John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Saturday, August 15, 2009

I wasn't at Woodstock

Few things in journalism bear as strong a sense of inevitability as the anniversary story. Point a writer to an event, ten, twenty, twenty-five, thirty, forty, or fifty years in the past, and you can lay out the page before the text is in hand — none of those messy contingencies with stories that don’t pan out.

No doubt such articles appeal to a “Hey, I remember that” nostalgia among readers, especially my fellows in the boomer generation, our waistlines expanding as our hairlines recede, as we struggle to see through our trifocals to the golden haze of youth.

But the real reason for the proliferation of anniversary stories is that they are easy.

Very little real reporting is involved; much of the information can be retrieved readily from the archive — rather like the partially masticated rodent tissue that owls deposit in the beaks of their young. Beyond that it is only necessary to round up a few people with a peripheral connection to the event and record their incisive comments: “Like, it was heavy, man.” And because our visual age demands images with stories, the photo archive is just sitting there to be exploited. Nothing could be easier.

I was at The Cincinnati Enquirer for the fifth-anniversary commemoration of the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire.* The most notable contribution to the literature of anniversaries that year came from one of the suburban papers, which published a first-person account by a reporter who had been in the club when the fire broke out. This “I was there” article recounted how he got out of the building, was told by a police officer to clear out, and got in his car and drove away, listening to the sirens of the approaching fire trucks as he left.

Yes, a newspaper reporter — a newspaper reporter — left the scene of the biggest story of the decade. Then he wrote about leaving the scene with witness-to-history pride. And his newspaper put this account on the front page. Thus does American journalism honor its own.

So when you round up a couple of people whose feebly firing synapses produce some half-coherent account of what went on in the mud at Max Yasgur’s farm in 1969, make the most of it. But I wasn’t there then; I’m not much interested now.

*The fire on May 28, 1977, in Southgate, Kentucky, just across the river from Cincinnati, killed 165 people. (You can read The Enquirer’s twenty-year commemoration here.) It was a touchy subject at The Enquirer, because the Courier-Journal of Louisville won a Pulitzer Prize for covering this story in The Enquirer’s back yard. The Enquirer attempted to compensate by producing an interminable series on aluminum wiring, which was determined to be the cause of the fire. This series was undoubtedly submitted to the Pulitzer judges, who promptly rolled over and went back to sleep, but it did produce a bon mot from a copy desk colleague: “This is the only paper I’ve ever worked for that had a wire editor and an aluminum wire editor.”


  1. "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution."

    Emma Goldman 1869-1940

    Dance with me, Emma!

    Tom Degan 1958-

  2. One of my co-workers said he worked at a paper that ran a story about a guy who ALMOST went to Woodstock during one of the anniversaries.

    And I must admit that being born 18 years after Woodstock makes the stories even more boring to edit. Not to mention the mental images of your parents that come up in the process.

  3. "But the real reason for the proliferation of anniversary stories is that they are easy." The other real reason is that editors love them, assign them, require them
    (real reason number three) readers love them, too.

    But your contention that they are "easy" flies in the face of the huge dust-up over the badly researched, poorly written, and unedited Walter Cronkite obit in the NYT a while back. Granted, it wasn't an anniversary story, but it was largely drawn from history, living memory, the archives, and from people's memoirs. Everybody all along the line dropped the ball on that story and because people assumed it'd be a "no brainer." And that's exactly what they applied to the copy--no brains.

  4. There's no inherent inconsistency between the ease of producing a story with little or no original reporting and the sloppiness of its execution.

  5. Re: Woodstock--
    For those who get it, no explanation is necessary; for those who don't get it, no explanation is possible.

  6. Three couples gathered around the pool yesterday with Brian Setzer's band swinging in the background.

    One of the guys, all in their mid-fifties, two former guitarists and the other a former drummer, couldn't resist reminiscing.

    "Would you have gone to Woodstock," he asked the others.

    "I was working with a band at the time and the weekend was booked. I couldn't have afforded to lose the job," answered one. "Besides, I don't think I heard about it until it was over."

    "I was running the coffee house that summer," I replied.

    "I think i would have liked to have gone," the original question said, closing the reminisces.

    "I saw a story on the news that said they have made a movie about it; a behind the scenes look," offered a wife.

    "The pool is open everyday next but Wednesday this coming week," declared the homer-owner wife.

    And that ended tales of Woodstock memories for this group.

  7. Yo, Anonymous!

    Keep an eye out.

    The Bikers might be coming for their slogan. They are protective of their corner on the "inarticulate market".

  8. Patricia the TerseAugust 17, 2009 at 4:39 PM

    Enough, media, about Woodstock. I'm surprised at how so many people seem compelled to have opinions about it, as if it were the Second Coming.I had no interest in it at the time, and I have no interest in it now.Quite apart from the noise it generated, the wardrobes were - and remain - just too tacky.