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Reading is optional

A couple of days ago this exchange was reported in Overheard in the Newsroom:

Reporter 1, complaining about a story she was assigned to write: “I wouldn’t read this story.”

Reporter 2: “Sometimes you need to accept that not all stories are there to be read.”

Reporter 2 has identified a curious circumstance about newspaper publishing. Though the laity may imagine that editors choose to publish articles out of a belief that the audience will find them interesting enough to read, that is not necessarily the case. Other considerations may take precedence.

There is the Broccoli story, published not because it is readable or relevant to the reader, but because it is an Important Story that the reader Ought To Know About.

There is the Story of Record, largely devoid of interest but published because “we have to show that we noticed it.”

There is the Bespoke story, ordered up on a whim by some potentate, such as when an Important Person gets held up in traffic or gets approached by a panhandler and decides, in a staggering illumination, that the paper ought to write something about that. And the impotentates on the staff are charged with delivering it.

There is the Shelf Life story, which has lingered on the budget for days, perhaps weeks, without anyone showing a flicker of interest, until the weekend approaches and someone says, “We’ll burn that one off on Monday.” (Monday is a day when readership is typically low.)

There is the Nine Months Wonder, the major project on which a reporter, or team of reporters, has labored for a protracted time. No matter that the prose of the result is denser than uranium and the point, if it exists, is more difficult to determine than the current location of Judge Joseph Force Crater, if the paper has paid reporters’ wages for x weeks or months on this story, it is, by God, going to see print.

And finally there is the Page Eight story: “We have a hole on Page 8, and we don’t have anything else to put there.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:53 PM | | Comments (6)


Ah, the stories that go into the paper only because there's a hole to fill. Ever day our wire editor makes up a file of "filler briefs," stories about dumb criminals, odd accidents, animals on the loose, interesting but not earth-shaking research, and items from countries that most people couldn't find on a map. There's always one in there guaranteed to make the slot laugh out loud or go "Ew!" Some days the rest of the city gets to see it, some days not.

Supposedly the NYT's "World Index" box was created as a new home for bus-plunge fillers when computerized page layout made them obsolete.

Reminds me of the hoary old tale about a story coming in late to fill a hole in the news pages:

"What's it about?" asks the naive young editor. "Oh, it's about 500 words," says the seasoned veteran.

I have never wanted to write, because I've never had anything to say, but now that I see a reason to write (I could fill holes that aren't supposed to be noticed anyway), I want to.

When the world didn't care, this used to be called Afganistanism -- running any silly wire copy around a department store ad.

Many stories have been written because of something an editor's barber said. Often the story has to be written to show the editor that whatever the barber thought isn't true. Once written, the story has to run. Once run, the story may be read. Perhaps, as a reader service, there should be a standing hed that says, "Don't Read This." Or maybe editors should just wear their hair long.

We used to call one kind of story a Tar Baby. A reporter starts a story, recognizes that it could be good but isn't yet, continues to pursue it, can't drop the story because so many days already have been spent on it. The reporter's hands are stuck to the Tar Baby.

One advantage of unimportant stories is that editors edit them lightly, leaving reporters with an opportunity to actually write.

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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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