Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Our vanishing heritage

You asked for it: some terms — hardly an exhaustive list — retrieved from newspaper lingo before these endangered print artifacts vanish like the passenger pigeon and the copy editor.

above the fold (adj. or adv.) A broadsheet paper, like The Baltimore Sun, as distinguished from the tabloid New York Daily News, is folded in half for display. The top half of the page, above the fold, is held to be the most important real estate in the paper. A reporter’s ambition is to get an article on the front page; a reporter’s supreme ambition is to get that article above the fold.

bang out
(v.) A composing room (cf.) ritual in which an employee leaving the premises for the last time is commemorating by the pounding of pica poles (cf.) against metal surfaces in a commemorative clamor.

breaking news (n.) Unanticipated events developing during the publication cycle, requiring updates and occasionally wholesale revision of pages. Breaking news is conventionally greeted by profane expressions on the news desk, city desk, or copy desk.

budget (n.) also BJT The daily budget, or list of pending articles, either completed or imagined, typically discussed at an afternoon news meeting at which preliminary decisions about what is to go on the front page are made.

bulldog (n.) An early edition. The Baltimore Sun continues to produce a bulldog edition of the Sunday paper that appears Saturday morning. In a 60 Minutes episode in the early 1980s, Andy Rooney, then merely a spry sexagenarian, displayed a copy of the Sunday Cincinnati Enquirer and proceeded to discard all the advertising inserts and classified sections (“I already have job”), leaving a thin set of news sections. But the buy of The Sun’s bulldog edition performs the Rooney Shuck in reverse, discarding the thin news sections to retrieve the advertising inserts, the comics, the TV book, etc.

buried lede (n.) The central element of an article mistakenly appearing deep in the text. It must be disinterred.

burn off (v.) to dispose of articles that have previously been rejected for the front page or section front by running them on a day of low circulation. Look at your Monday paper.

byline (n.) The reporter’s name at the tip of an article; the most important component of an article.

chaser (n.) A page or set of pages typeset after the formal edition close to attempt to get breaking news (cf.) into the paper.

cold type (n.) Headlines and text produced on photographic paper and pasted up (cf.) in a composing room. Increasingly supplanted by electronic transmission of pages directly to a printing plant, where the pages emerge as metal plates to go on the printing press.

composing room (n.) The place in which printers, now vanished, once assembled pages in hot type or cold type.

copy editor (n.) An anonymous drudge who attempts, against great odds, to correct the many faults of writers before publication. Extinction imminent. (Cf. slot editor.)

CQ (abbrev.) An indication that the name or term so noted has been checked and verified. Copy editors, whose suspicions are well founded, often suspect that reporters use CQ to indicate “better check this.”

1st-lede writethru (n.) The first update of a developing wire service (cf.) article. Subsequent updates will be labeled 2nd-lede, 3rd-lede, etc.

goat-choker (n.) An article of inordinate and suffocating length, produced to gratify the vanity of the author and the aspirations of the publication. (Cf. Pulitzer-Prize-winner.)

graf (n.) Paragraph.

grip-and-grin (n.) A photograph of no inherent interest in which a notable and an obscure person shake hands at an occasion of supposed significance.

hed (n.) A headline, giving rise to the abbreviation HTK, for head to come, an article transmitted in a take or takes before it is in final form.

hot type (n.) Metal type generated on a Linotype machine. Archaic. (Cf. cold type.)

house ad (n.) An unpaid advertisement put on a page to fill a gap left by an lack of paid advertising. Often a promotional ad for the publication.

jumpline (n.) A line indicating a continuation, or jump, of an article on a subsequent page. Though readership surveys for generations have indicated that readers despise jumps and generally do not follow them, it does not suit newspapers to do otherwise.

lede (n.) The phonetic spelling of lead, the beginning, usually the first paragraph, of an article, so spelled as to indicate the specialized meaning rather than the common meaning to a Linotype operator.

Linotype (n.) A machine for the mechanical setting of type, the brainchild of Ottmar Merganthaler of Baltimore, to whom all praise be given. The Linotype operator used hot metal, melted lead, to create slugs (cf.) of type by manipulating a keyboard.

lobster shift (n.) Also lobster trick. The third shift on a daily newspaper, between midnight and 8 a.m.

nut graf (n.) The paragraph — if it exists — that explains the central point of an article, typically following a labored and self-indulgent introductory sequence of paragraphs.

pica pole (n.) A metal ruler used by printers in the composing room to measure type by picas (12 points to the pica, six picas to the inch). The pica pole is pounded against a metal surface in the ritual of banging out (cf.) an employee leaving the premises for the last time.

Pulitzer Prize (n.) The annual prizes in journalism, established by Joseph Pulitzer and administrated by Columbia University, to celebrate excellence in journalism and other categories; the Valhalla of the newspaper reporter.

off the floor (adj.) When a page has been completed and removed from the composing room (cf.), it is said to be off the floor. When an entire edition is off the floor, it is said to have been put to bed.

pasteup (n.) The assemblage of pages by pasting type onto page mockups, which are then photographed to be made into metal plates for the printing press.

Pulitzer-Prize-winner (n.) An article of surpassing artistry or investigative virtuosity, usually of considerable length (Cf. goat-choker), written for Pulitzer jurors rather than the readership of the publication, despite the unlikelihood that the former group will have read it in its entirety before bestowing the laurels.

reader (n.) An article devoid of immediate news interest that will supposedly be of interest to the readership.

refer (not reefer) (n.) A short summary attached to an article indicated a related story elsewhere in the publication.

rim editor (n.) A copy editor, a nonentity.

slot editor (n.) On a copy desk, the copy editor who checks and corrects the copy of other copy editors before approving it for publication. The term arises from the obsolete furniture of the newsroom, where once a horseshoe-shaped desk enabled the slot editor to hand out paper copy to the copy editors on the rim, the outside of the horseshoe. To slot (v.) is to check an article that has been copy edited before approving it for typesetting.

slug (n.) A line of type set in metal on a Linotype machine (cf.). Also the one-word working title of an article as it moves through production. SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) is a familiar slug for an article about a Supreme Court decision.

spadia (n.) An annoying flap of advertising copy that wraps around a portion of the front page of a section, preventing the reader from seeing the full page.

spike (n.) The spindle on which paper copy that was not to run was impaled, giving rise to the verb to spike, to kill a story.

stet (v., from the Latin) Let it stand; let the original copy go as written. The hardest word for a copy editor to use.

take (n.) A section of an article. An article that is transmitted to the copy desk or the composing room as it is being written is sent in takes.

telegraph section (n.) At The Baltimore Sun, the A section, in which national and foreign news was acquired by telegraph in the remote past. The copy was edited on the telegraph desk, a component of the copy desk.

thirty (-30-) A numeral indicating the conclusion of a take (cf.) of copy. Extended metaphorically to the verb form to write 30, i.e., to conclude a career.

tombstoning In page layout, to put articles side by side so that the headlines are adjacent. The phenomenon is also referred to as bumping heads.

tick-tock (n.) A step-by-step account of how a particular event or phenomenon developed.

wire service (also the wire) (n.) The Associated Press or other news service whose dispatches are transmitted electronically to the publication.


  1. "the fold" and likely some of these other terms are (re)used in web page design

  2. You neglected to point out a pica pole's main function, as the world's finest back-scratcher.

  3. Fly specks:

    "The pica pole is punded against a metal surface..."

    "SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) is a familiar slud for an article'...

  4. I want be the first person who aspires to win a "Pulizer" Prize!

  5. Love the phrase "goat-choker" -- I once had a boss who called such stories "thumb-suckers." And I never knew that "spadia" was the name for that particular annoyance.

  6. A thumb-sucker, as I understand it, is a personal-opinion piece, in which the reporter consults his thumb to discover What Really Matters Today. They often appear labeled "News Analysis", a term which properly refers to an evidence-based summary of the background and implications of a story. Thumb-suckers are generally goat-chokers (a term new to me), but certainly not necessarily vice versa.

  7. I'm not sure I understand "spadia". Would you mind elaborating on that some more?

  8. From the Double-Tongued dictionary:

    spadia n. a page wrapped around the spine of a periodical or one of its sections so as to appear as a narrow flap or partial page. Also spadea.

  9. Don't forget the gatefold, proportion wheel and LAYOUT editor.

  10. WX. CX. And what's the one for legislature? Ah, the proportion wheel. Dummy sheets.

  11. Re cold type: When I was a reporter, 20+ years ago, another reporter asked me to explain "coal type." That's how he spelled it. He had some idea that the term referred to how the power that ran the presses was generated.

  12. This is great. I learned copy editing the same way I learned sailing -- by being in the presence of others who were doing it. Hence, I never learned much of the correct terminology for either pursuit. I had several aha! moments while reading this post.

  13. For a while I was an ink-stained wretch . . . a copy editor who handled hot type and found it messy.

    If I had read in college that a rim editor was a non-entity, it might have changed my career for the better.

  14. Terrific terms. Another is "tar baby." That's a story that a reporter starts but somehow can neither finish nor drop. He's invested too much effort to quit, but the complete story seems to lie just beyond his grasp. He regrets ever being born. The story has potential.

  15. The Women's Pages!

  16. OMG. How could we have missed this one? The DEADLINE!

  17. Thank you. Thank you thank you thank you.


  18. For the uninitiated, a proportion wheel (mentioned above) is useful when you have a printed photo in hand that is, say, 32 picas wide and that will run 45 picas wide. Line the numbers in the wheel's concentric circles up properly, and it'll give you the depth, which you can then draw on your - here's another term for your glossary, John - paper page dummy.

    I still use my proportion wheel and pica pole every day. As we say, sometimes facetiously, about a great many things at my paper, pagination will fix that.

  19. I remembered: XGR

  20. I always like the term "widow" as in, a very short line of type, and the expression "Kill the widows" (eliminate the widows in a paragraph) makes me smile.

  21. At the paper where I worked full time for many years, our term for a "chaser" was a "catchplate." I suspect that the folks at the paper still use that term, but I don't know whether any other papers use it.

  22. In printing generally, a widow is the last line of a paragraph that appears at the very top of a page, and an orphan is the first line of a paragraph that appears at the very bottom of a page. Both are considered faults in typography, and automated layout systems have "widow and orphan control" to prevent them by inserting judicious amounts of extra leading between the lines.

  23. A mnemonic device to remember the difference between widows and orphans: You look UP to look out the WINDOW at widow. You look DOWN at the little orphan child. Widows = UP. Orphans = DOWN.
    Yeah, I know: Charles Dickens.

  24. Working on the South Wales Echo in Cardiff in the 1980s, we used to have a 'copy boy' - a guy who used to sit by the Press Association printer and alert the chief sub whenever there was a relevant bit of breaking news.

    Some others:

    Chapel (n.) Local group of journalists' or printers' union members, headed by a father or mother of the chapel (FoC/MoC).

    Copytaker (n.) Secretary who would type out copy dictated by rural reporters, usually adding in her own hilarious misspellings to amuse the subs.

    WOB (abbrev.) White on black text, usually a headline. Considered very daring on traditional newspapers.

  25. "Oh, 'copy boy' -- a clone!" -- Mork from Ork

  26. I still have my proportion wheel, pica pole and that little wheel thing that fixes waxed copy to the page. Can't quite seem to throw them out, although the pica pole is very handy when I move and want to make a grid of the new house to ascertain where large items will fit.

  27. The "nameplate" is often confused with the "masthead," at least in the public's usage.

  28. And now:
    "The Boca."
    A hold to the front short story.
    "The Boca Jump."
    A hold to the front short story with a refer to more of the story inside the paper.
    Origin: The Boca Raton News, from a time period when it was owned by Knight Ridder and became a laboratory for experimenting with ideas gleaned from reader research groups. The paper eliminated "jumps," and other papers took some of its design features, including the short story called "the Boca."
    The paper ceased publication on Aug. 21, 2009.

  29. Nothing new about "the Boca." When I first worked at The Cincinnati Enquirer in 1980, the paper had a firm no-jumps policy. when we got an interminable New York Times story, we put ten or so inches on the cover and converted the rest into a sidebar on the inside.

  30. "Chapel" goes back to fifteenth-century England, when William Caxton was printing in Westminster Abbey.

  31. Hi John,

    I'm a reporter with the UK-based journalism and media news website

    We have started a wiki-glossary of media terms - would you mind if I added your list (linking to this post of course)?

    Let me know - laura [at]



  32. How about a definition of rewrite? I was rewrite for years in NYC and there was much truth to "The Front Page" wit: Rewrite: Archaic division of labor in which writers take information from reporters over the phone and craft it into a story.

    Also, I believe working lobster was called that for a reason: they were always sunburned from being outside all day long.

  33. "Wild art:" a photo unaccompanied by a story.

  34. Will "above the fold" mean anything after newspapers fold?

    For print newspapers, we can say and do say and everyone knows, as least those who work in the news business know, exactly what the term "above the fold" means. Of course, a lot of younger people might not know what that term means today, since they hardly ever read a print newspaper. And many general readers might not really know the meaning of the term, since it's mostly a newsroom term.

    Here's my question: In this Internet Age, and if print newswpaper really do disappear in 50 years or so, as some predict, will people on the year 2025 or 2050 ever know what ABOVE THE FOLD means anymore?

    And: is there an equivalent term for ABOVE THE FOLD when reading (er, "screening") on a computer or Kindle screen news site? How to say ABOVE THE FOLD in Internetese?


    After doing a bit of doodling, er, googling, I found out:

    [This term -- ABOVE THE FOLD in newspaperese -- has been extended and used in web development to refer the portions of a webpage that can be visible without scrolling. However, some have suggested that this term is inaccurate as screen sizes vary greatly between users, especially in an era where websites are viewed with mobile devices as much as home computers.] says WIKI

    [Some web marketers have called this above the scroll or "above the crease", referring to the way in which newspapers are folded and creased.] says WIKI

  35. Dog watch - pulling the weekend reporting stint solo - it happened, you covered it.

  36. A few US/UK differences

    copy-editor = sub-editor or sub

    rim = down-table sub

    slot = chief sub

    graf = par

    lede = intro

    (the "lead" is the main story on the page)

    hed = head

  37. What are the double dot and the e-dot, please?

  38. I didn't see mention of "double truck" - meaning the two facing pages in the middle of a newspaper section that is all one piece of paper. Or a "Scottsh Double Truck". I am sure some Scots would be offended, but it refers to a tabloid sized "Double Truck". A wee bit smaller than the full broadsheet sized double truck.
    Also missing : The Kicker. That refers to a kind of a sub-headline under the regular headline. It is smaller and in itac font giving it the feeling of motion. The original headline might be "Bay Bridge Opens". The kicker would be right below that: "Commuters Amazed At Timing".

    1. I think the Kicker appears *above* the main headline.

  39. brite = a short, "happy news" story

    to strip = to let a story run horizontally across all columns at the top of the page

    bad break = a multi-line headline that breaks infelicitously ("Soviet virgin/lands short of goal" "Disabled fly/to see president")

    mug = a small photo of a person's head

    setrec = (this might have been peculiar to my workplaces). A correction; short for "Setting the Record Straight," its headline.

  40. Some of these terms will survive changes in the technology. We still have harrowing experiences, though few of us have seen a harrow, and we still dial our numbers, though the keypads we use are rectangular.