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.

Now the treatment begins

Calm yourself. Help is at hand.

Earlier today this tweet went out from APStylebook on Twitter:

RT @emilynichols: there is little more beautiful than a freshly minted AP Stylebook. 2009! Is it wrong that I want to curl up and read it?

My re-tweet, one of a number of similar responses, simply began: God how sad.

Jason Wilson followed up to inquire:

Is this another sign that it's time to start organizing AP Stylebook interventions? This could be a new career for you.

Indeed it could. The doctor is IN.

The first thing to establish — you civilians can listen in to the session — is that The Associated Press Stylebook is not part of the Pentateuch. It is a handbook on certain conventions of writing, such as capitalization and abbreviation, along with advice on English usage and names of agencies and companies, and other miscellaneous information useful to journalists. It is not of divine origin or inspiration.

As such, it is one handbook among many: The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage; which chooses the opposite of AP usage in nearly every instance; the far more comprehensive Chicago Manual of Style, widely used in book publishing; the manual of the Government Printing Office for the manual productions of the federal government; and specialized handbooks for scientific and medical publications — none of which appear to induce ecstatic states when they publish new editions.

The point of such a stylebook is to establish consistency in practice to spare the reader distraction. So when there are two or more ways to write something — capitalized or lowercased, abbreviated or spelled out, a number written as a numeral or a word — a stylebook arbitrarily chooses one form. The AP Stylebook does not say that other choices are wrong, and some of the things it does say are not even right.

Now that APStylebook is on Twitter, it gleefully spreads such bursts of gush as the one above, to my mystification. The World Almanac is also on Twitter, but its readers don’t tweet that they stayed up all night reading this year’s edition. Perhaps it’s a copy editor phenomenon. Who else, after all, look into the AP Stylebook? (There’s precious little evidence that Associated Press reporters do.) Perhaps only a copy editor could quiver in delight at the prospect of discovering that rip off is preferred as a verb, rip-off as a noun; that heroes is the plural of hero (This is new?); that Pledge of Allegiance is capitalized — all part of the feast spread before the reader of the 2009 edition.

A further part of the excitement on the copy desk is the scope a new edition will give exegetes to convert guidelines into Rules. One example: When I was first at The Sun, my work was checked by a copy editor who was adamant that half a mile had to be changed in all instances to a half-mile, because AP said so. It was years later that Bill Walsh confirmed my suspicion of this dictum by writing in Lapsing into a Comma that no, both expressions are correct, and AP merely means that you have to use a hyphen if you pick the latter.

Now you have the pathology. Here is the treatment. You do not have to surrender your beloved AP Stylebook, which, for good or ill, is embedded as the house style of numerous publications. But the road to health lies in growing beyond it. Buy Brother Walsh’s book. There’s a new edition out of Garner on Usage, which you should find particularly well-informed and helpful. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage will fill many gaps in your education, particularly if your degree is in journalism.

Take a deep, cleansing breath. Get up from the computer and walk to the nearest window. Look out. There is a wider world there than is circumscribed by the AP Stylebook. Try to keep a little perspective.