Friday, September 22, 2023

The printed word

 I have been a subscriber to The Baltimore Sun, a seven-day-a-week print subscriber, for thirty-seven years, since I began working on its copy desk, and I have begun to wonder what the point is. 

Since The Sun publishes online first, I have already seen its stories the day before, sometimes several days before, they appear in the print edition. And I will also have seen the Associated Press and New York Times articles The Sun picks up as well. So I am essentially paying for a print newspaper to read the "Ask Amy" column and the comic strips. (Yes, they're in the online edition as well, but there is something just wrong about reading a comic strip on an iPad.)

Beyond that, the quality of the print edition, since Alden Global Capital shut down The Sun's printing plant and transferred print production to the Gannett organ in Wilmington, Delaware, has been abysmal. Light inking is the least of the problems. 

The cost, however, has been rising. I believe it was Al Neuharth of Gannett who experienced the illumination that a decline in advertising revenue could be offset by jacking up the circulation prices, since newspaper readers were dependent on their habit. Unfortunately, neither Neuharth nor the other corporate illuminati ever figured out a way to attract new readers, and my generation with the newspaper habit is steadily proceeding to a location to which the circulation department cannot deliver. 

Dammit, I want my morning ritual, in my chair with a cup of strong coffee and my newspaper. The main pleasure that has survived is the grumbling. Tribune eliminated copy editing even before the company was acquired by Alden Global, and the daily procession of subject-verb disagreements, misplaced modifiers, and other offenses against English usage does not pass unremarked on at these premises. There is also a grim satisfaction in noticing when the online text has been incorporated intact without altering references, a clear indication of the lack of an editor's eye on the page. Carp, carp, carp, that's the life. 

I could call circulation to cancel print, converting the savings to bourbon money. But I might just ride it out until one of the sharp-pencil people at Alden Global determines that the cost of print production, even with Gannett, is greater than the mingy returns from print advertising and subscriptions, turning my seven-day-a-week newspaper into a three-day-a-week newspaper, or simply online only. 

In forty years at newspapers I only twice heard an editor call the pressroom to say, "Stop the presses." I think it will be a good deal less than forty until all of them are stopped. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

What he said

 Journalists, ever citing people's speech and documents, are rightfully fond of the word said. It is plain, straightforward, unobtrusive. It gets the job done without resort to the thesaurus and pretension. 

But journalists are unaccountably unwilling to invert subject and verb in these citations. Perhaps they feel the construction arch and dated, something one would find in Gilbert and Sullivan, as one indeed can in one of my favorite passages in Trial by Jury, the judge's recommendation of his daughter in marriage: "You'll soon get used to her looks," said he, / "And a very nice girl you'll find her! / She may very well pass for forty-three / In the dusk, with the light behind her!"

But this aversion can lead to strained and awkward constructions, of a kind I see daily. Here's a synthetic example (so as not to embarrass anyone publicly): "Said suffices," John McIntyre, a retired editor of The Baltimore Sun, said. 

You see the problem. The delay between the subject and the verb creates a suspensive effect, dropping you at the end of the sentence at the prosaic and anticlimactic said. Much better to render it said John McIntyre, a retired editor of The Baltimore Sun. 

That keeps the subject and verb nestled close together, where they are happy, while also maintaining the connection between the noun and the appositive phrase.  

Go, and sin no more. 


Sunday, September 3, 2023

On-the-job learning

 I have allowed a significant date to pass unremarked. On August 17, fifty years ago, I worked my last day at the Flemingsburg Gazette before leaving for graduate school at Syracuse.

Lowell and Jean Denton, the proprietors, had hired me in the summer of 1968, after my junior year in high school, to allow Jean to take the summer off. The six years I worked at the Gazette, a weekly in Fleming County, Kentucky, with about 3,000 circulation, were a practical education, an apprenticeship, in newspaper journalism. 

I attended meetings of the fiscal court (the county council in Kentucky) and interviewed the superintendent of schools about plans for the coming school year. I profiled local worthies. I covered the beautiful baby competition at the Ewing Fair. (I did not determine whether it was accident or design that Mr. Pierce Million, who rented the public address system for the occasion, played a recording of "Born to Lose" as the mothers and babies crossed to the infield.) I Englished the social notes from the outlying communities. I did copy editing and proofreading. I took classified ads over the telephone. On Wednesdays I drove the pasted-up pages to the newspaper in Cynthiana that printed us, drove the printed copies back, helped with the Addressograph, bundled copies for mailing, and delivered the bundles to the post office. On Fridays I swept out the office and dusted the counters. Photography and page makeup were pretty much the only things I didn't do. 

I was reporter, columnist, copy editor, proofreader, clerk, and dogsbody. 

It was grand. Lowell and Jean were generous and indulgent in allowing me to make mistakes and recover from them, and the income from the job was a welcome help with my college expenses. Lowell was the practical partner in the enterprise; he did all the photography and dealt with all the advertisers. Jean was the literary partner, particularly fond of the work of Joan Didion. I was once assigned to profile a worthy and "lay it on thick." I attempted that, and Jean looked at it, told me, "We don't publish satire," and rewrote it herself. 

And I owe them my life's career. When, after abandoning the Ph.D. program in English at Syracuse, I approached The Cincinnati Enquirer for a post on the copy desk, the Flemingsburg Gazette was my only significant journalistic credential. (As an undergraduate and graduate student, I [cough] never took any classes in journalism.)

Lowell and Jean are gone, and I honor their memory, grateful that they were willing to take me, a skinny kid, a bookworm, into their business and allow me to learn it. Yes, I spent six summers at the Gazette, and they became the prelude to forty years in newspaper journalism.