THE MORGUE IS DEAD
My grandmother called the refrigerator an icebox, sometimes a Frigidaire, but, by any name, I knew what she meant. Just as, even in the hi-fi age, how could it not register that a Victrola was a record player? (Now note that according to my spell-check, Victrola not only warrants a warning underscore but a polite suggestion that what I really mean is Victoria.)
So, feeling naughty—or was it just feeling my age?—one recent Saturday I decided to see how a Staples sales clerk might react to my requests for two, er, staples of my middle- and high-school journalism career (granted, it was more than four decades ago): ditto sheets and Selectric ribbons. I might as well have requested spats. True, technology has advanced—though what e-mail can compare to the satisfying, faintly alcohol scent of freshly dittoed paper?—but from the sales kid’s bewildered look and grudging advice that I try the aisle with the Magic Markers, I see that, when it comes to modern publishing, we have lost much more than just olfactory sensations in our rush to rush.
We’ve lost our history.
Nowhere is this more woefully felt than in newspaper publishing, for which obits (that’s newspaper lingo for obituaries) have been a Web editorial staple for what seems the past decade. For as papers across the nation fold, or, when spared, go exclusively online, the colorful traditions and the jargon of the ink-stained wretch go with them.
Yet before we surrender entirely to tweets and texts and other terms that tend to be invented every day, let us (note the editorial we, another throwback) pay tribute to a handful of the common terms one expected to hear in the buzzing newsrooms of, say, The Front Page, Citizen Kane, and every newspaper in America—and taught, I might add, in Mrs. Martha Schneidewind’s journalism class at West Covina High, California, circa 1968.
The facilities at the New York Post, where I started as an entertainment writer in the ’70s, reminded me of Rochester’s joke about his boss Jack Benny’s typewriter: rather than buy a new ribbon, he kept making the houseman dip the old one into grape juice. And while our Royales and Remingtons on South Street should have been relegated to the scrap heap a good decade or two before I ever arrived (in the ’80s they were replaced by bulky computers that displayed orange type on green screens), they did help us produce our “copy”: double-spaced pages (takes) on 8-by-11 sheets of newsprint that, after being folded in half in the middle, were delivered to an editor before he sent it upstairs to be set in hot type (every letter made from molten lead, though bunched into words and even phrases). The actual pencil used by the editor was black and very soft-leaded – the better to slash through copy—and I cannot honestly recall his ever having used a blue one. Still, to blue-pencil something means to edit it.
Today I work as an online editor for the largest communications company in the world, with colleagues who for the most part are much younger than I. (Eighty-six “for the most part.”) As the elder statesman, I was asked by one of them a few years ago (pre-Google, though Yahoo was a popular search engine then), “Richard Nixon—alive or dead?” So I asked her, “Do you know what a morgue is?” Her answer, of course, showed that she was no stranger to Law & Order but had had nothing to do with the repository for all former stories and photographs, even all past editions. A morgue is a newspaper’s library—or was, at least, since these were often the first items to go when the number-crunchers came chomping in.
Stop the presses
Necessitated by a major update (a new break) or more important story for page one, or perhaps a story that had to be killed after not being properly spiked en route to publication. Nothing was more dramatic than interrupting a press run. A new edition would then be put to bed—that is, signed off on and headed to press. Today, we simply hit republish.
Nothing to do with disease. Before the days of logging on, this was the newsboy, usually on a bicycle, who delivered the daily paper to subscribers. They also stood on street corners of major cities, hawking the latest editions or, even better, the extras (“Read all about it!”), when the news couldn’t hold until the next regular edition. All this took place back when newspapers served as the public’s major source of information. (That slice of info should have gone further up in this article. In other words, I buried the lead, also spelled lede—the beginning of a story. I also could have tucked it into the nut graf, the paragraph in a feature that explains the news value of a story.)
The wood, the ear, the dummy
The wood was the main, page-one headline, considered a banner if it stretches across the entire width of the page. The best-guess scenario for how the wood got its name is that it harks back to the days when the largest letters on the printing press were carved out of wood, which somehow brings to mind those Wanted: Dead or Alive posters in the Old West. This would generally appear under the ears—the space reserved at the top of the front page on either side of the paper’s name and logo to accommodate the weather, an index to pages, the heralding of a special story, or sometimes ads. It might contain a dingbat, some sort of ornamentation (a term that has survived into computer font terminology). The arrangement of the page would first appear on the dummy, which is the preliminary layout, as determined by the budget, or lineup of news stories scheduled for the day’s editions. A dummy also allowed editors to spot bumped heads, that is, headlines running adjacent to one another that might trick the reader’s eye into seeing one long headline instead of two. And the margin between the pages where the fold is found? The gutter.
Sometimes alternated with the less satisfying # # #, -30-, set off before and after by dashes (don’t call them hyphens), signified, “That’s all, folks!” or, The End. Every newspaperperson lived to reach the term; it’s only how it got to be in the last place in the first place that has long been open to debate. A terrific essay by Hadass Kogan in the American Journalism Review didn’t quite solve the puzzle but came up with some wonderful theories as to the symbol’s origin, from the -30- used in Morse code to signify the end of a message to the translation of the Roman numerals XXX. It also cited a New York Times story that went to print (another phrase we’ve lost) stating that a trial was to begin on February 30—a date, don’t forget, that never exists.
A later correction read: “The error occurred when an editor saw the symbol ‘-30-‘ typed at the bottom of the reporter’s article and combined it with the last word, ‘February.'”
See what happens when you don’t know your history?