished the four Oreo cookies I initially removed from the bag, I pulled the lower left hand bottom drawer out and was about to retrieve the opened bag of cookies when I saw something scurry across the bottom of the drawer. It was a mouse.
   I slammed the drawer shut, trying to slam it without making too much noise. At least I succeeded in that.
   Now I had a problem.
   Luckily there was nothing in the drawer that I needed besides a few more cookies, but my appetite was history so I could do without, and leave the drawer closed for the rest of the shift. At least there would be no getting out of the drawer for Mister Mouse and he could eat the rest of the bag of Oreos for all I cared, except I don't know what a mouse on a sugar high is capable of, and I didn't particularly want to find out.
   There were still about five hours to go in the shift. The human resources lady's desk is only about fifteen feet from mine and I didn't dare say anything because that was sure to trigger a universal email chastising reporters and editors for even thinking about keeping food in their desk and threatening probation or worse for anybody caught doing so in the future.
   And I didn't dare say anything out of concern for upsetting the woman at the desk next to mine who sometimes has a three-day old clementine or apple on her desk.
   Fortunately, I'm usually the last person in the office at the end of the night because the newspaper is printed at a different location and I have to wait for the pressroom to call and let me know that the presses are running, and in the event of a breakdown or other problem I have to do what I can, resend a page or whatever. Usually by the time I leave, sometime between 10:30 and 11 p.m., the cleaning guy has shown up and is busy emptying the waste baskets and cleaning the bathrooms.
   All of the other workers were gone when the cleaning guy arrived. I told him I had a favor to ask, I might have used the word "big," as in I have a big favor to ask. I told him about the cookies and the mouse, and I asked if he would open the drawer and see if the mouse was still there, and if it wasn't, would he toss the cookies in the waste basket?
   OK, so I'm a wimp. Sue me.
   He proceeded to open the drawer. No mouse. Whew. What am I saying, whew. That meant the darn thing got out of the drawer and hopefully went back to his hole but maybe through the nooks and crannies of the desk he was hiding in another drawer.
   Then the cleaning guy told me that that wasn't the first time a mouse had been seen in the office. There were three or four other sightings. Well, that made me feel good. For about a second. Then I thought, OMG, the place is infested. Almost everybody here has some level of food on or in their desk.
   So I didn't say anything. The next day, I cautiously opened the bottom left hand drawer -- there are two smaller drawers above it -- and glanced inside. No mouse. Whew. Then I began slowly opening the other drawers. In the drawer above the original perpetrator I found a wrapper of a small chocolate that had chew marks on it, and no more chocolate inside. In the bottom right hand drawer, home to the rock-like Lindor Truffles of two years prior, I found one empty wrapper with significant bite marks, and what appeared to be some mouse droppings (ewwww).
   And then I noticed all the little openings at the back of the drawers for the desk's legs and other parts to go through, and realized the ease with which the little reprobates could travel from drawer to drawer and in and out of the desk. No wonder the little guy who found my Oreos was gone, he'd probably returned to the mother ship with the good news that it was party time in Aaron's desk.
   Poor sucker. By the time he returned he was going to find not only no more cookies but not another piece of candy in the entire desk.
   I thought about putting a mousetrap with a piece of cheese in the bottom lower left hand desk drawer, but then all the Facebook videos of mice sunning themselves on the Riviera and playing catch and otherwise acting like human beings flashed before my eyes and I said I can't do that. There must be a more humane way to banish them. Maybe lacing a piece of cheese with a contraceptive would keep them from reproducing. Better yet, I could wrap a piece of cheese in a condom. That might not work, but it would go viral on YouTube.
   And that's where things stand now. I have not yet said anything to anyone other than the cleaning guy. All I've done is hung a sign in the lower right hand bottom desk drawer. It says "Aaron's Copy Desk Diner is Closed for Renovation."

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Post traumatic headline disorder

Entrance to the Mine Shaft (source of photo: Lenny Waller)

   A recent headline on Politico triggered in me an episode of post traumatic headline disorder, setting off a flashback to a Page One headline that appeared in the New York Daily News in the early 1980s. I  was still working in the sports department of the Daily News so it must have been prior to 1983, that's what, 33 years ago. By the way, why is it that reporters often say "prior to" instead of "before," but that's a nag for a different race.
   Jim Willse had recently been hired as the new editor of the Daily News. He wasn't in the position long before the News ran one of its trademark exclusives: A gay nightclub called the Mine Shaft was rented from a landlord who had some connection to the city and was getting a big tax break. Great story. The blaring Page One headline, however, was "How the city got shafted."
   Whoa, I thought. "Shafted" is a euphemism for f***ed. I had always considered that to be a no-no. I mean, to me, saying "How the city got shafted" was no different than saying "How the city got f***ed." What would the housewife in Queens, considered to be a typical Daily News reader, react to that?
   This took place in November or December. At the Christmas party that year I approached Willse, whom I'd never met, and asked him about the headline.
   "That was a good headline," he said. Who knows, he might have written it. His point being that shaft, as in the club's name, and shaft, as in what happened to the city, was a clever pun. No arguing with that, so I let the issue go.
   That headline opened the floodgates, even in the sports department. A few days later, my colleague Freddy Cranwell, for an article about how the New Jersey Nets basketball team got blown out in a road game for the umpteenth time, wrote a very large back page head that said "Road Apples."
   Now, I grew up in the city and had no idea what a road apple was, so I asked him, "What's a road apple?"
   "You don't know what a road apple is?" Fred, who lived in New Jersey, asked incredulously.
   "No I don't," I said.
   "They're what a horse leaves behind on the road," he said.
   In other words, horse shit. He was writing a headline that said the New Jersey Nets were horse shit.
   Fred was the night sports editor that night, so there was nothing I could do about it, doubly so since the city had just been f***ed.
   Which brings me, 33 years later, to a headline on Politico.
   "Critics ream Trump immigration address," the headline said.
   Whoa, I thought. Just to be sure, I looked up "ream" on the Internet, and here is the definition from the Urban Dictionary:
v. to be reamed
usage: To get fucked painfully. Can be replaced in most instances of f**k.
Jon f***ed Shelly -> Jon reamed Shelly
I got f***ed over on this assignment -> I got reamed on this assignment
   Now, some people, including I'm sure Jim Willse, who went on to a prize winning career as the editor of the Newark Star-Ledger, would find Trump's immigration speech getting "reamed" to be perfectly acceptable. Maybe Arianna Huffington would find it OK as well, although to the best of my recollection this is the first time I saw it used in a headline on any news site.
   Further, one might argue, the purpose of euphemisms is to make acceptable in language or usage acts or things which would otherwise be perceived as unacceptable.
   And then it occurred to me that as dinosaurs such as myself fade from the copy editing scene, a much younger generation is cranking out the news both in print and on the Internet. Which raises the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, that someone who only heard "reamed" in a usage whereby it was substituted for "harshly criticized," as in "I got reamed for trying to sneak that headline through," that copy editor might not even know he had just written the equivalent of "Critics painfully f**k Trump immigration speech," and thought that they were only being harshly critical of it.
   That's what I'd like to think, in which case I could attribute my reaction to a case of Post Traumatic Headline Disorder, even though the initial headline was in the Daily News and not the New York or Washington Post. Daily News Traumatic Headline Disorder doesn't carry much weight as a malady, although it would be hard to argue with WaPo Traumatic Headline Disorder.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Why I am unfriending Steve Collins on Facebook

image from

Je suis Edward Clarkin.
On April 15. 1912, the ocean liner Titanic, on its maiden voyage, struck an iceberg in the north Atlantic Ocean and sank, taking "1,517 women, men and children to the bottom of the ocean with her, including some of the most famous names of her time," according to
Now that was an epic, the kind of epic that would place Leonardo DiCaprio on top of the world one moment and at the bottom of the sea the next.
On Sept. 28, 1980, the Washington Post published an article titled "Jimmy's World" by reporter Janet Cooke about an 8-year-old heroin addict. "She described the 'needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin, brown arms,'" according to Wikipedia. "The story engendered much sympathy among readers," leading to a search for the boy. They couldn't even find him on Facebook. Oh, wait, Mark Zuckerberg wasn't even born yet. Nevertheless, none other than the legendary Bob Woodward, also according to Wikipedia, nominated Cooke for the Pulitzer prize for feature writing, which she won. "Two days after the prize was awarded," Wikipedia notes, "Post publisher Donald E. Graham held a press conference and admitted that the story was fraudulent. The editorial in the next day's paper offered a public apology. ... Cooke resigned and returned the prize."
That was an epic breach of journalistic ethics.
On May 11, 2003, the New York Times published an article titled "Correcting the Record; Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception."
"A staff reporter for The New York Times committed frequent acts of journalistic fraud while covering significant news events in recent months, an investigation by Times journalists has found," the article begins. "The widespread fabrication and plagiarism represent a profound betrayal of trust and a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.
"The reporter, Jayson Blair, 27, misled readers and Times colleagues with dispatches that purported to be from Maryland, Texas and other states, when often he was far away, in New York. He fabricated comments. He concocted scenes. He lifted material from other newspapers and wire services. He selected details from photographs to create the impression he had been somewhere or seen someone, when he had not.
"And he used these techniques to write falsely about emotionally charged moments in recent history, from the deadly sniper attacks in suburban Washington to the anguish of families grieving for loved ones killed in Iraq."
Step aside, Janet Cooke. This was an epic breach of journalistic ethics on steroids.
Which brings me to what my former colleague Steve Collins calls "journalistic misconduct of epic proportions."
"I have watched in recent days as [the publisher of the Bristol Press] has emerged as a spokesman for a billionaire with a penchant for politics who secretly purchased a Las Vegas newspaper and is already moving to gut it," Collins wrote in his Dec. 24 letter of resignation. "I have learned with horror [pardon me, but do I hear the tap tap tapping of a raven as Edgar Allen Poe turns in his grave?] that my boss shoveled a story into my newspaper – a terrible, plagiarized piece of garbage about the court system – and then stuck his own fake byline on it. He handed it to a page designer who doesn’t know anything about journalism late one night and told him to shovel it into the pages of the paper. I admit I never saw the piece until recently."
I am the copy editor to whom the publisher handed the story "late one night" -- it was actually sometime around 8:30 p.m., as the deadline for the New Britain Herald -- where the story originally appeared, being reprinted with some additions in the Bristol Press the next day -- was 9:15 p.m.
I carefully placed the story on a blank page. I corrected a couple of grammatical errors and eliminated some redundant lines after checking with the publisher. The piece was about business courts -- the Herald is very attuned to the workings of the business community in New Britain, and the publisher is active in the local Chambers of Commerce as well as the Rotary Club -- and he made a case for the need for business courts in Connecticut. The section criticizing Nevada judge Elizabeth Gonzalez seemed like something personal for a person other than the publisher, but it didn't seem libelous so I didn't raise the issue. The article would have been more appropriate in the opinion section, but I didn't suggest that.
Since then it seems like every media watchdog has been barking about the relationship between a Las Vegas billionaire and the publisher. The staff of the Las Vegas Review Journal is supposedly upset with the sale of the paper to the billionaire's family. But has he already "started to gut" the paper, as Collins claims? So far only the managing editor has left, with a buyout.
If I have not yet put this in perspective, let's say, for argument's sake, the publisher unintentionally crossed a line in an article that appeared in a pair of newspapers with a total circulation of a few thousand, on a page which was so poorly designed -- a virtual sea of grey with only a couple of subheads -- that only a handful of people were likely to read it -- is hardly a breach of ethics along the lines of a Janet Cooke or Jayson Blair. Yet Steve Collins would have you believe that the future of journalism is at stake, and the media watchdogs are lapping it up.
Three factors went into my decision to unfriend Collins.
The first was a couple of days after Collins posted his letter of resignation and started a gofundme campaign. Jeremy Stone, the son of I.F. Stone, created an award and gave the initial one, worth $5,000, to Collins. Stone called it a "whistleblower award."
There wasn't one iota of whistle-blowing involved in Collins' act. He wasn't fired. He was neither demoted nor disciplined. If Collins were indeed all about journalistic integrity as he claims to be, he should have said thank you, Jeremy, but I can't accept this.
The second was on Dec. 29 when he posted a link to a column in the Day of New London that suggested the publisher's purchase of the Block Island Times was a front for the Las Vegas billionaire so  he can bring a casino to Block Island. And in a Dec. 30 post Collins mocked the publisher's sincere column in his first issue as publisher of the weekly.
"We're an independent company, and the buck stops at my door. There's no connection to anyone or any thing," the publisher wrote. "Our only commitment is to the communities we serve."
In the five years I've worked at the Herald, the publisher's door has always been open, and while he won't always be on Block Island, I've no doubt he'll be accessible to the workers there, and that he meant what he said.
The  third was a Facebook post by Collins, who has taken to comparing himself to George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life" and other icons of American idealism:
"There's battle lines being drawn," the headline reads.
"This is a watershed moment for American journalism," his post begins.
Las Vegas. He's talking about Las Vegas.
"The strange, secret purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal by a billionaire who has never hesitated to use his riches to advance his political agenda has stirred us to long-delayed, much-needed action," he continues. "That brave little band of journalists in Nevada, who know their future is dim, are fighting back while they can..."
Excuse me if a vision of Peter Finch shouting "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!" didn't just flash through my mind.
In the sports department of the Daily News, where I spent five years in the 1980s, there was a copy editor named Eddie Coyle. Eddie was a recovering alcoholic who traded his addiction to booze for an addiction to running. The older copy editors at the News liked to tell a story about the "old days." The News Building had a large globe in the center of its Art Deco lobby. One night when he came to work inebriated, the story went, Eddie climbed on top of the globe and shouted "I'm on top of the world!"
Today Steve Collins is feeling like he's on top of the journalism world. Tomorrow he will have one less friend on Facebook.