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, November 28, 2009

Not news

Though no foe of innocent amusement — speculate as you will about the private life of Tiger Woods — it wearies me to see how much text in print and online is taken up with subjects that are not news and cannot convincingly be made to look like news. Some examples, to which you may feel at liberty to add your own:

Item: Phillip Blanchard, testiest of the Testy Copy Editors, advises us, as he does (futilely) every year, to pay no attention to the “Person of the Year” hoo-hah from Time: “Please remember that ‘Person of the Year’ is a magazine promotion, and as such is not news.”

Item: Time is also running an article calling the current decade the “decade from hell.” No doubt the 1960s, with the assassinations and riots; or the 1940s, with the Second World War, or the 1930s, with a worldwide depression and the rise of facism, pale in comparison with, say, “the record number of corporate bankruptcies, many of them household names: Kmart, United Airlines, Circuit City, Lehman Brothers, GM and Chrysler.” Sometimes a writer should just breathe into a paper bag until he calms down.

Item: Though Nicole Stockdale of the Dallas Morning News pointed out several years ago that “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving, is not the biggest shopping day of the season, journalists continue to copy and paste that phrase.

That journalists should be writing about Black Friday at all is suspect. Yes, some people make it a ritual to rise well before dawn to stand in line in parking lots to get the first shot at brummagem merchandise.* And yes, newspapers are solicitous of their advertisers, who are cowering in fear that this season’s shopping will be so feeble that they will go under. But really, when a mob tramples someone to death to get at the mark-downs, that is news; that people shop a lot in November and December is not.

Item: When a couple of gate-crashers elbow their way to the side of the president of the United States, that is a security item, and news. Going into the details that they aspire to participate in yet another tacky reality show winds up giving tacky reality shows free advertising that they do not appear to need.

Item: Did the journalism outlet(s) you follow run something about the president’s “pardoning” the Thanksgiving turkey? Do you wonder if something important was omitted to make room for that?

Item: On the first, fifth, tenth, or twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of a child, soldier, or other young adult by accident, disease, or homicide, it is not news that the family continues to mourn the loss. In fact, nearly any article about the anniversary of an event will be little more than a copy-and-paste job from the files, running because it was an easy way to fill up space.

Item: Any story about the weather that mainly informs you that it gets hot in the summertime and cold in the winter. If you can find out the same information by opening the front door, you don’t need a journalist to tell you about it.

Point to ponder: I invite you, as you consider these articles and others like them, to pose a question once memorably uttered by Ursula Liu, a former Sun colleague: “Do I have a tattoo on my forehead that says, ‘Waste my time’?”

*You don’t know brummagem? The adjective means cheap, showy, and possibly counterfeit. The word is a dialect version of Birmingham, the English city once known for the counterfeit coins and plated goods manufactured there. (Thank you, New Oxford American Dictionary.)


  1. Every evening when I watch the local news on TV (and why do I watch it?), I have to remark, "This is not news. It's advice!" Don't stick your finger in the light socket, don't strangle in the blind cords, don't forget your hat in the snow, etc, etc, etc.

  2. You know, for a couple of years, we had mostly purged reporting of that false Black Friday is the biggest day of the year crap. But it has returned and seems stronger than ever this year. Wishful thinking, rather than actual reporting, I suppose.
    PS: This won't allow me to use a real account.

  3. Thanks to "fev," I am reminded to add images of divine beings that manifest themselves on foodstuffs, walls, household implements, and the like:

  4. I'm not sure how many layoffs Time has had, but perhaps the "decade from hell" nonsense isn't quite their fault: If the younger people are the only ones left, surely this is the worst decade they've seen (and this is coming from a 20-something).

    Through no fault of my own, my memory starts in the '80s, but even those years are fuzzy. So from where I sit, this indeed is the worst decade since the '90s.

  5. Take care, though, because Brummagem is still a name for the city and its people and their dialect. Cheap and showy they ain't.

  6. Item: you can still count on the copy desk for indefatigable negativism. There is plenty of good journalism out there, even if there are fewer people producing it.

  7. Another "tacky" reality show? Is there another kind?

  8. I once worked for a major online news operation where people got hysterical over slideshows, because they drew a lot of traffic. I hated most of them, but the worst one of all was: Celebrities Who Wear Pink, which consisted entirely of celebreties who wore pink, with no other purpose than that.

  9. A story isn't news if it is based on a tip from the publisher's barber.

    A story isn't news if it cannot be summarized. Put another way, a story isn't news if it takes 80 inches to tell.

    A story isn't news if the reporter dozes off while typing it.

    My cat chases the cursor on the computer screen. Maybe not the lead story, but still, in its own way, news.

    A story probably is news if someone doesn't want it told.

    In my youth I would holler out the headlines in the morning paper. Good headlines on real news stories could be hollered without sounding silly. Other heds were best whispered. "Read all about it! Council mulls seating rearrangement."

  10. Picky: As a scion of that city myself, and lately returned to more civilised surroundings from a visit there, I can assure you that the description is accurate. Though I prefer the word 'tawdry'.

  11. "So from where I sit, this indeed is the worst decade since the '90s."

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is the ONLY decade since the '90s.

  12. Copy editors don't determine what is/isn't "news." Editors do. Copy editors edit copy for grammar and good writing, write headlines and help lay out pages.

  13. Let me guess, Anonymous: You've never worked on a copy desk? And perhaps not at any publication that had a serious copy desk?