John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and random topics. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. The original site,, at, and now at

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Snowbound still, with a side of spleen

Get me out of here: I am discontinuing the Nopocalypse snow day journal, which has become tediously repetitive. Just say to yourself, “The city has not cleared McIntyre’s street,” once a day until I inform you otherwise.

The progress of imbecility: Scripps Howard, which once pretended to publish newspapers, but allowed the newspaper in its corporate headquarters, The Cincinnati Post, to suffer a morbid decline and death, is now transferring copy editing operations from the Ventura County Star in California and the Redding Record Searchlight and Kitsap Sun in Washington state to — wait for it — Corpus Christi, Texas.

That is, in a climate in which corporate figures in the newspaper industry have been chattering merrily about the importance of local news as their key franchise and their hope for the future, they are increasingly ensuring that decisions about the local news you read in your paper will be made by people who are not even in the same state.

Meanwhile, Newsweek has published an article suggesting that the monkey-see-monkey-do pattern of corporate layoffs ends up harming the companies more than helping them.

Attempted suicide: One cannot, however, overstate the damage that newspapers are doing to themselves with slipshod reporting and writing, such as this, that leaves readers in slack-jawed disbelief that people are paid to write like that:

The nightmare of 9/11 will live forever in our minds and memories.

Fast forward eight years later and last Friday, Sept. 11 is a night the Sun Prairie High School football team, coaching staff and Cardinal fans hope can soon be forgotten. Dealt a 22-0 halftime deficit by Madison Memorial in a Big Eight Conference football game at Ashley Field, the Cardinals made an inspiring comeback in the second half but never fully recovered, falling to the Spartans, 22-14.

You Don’t Say will consider nominations for even more egregious prose, while piously hoping that no worse can possibly exist.

It was ever so: Brendan Wolfe, who is working on a book on Bix Beiderbecke, has written to say:

[T]he only newspaper interview he gave in his lifetime, published by his hometown newspaper on Feb. 10, 1929 -- was almost completely plagiarized. The main source was an NEA Service wire story published five months earlier. The 1929 article was unsigned.

I'm curious to know if such plagiarism was common then or viewed any differently from how it is today. I'm also curious to know what significance bylines had in those days. The story appeared on the front of the arts section. Of the several stories on that page, only one had a byline.

Unfortunately, plagiarism has been endemic to journalism from its beginning. Newspapers in the eighteenth and nineteenth century regularly reprinted articles from one another without credit. The nineteenth century was also notable for the pirating of books, in the absence of international copyright law.

The development of industry-wide standards of ethics, as opposed to the dictates of individual proprietors, is a late-twentieth-century phenomenon, associated with the rise and proliferation of journalism schools and professional organizations. That these efforts have been somewhat less than successful is seen in the regular explosion of plagiarism scandals among both the mighty and the petty. Consulting Craig Silverman’s annual roundups of plagiarism and fabrication (2009’s is here) will offer melancholy proof.

In an age when undergraduates beyond number think that copying and pasting from the Internet constitutes writing, this should not come as a shock.

Bylines were not routinely awarded to reporters for much of the history of newspapers. They were conferred as a mark of particular achievement. Over the pasty thirty or forty years, however, they have become routine, so much so that a reporter can expect, and get, a byline for rewriting, or perhaps merely transcribing a press release. Think Gresham’s law.

I took a sardonic amusement on the copy desk whenever a story came over with the names of a dozen reporters to be appended in a “shirttail” as contributors to the heroic effort, because I knew that in order to get the names in — the most important element of the story — the copy desk would have to excise the information the contributors supplied.

Are we to be spared nothing? Oh God, now the Olympics.


  1. The Courier-Journal has been the copy editing and design "hub" for Asheville, N.C., and Greenville, S.C., since October. It did not extend to the sports departments of any of the three papers, for now at least, so I have not yet had to learn the mascots of even more high schools.

  2. "Of the several stories on that page, only one had a byline."

    John, isn't it conventional for a writer to get only one byline per issue? In my dabbling with an actual, albeit small, newspaper (two reviews of plays, a weekend doing obits — which was essentially taking dictation — and several seasons covering high school football), I seem to recall that each contributor got only one byline.

    Under that system, the same person might have written all of the articles on that page, but would have gotten a byline on only the most significant.

    I haven't paid close attention to whether papers universally enforce this, but given the nature of reporting — a good story requires a fair amount of background work; others are, as you point out, basically rewrites of submitted information — I would guess that it would be rare that a writer for a daily would have more than one byline-worthy contribution per issue.

    For example, on the sports desk, your story about a game you attended would get a byline, but any story you produced from secondhand information would not.

  3. I never noticed a rule limiting a reporter to one byline an issue. One Sunday, at the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, I had bylines on the covers of the front, local, food and business sections. Only one of my stories was written the day before. If any of them had run without a byline, I would have screamed for an hour, in the worthy tradition of wronged reporters everywhere. Of course the wrong of not getting a byline is infinitely minute compared with today's mass and undeserved layoffs.

    I noticed that the sports writer asked readers to "fast forward eight years later...." That's as opposed to fast forwarding eight years earlier.

  4. You are not required to watch the Olympics. Get over it.