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Come over to the dark side

Were it not for gallows humor, we’d have no morale at all.

Yesterday’s post offered a window into the sensibility of the copy desk. Humor on the copy desk is usually dark and ironic. Like the humor in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H and the adulterated humor of the television series based on the film, it is not for civilians.

There was a woman employed in The Sun’s human resources department who had, I suppose, a sense of humor. She was observed laughing with other people. But when met with the kind of ironic tone in which copy desk discourse is marinated, she looked as mildly bemused as Margaret Dumont to Groucho Marx’s zingers.

Take an example from my days at The Cincinnati Enquirer. A colleague lived on a street that motorcyclists used as a racetrack in the evenings. We reached a point at which, when a story about a motorcycle fatality arrived on the desk, usually involving someone without a helmet, we would nod formally to each other, and one of us would intone, “The Darwinian process continues.”

Or at my current job, where I am known as the Death Slot because so many prominent figures have climbed that golden staircase on nights when I was working the desk.

Or the remarks, best not repeated here, about a president of the United States, a White House intern, and a certain blue dress — which might come as a surprise to those entertaining the lurid fantasy that everyone at The Sun is on Stalin’s payroll.

As I said, not for civilian consumption.

You have to consider the circumstances, which, I discovered in many late-night conversations with colleagues from across the country in the American Copy Editors Society, are duplicated in newspapers across this great broad land of ours. First, copy editors experience the easygoing scorn of many reporters. (Think of reporters as the football team and copy editors as the marching band, and you will have twigged to the hierarchical scorn.) Second, whatever it is that copy editors do occurs anonymously and late in the evening, a time when the upper-level editors of newspapers are entirely without a clue about how their newspapers are actually produced. (It’s a mystery to the reporting staff as well, and they show no interest in being inducted.)

The result is a paradox. The copy desk, which actually functions more like a team than any other unit in the newsroom — otherwise, no newspaper would be produced — is allergic to management cant about teamwork. Still and all, they’re a murmuring but steady bunch who have constructed an esprit de corps out of unpromising materials.

Now comes the point at which I should repeat that just about all I know about these attitudes comes from what I have heard from people who work at other newspapers.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:46 AM | | Comments (5)


In Worcester, I worked with I great guy named Dick Haynes, who had a booming, authoritative voice that embodied the “old school” copy desk atmosphere. Whenever he got the first news of a famous person's death, he would just shout out the decedent's name, like “FRANK SINATRA!” There would be a stunned silence until some newbie would meekly ask, “Um, what about Sinatra?” Upon which, Dick would complete the announcement: “HE WON'T BE COMING DOWN FOR BREAKFAST!”

Thank you, John, for not revealing the vile practice of copy desks other than The Sun's bitterly wagering during holiday worknights on highway death tolls.


As always, feel free to edit.

These journalistic reminiscences remind me of Charlie Stough's "BONG Bull" newsletter. It was a regular feature in my inbox, but now it has grown intermittent due to Charlie's ill health. The back issues are worth browsing.

Of course you all aren't on Stalin's payroll. It is well known that Stalin had no sense of humor. (Unless you consider his sniggering while his henchman slaughtered hither and thither an indication of Communist humor.) It's the reporters and editorial staff who are on the lefty payroll. Get it straight!.

“The Darwinian process continues” -- we just use "culling the herd." (Takes up half the space.)

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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