Monday, November 19, 2018

The Bread Man of Alcatraz

   I was in Costco the other day and decided to try this "Dave's Killer Bread" that my former colleague and current food blogger Victor mentions every two or three posts, like it's some kind of culinary cult, so I put one of the double loaves in my cart. Sure enough, I had only traveled two or three aisles when one of the Costco sample server ladies spotted the loaves in my cart and proceeded to tell me the story of Dave's Killer Bread while I sampled a bacon and cheddar pierogi.
   Dave's parents owned a bakery, she said, and ever since his mother had "something in the oven," that something being Dave, he wanted to grow up to bake bread. But in his youth Dave turned out to be a bad seed, was in and out of trouble, and finally his parents threw him out. While he was homeless and drifting about, he would find a bakery, wait until it closed, climb in through the roof or jimmy his way in through a window, bake some bread and then leave. Until one day he fell asleep in a Dunkin Donuts and suddenly he heard a loud 'Time to make the donuts!' and the jig was up."
   "He got arrested?" I asked.
   "The judge looked at his priors and threw the book at him," she said. "He got sentenced to 15 years in prison."
   "Wow," I said, "the poor guy. What was the charge?"
   "Baking and entering," she said. "But luckily, he got a job in the prison kitchen, where he met a lifer who had developed a secret recipe for baking what he called 30 to Life Bread. Thirty to Life was so popular among the inmates that some of them would beat up other inmates just so they'd be punished by getting nothing but bread and water."
   "Wow," I said, "can I have another pierogi?"
   "Sure," the sample lady said. "This lifer's bread was so popular..."
   "How popular was it?" I asked.
   "It was so popular," she said, "that seven death row inmates requested peanut butter and banana sandwiches on 30 to Life for their last meal, and one of them had his sentence commuted when his lawyer argued that the prison substituted Pepperidge Farm 15 grain bread."
   "That's pretty impressive," I said, "but how did Dave get the recipe?"
   "He bought it from the lifer for a carton of cigarettes," she said, and 14 years later, when he was released, he convinced his parents that he was reformed and they took him back into the family bakery. The rest is history."
   "That's quite a story," I said. "He should write a book."
   "He already did," she said.
   "What's it called?" I asked.
   "The Bread Man of Alcatraz."

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Some headline writing tips

Twenty-three years ago! Thanks, Bill Hogan, for the great illustration
   A colleague who's relatively new to the newspaper biz recently asked me for some tips on writing headlines, so here goes.
   First, there's a paradox. Copy editors write headlines. As a copy editor, your job is to protect and defend the English language. What is that comma doing over here? I'm going to put it over there. Voila! Your job is also to make mundane copy sing like Beyonce. As a headline writer, your job often is to mangle that English language. Trump invited Tom Cruise to play golf? Headline: Trump considers climate Scientologist. And yet, the copy editor and headline writer are one and the same.
   Second, these tips apply primarily to print journalism. A print headline should present the essence of a story in a handful of words, sort of like in a crossword puzzle: What's a four word phrase that means Number 1 on the FBI's list of most wanted criminals has been apprehended ... hmm ... did I say apprehended? I meant caught ... no, nabbed, Most wanted guy nabbed, there you have it, although on the Entertainment page that might also apply to the conclusion of The Bachelor. Online the headline acts more as clickbait. "Why was this guy nabbed?" (Click here and find out).
   These suggestions don't apply universally. You have to use your judgment. If a story is about a budget, you ought to play it straight: Town Council rejects $262 million budget," not "Council has a cow," although atop a column that might be appropriate.

   That said, here are some tips gleaned from 50 years of getting yelled at by supervisors:

1) The overline. One of the opportunities to use a bit of creativity is in the headline that goes above a "standalone" picture, standalone being a photo in which the entire story is included in the caption. Take the picture of an oversize replica of a check being presented to a charity. "Bikers donate X thousand dollars to fight cancer." Nothing at all wrong with that. But if you publish the same picture, different check, different recipient, day after day, you might want to vary it a bit. "Check this check out out," or "Lions take a bite out of cancer." What you want to do is focus on a key word, like "Lions" or "Kiwanis" or check, and come up with a bit of alliteration or play on a word that anchors the overline.

2) Free association. Early in his career Alex Rodriguez came to be known as A-Rod. Then A-Rod begat K-Rod (Frankie Rodriguez? Wait, where did the K come from? Oh, that's the symbol for strikeouts.) But then ... A-Rod becomes embroiled in a steroid scandal, and now he's A-Roid. You see where this is going? Playing with names depends on how recognizable the name is, but this applies to words as well.

3) Copy editors get no respect. They're the Rodney Dangerfields of the newspaper business. Once  the copy editor  got a modicum of respect: In big city union shops, they were at a slightly higher pay grade than reporters, but as contracts were negotiated, that difference was whittled away until reporters gained parity. But reporters are visible, copy editors not so. Over my decades in this business, I've seen many reporters start out covering municipal stuff, then some municipal figure runs for office, and the next thing you know a reporter who covered him or her is their spokesperson, or some government agency that a reporter covered needs a communications director, nobody ever calls the copy editor with a job offer. There are a hundred career-making investigative reports for every headless body found in a topless bar. That said, the headline is the most visible element of a copy editor's job. Nobody ever says "Great comma," but a clever headline will at least elicit peer recognition and bring a bit of satisfaction to a thankless job.

4) A word of caution. Just like some people become addicted to crossword puzzles or Sudoku, over a great many years I've become addicted to writing headlines. I can't see a development in the news without mentally writing a headline for it. Case in point, see above, when Trump fired Pruitt, within eight seconds I'm thinking he should hire Tom Cruise because he's a Climate Scientologist. But the mixing and mangling of words, the creation of new words by adding on to old words, the deployment of double and triple entendres, is the stuff of which good headlines are made. Once when an auto maker was going to retire a number of models, the headline I came up with is an example of this: The Jurassic Parking Lot. A few letters here, a suffix there, and you can work magic. It used to help having a page designer who had a sense of humor, but now page designers and copy editor/headline writers are one and the same, so if you have an idea for a creative headline, you can tweak the layout to accommodate it. How cool is that?

5) The best headlines I've ever seen. And these were not written by me. 1) Mila Andre, a Russian emigre working as a copy editor at the New York Daily News, was assigned to edit a review of a new Russian restaurant named Caucasus. Her headline? "Ve vas hungry, Soviet." This was before the breakup of the Soviet Union, mind you. It also got poor Mila chewed out by the copy desk chief, who told her it had nothing to do with the quality of the food. Her response? It made people read the review. 2) My late colleague Ed Reiter, who was treated horribly by the management of the Bergen Record after he recovered from a stroke, was assigned a story about an invasion of slimy creatures in lawns and gardens around northern New Jersey. His headline: "Slugfest in the Garden." 3) The late Hal Frankel, who was a revered copy editor at the Daily News and I always considered a mentor, following the New York Giants' victory in the 1986 Super Bowl, when the News ran a two-page spread and a story about how they were going to hold a celebration in Giants Stadium and all the fans were going to be given kazoos so they could make some noise. Hal's headline? In I'd say 180 point type across two pages: "Start spreading kazoos" 4) On the opposite end of the spectrum, a little  two paragraph story came across the News copy desk about a woman who advertised her colon cleansing skills on the back page of the Village Voice. The woman was arrested when one of her clients failed to survive the cleansing. The little 18 or 24 point headline written by Joe whose last name I can't remember, was: "Public enema number one."

We interrupt this blog for a comment. I can't stand it. A former colleague just posted a lovely picture of greenery on her facebook page with the notation "The lysimachia is up in our front yard. In the backyard, the phlox is beginning to open." And like a reflex I started typing (although I caught myself and stopped), Don't let the phlox get too close to the henhouse. But this is what I mean, writing headlines too long can be addictive.

And how could I forget one of my early all-time faves, written by an elderly copy editor named Lester Rose when I was just starting out at the Daily News circa 1980. This is similar to that giant check that keeps appearing in charity photos, except this was the back page of the Daily News where the main headline through baseball season always had YANKS or METS, and one other team in ALL CAPS, in probably 150 point type, which left room for one other five to eight letter word in the middle. Often on the radio when you listen to the sports scores you'll hear the announcer try to come up with fifteen or so different ways to say "wins," usually riffing on the name of the winning or losing team. So one day the Yankees were playing the Milwaukee Brewers, and Lester's imaginative was: MILWAUKEE WISCS YANKS. Lester finally did retire not long after that, and I eventually got kicked out of the sports department and wound up on the suburban copy desk, but that's another story.

   There are some more tips and tricks for writing headlines. I'll get to those in a future post. Now excuse me while I answer the door.

Knock knock
Who's there?
Lysimachia who?
Lysimachia vote Democratic in November