Greetings to all on 1/1/09. My resolution is the same one every year — Get your shit together — and I suspect I’ll have the same success I had last year. My shit remains scattered all over the place. Why do I do this to myself? I only wish I knew.
But since January 1 is always associated with fresh starts, clean closets and deep cleansing breaths, I thought I might start with the four or five draft entries to NN.C that linger in my WordPress drafts folder. These are abandoned entries, things I started but never finished, or at least never published. A couple of them are obvious; it was plain, once I set it down in prose, that the old Morrises joke that went around my social circle one summer (remember, Borden?) wasn’t funny at all, and really required alcohol to sell, but I never trashed the draft. It might be the only existing account of the Morrises joke! I’ll use it somewhere. Others I’ve already thrown away, because the world already knows how I feel about Mitch Albom, and underlining it isn’t necessary.
But here’s something I’m going to go ahead and copy/paste here. From the embedded link within, it looks like it dates from 2006. It’s about one of my favorite things about newspapers — the little inside jokes that somehow make it into every issue — and since 2009 will probably be the year at least one major U.S. city loses its daily, now’s the time.
So best of luck to all in this new year. (And please, will someone sit down with Dick Clark and have a heart-to-heart with him, before another year passes?) Below, something from the notebook:
When I returned to work following my fancy-schmancy journalism fellowship, only to discover my new assignment would be the 5 a.m. shift on the copy desk, I wasn’t exactly pleased. But — this part is complicated and not interesting to anyone but me — it would do. And honestly? Once I got back to work, to my enormous relief and equally enormous shock, I found I still cared.
I still wanted to do a good job, that is. I still cared that the stories I handled were as good as I could make them. Reporters who wouldn’t check simple facts still bugged me, as did editors who let sloppy prose pass by unmolested. And to some extent I fell victim to Copy Editor’s Disease, in which I became enormously nit-picky.
For example: I edited the movie grid, and for several weeks running, it included “Around the World in 80 Days.” Each title had a one-line description, and its was “A man travels around the world in 80 days.” This drove me insane. I always changed it to, “An adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel.” That there was probably not a single reader who would appreciate or even know about this change bothered me not in the least. It just seemed important, and if you can’t see why, well, you’re not my colleague, buddy.
So, then, you can maybe see why I was so tickled by this Jack Shafer piece in Slate, about the folks at the New York Times who write the one-line descriptions of movies that run in the TV listings. Only they do more than just describe; they’re a micro-mini review, too:
The capsules spend 20 words—and usually fewer—to pass informed judgment on movies. Even if you never intend to watch any of the films, the capsules make for good morning reading. Consider this taut kiss-off of The Matrix Revolutions: “Ferocious machine assault on a battered Zion. Stop frowning, Neo; it’s finally over.” Appreciate, if you will, the efficient setup and slam of the 2 Fast 2 Furious capsule: “Ex-cop and ex-con help sexy customs agent indict money launderer. Two fine performances, both by cars.” And for compression, it’s hard to better the clip for the Julie Davis feature Amy’s Orgasm. It warns potential viewers away with just four syllables: “Change the station.”
Good newspapers are full of stuff like this, little gems inserted by smart people who are frequently working in below-the-radar jobs that the folks who run the place don’t even think about. The Columbus Dispatch’s College Preview column ran in agate and was supposed to be a pretty dull agate-type spacefiller on what the Saturday football schedule had in store, until they turned it over to someone who didn’t do dull agate well. (Actually, several people.) Instead, they gave them art in very small type. Here’s a sample, previewing a Florida-Tennessee matchup:
Jocks in Socks: A tongue twister by Dr. Seussaphone. Jocks. Socks. Blocks. Knoxville. Jocks in socks knock blocks in Knoxville. Which jocks knock whose blocks in Knoxville? Why the Gators of Steve the Fox, sir. Chicks built like bricks come. Hicks in stick shifts come. Chicks come. Hicks come. Chicks and hicks from the sticks come. Vols take licks like sick hicks from sticks. Please, sir, Vols don’t like taking licks in Knoxville. I’m so sorry, says Steve the Fox, but you Vols I vow to knock. Here’s an easy game to play. Here’s an easy win today. Who beats whose butt? Steve beats Vols’ butts. Steve beats Vols and Fulmer’s full butt. Beats Phil’s full butt? To a pulp, sir.
By the time the suits caught on, it had developed a readership.
Content always wins.