A friend and colleague was recently rummaging around in the Bay Area Free Book Exchange in El Cerrito and came across a grungy little volume published in 1917, its faded, water-stained, olive-drab cover barely able to mutter the title: "News Writing."
Inside, its 357 pages have stood the test of time, tangibly at least. The substance? Maybe not so much. Here, for instance, is one criterion in a section on what qualified as news in the early 1900s.
"The exceptional, the unusual, the abnormal is in essence a record breaker and will be read about with zest," the author writes. "A burglar stealing a Bible or returning a baby's mite box, a calf with two heads, a dog committing suicide, a husband divorcing his wife so that she may marry a man whom she loves better -- such stories belong in the list with the unique and will be found of exceptional interest to readers."
It was indeed with exceptional interest and even zest that I read this, yet it presented more questions. How would you know if the dog committed suicide? Would he have left a note? And if the dog could write, wouldn't that be the story? Someone hire that dog!
What's a baby's "mite" box? (Wikipedia says it's a small box used to save coins for charitable purposes.) But why is a baby out collecting for less fortunate babies? And divorce is news? Maybe if it's Tom Cruise. Or it's Danica Patrick and you're an NASCAR fan. Even so, it's not exactly unique.
These days, it would take a two-headed divorced celebrity baby dog -- maybe belonging to Lindsay Lohan -- caught stealing a Bible during a bar fight before committing suicide after a 10-hour police standoff on top of the Eiffel Tower to even make it on an "around the Web" blurb on TMZ.
This book is basically an instructional guide for the cub reporter, describing what he (and it would surely have been a "he," unless the reporter worked in the society section) would encounter the first day on the job at a metropolitan newspaper. For example, "he will find a big, desk-crowded room, deserted except for two or three silent workers reading and clipping papers at a long table."
Nowadays it's the same thing, only the "desk-crowded room" is deserted for different reasons -- thank you, Internet and Craigslist.
The guide continues: "These men are known variously as the gas-house gang, the lobster shift, the morning stars, etc. They have been on duty since two or three in the morning. On the entrance of the new reporter, they will look up, direct him to a chair where he may sit until the city editor comes, and pay no more attention to him."
I've been in journalism a while and I've known some old-timers, but I'd never heard some of those terms. I'm guessing gas-house gang might refer to the gas lamps used on the overnight shift. But lobsters? Someone suggested it may have meant working the same early hours as fishermen heading out to sea. But I prefer my journalist-friend's journalist-dad's journalist-friend's theory. He thinks the lobster shift "was populated by weird-looking slow-moving creatures who didn't get along well with others."
(Morning editors, please note: I think you look just fine.)
Yes, many things have changed in the nearly 100 years since this book was published, and many things have not changed. All the tips the author shares about grammar and sentence structure, the chain of command at a news agency, the quest for accuracy, the search for the story -- that still holds.
Clearly technology has improved since the "the European war," although I'm pretty sure the computer I am using was built when Twinkies were born. And we all know the "paper" paper is on its way out, so no one has to deal with "the scores of trains to be caught, the dozens of delivery wagons and wagon drivers to be guided, the hundreds of newsboys and newsstands to be supplied with the very latest editions at the very earliest moment."
At least the author has a realistic grasp on 21st-century journalistic ethics: "Stories are rampant over the United States of newspapermen stealing through basement windows at night, listening at keyholes, bribing jurymen to break their oath and otherwise transgressing the limits of law and honor. But the day of such reportorial methods has passed. Today a newspaper expects every man on its staff to be a gentleman."
Guess Rupert Murdoch never read the book.