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Get out your thumbs

On Twitter, @stevebuttry was not impressed by a tweet from The Washington Post late last night: “News alert from WaPo: A year from 2012 election, U.S. electorate is frustrated. WaPo rules on big story that broke just after midnight.”

Unable to let that alone, he followed up: “Next WaPo news alert? U.S. electorate likes chocolate? NFL fans like football? Facebook users like social media?”

He is making fun of a tweet that is the equivalent of a headline, and I, as a longtime headline writer, am a little touchy. He should understand better, after his years in the business, the kind of service a headline can perform. In this case, if the headline fulfills its basic function and identifies the contents of the article accurately, the reader can expect a tedious belaboring of the obvious.

And indeed, a quick look at the article so tweeted reveals that it is—please excuse my introducing a term of art—a thumbsucker.

I read the first page of the online version, and there was nothing in it that I did not already know. Nothing in it that I had not known for weeks, or even months. Nothing in it that small children do not know.

The Post evidently underwrote some kind of poll that provides the basis for their startling revelation, but I didn’t get that far. It was perhaps on the second page of the online version, but the writers—three of them to do this heavy lifting—had already gone 650 words without saying anything of substance. Throat-clearing that extensive tends to indicate either authorial self-indulgence or an attempt to conceal how little is actually on offer.

You can read it. You tell me.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:06 AM | | Comments (2)


John, thanks for noting. I do most definitely understand. Perhaps my sarcasm and the 140-character limit of Twitter did not make my message clear, so I will clarify here: I was criticizing news judgment of what constitutes a news alert and the print-centric timing of the news alert more than I was criticizing the headline.

The headline, "A year from 2012 election, U.S. electorate is frustrated," did actually reflect the content of the news alert and of the story, which had a markedly better headline: "A year from Election 2012, a dark mood awaits Obama and GOP rival."

You did a good job of making the point that the story itself didn't really provide any notable news or insight. That is exactly my point. In no way did that story merit a "news alert," which was the Post's label of the email I received. And that news did not happen at 12:18 a.m., when the Post sent out the message. The news happened when the Post and ABC received the data from the poll. The 12:18 timing was so as not to scoop the print edition. (The online story was posted to the Post's website an hour and 18 minutes earlier.)

Here's a rule of thumb for news alerts: If the story is already rolling on the press, it doesn't merit a news alert.

After bracing myself firmly, I went over to WaPo and looked at the linked story. A "thumbsucker," indeed. Filled with trenchant perspectives, like:

"Obama’s hopes depend, too, on his ability to regenerate the coalition of African Americans, Latinos, younger voters and suburbanites that elected him."

In other words, "Obama will need votes in order to win." A full four pages of this pabulum.

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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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