Newspaper Lingo: Get Me Rewrite, Sweetheart!

Every profession has its own lingo -- meant as much to inform insiders as to exclude outsiders. But to green journalists (translation: those under 45) knowledge of such newspaper argot is woefully limited. Mention to a young reporter that your piece, skedded for the PI, was just killed, even though the hed, kicker, deck and jump have already been dummied for the bulldog, and he'll think you're talking about a private investigator and a drooling canine. Tell a newcomer you need a shooter for a cereal spitter, then you've got to leg a yarn for a walk-up, and who knows what she'll think.Newspaper talk today is all about unpleasant acronyms, like MBO (management by objective), TMP (total market penetration), or FTE (full-time equivalent employees).To recall journalism's rich sense of language is to mine a lode of newspaper lore. It's to celebrate the legacy of Liebling, Mencken, Hecht and MacArthur. Beware, though, this argot is perilously close to extinction.Herewith is your guide to talking like an old newspaper pro."30" signifies the end of a story (also the name of a forgettable 1959 newspaper movie, staring Jack Webb). When finishing a story, reporters always used to type "30," which would appear centered under their copy. A recent flurry of messages on the Internet came up with dozens of explanations of 30's origins. The closest plausible one has to do with Civil War telegraphers transmitting stories from reporters in the battlefield. At the end of each transmission, the telegraphers typed XXX, translated from Roman numerals, to 30.Other 30-explanations that have moved onto newspaper lore:* In the early days of The Newspaper Guild, reporters ended their stories with "30," to demand a living wage of $30 per week. Once met, the usage continued.* Telegraphers transmitted a continuing series of "30"s over the wire when they took a 30-minute lunch break.* A two-fingered reporter working alone in the newsroom one night at (fill in your favorite newspaper), while pounding away on his Royal, suddenly pitched forward, the victim of a heart attack. Colleagues noticed the dead man's left forefinger striking the 3, his right the 0. (Obituaries in newspaper trade journals often use the hed, "30.")* A bored reporter with plenty of time to kill wanted to see how far he could stretch his index and middle fingers on his right hand by typing "30." His city editor was suitably impressed. "30" became newspaper policy.* A variation of the "30" story is the usage of instead of "30" at the end of broadcast copy so rip-and-readers wouldn't try to pronounce .Here's an abbreviated list of other fast-fading newspaper lingo, with compelling, though not necessarily reliable, explanations of where each came from:* Lobster shift -- Overnight shift. Origin: Early mornings are the traditional time for lobster harvesting. Alternative origin: The lighting during the overnight shift was so bad and there was so much copy, editors' eyes turned blood-shot red, the color of fresh lobsters. Still another alternative origin, which may be questionable: The newspaper offices of William Randolph Hearst's (Citizen Kane) New York World used to located near Manhattan's lobster boat piers; both crews (the lobster men and the newsmen) arrived at work at the same time.* Bulldog -- Early Sunday edition. Origin: The paper was put to bed so early that typesetters could go home in the noon-day sun when "only mad dogs and English men go out." Alternative (less poetic) origin: First press run of the big Sunday paper came rolling off the presses, "fighting like a bulldog."* Stringer -- Part-time newspaper correspondent. Origin: Wanna-be reporters were paid by length of stories, measured by a string the editor kept in his desk drawer.* Spike -- To kill a story. Origin: The pointed metal object, on which Sharon Stone would subsequently catapult to fame, used to skewer rejected stories. At the end of the shift, the spike would be cleaned off shish-kabob style and filed in the trash can. Nowadays, spikes are outlawed in most newrooms. Blame it on OSHA.* PI, Lede, Hed, Graf, Folo, TK -- Front page (short for Page 1, get it?); top of story; headline; paragraph; follow-up story; [Copy] To Kum, or To Come. Origin: Short-hand instructions to typesetters, intentionally misspelled so the words weren't accidentally put into type. Alternate origin of lede: Some old-timers swear that "lede" simply was to distinguish it from lead, the stuff used to make type.* Wood -- Extra-large hed, usually in a tabloid. Origin: When the hed was so large and there were no stock, lead-alloy type, typesetters used hand-cut wood letters. The term resurfaced in the 1994 movie, The Paper, when city Editor Michael Keaton asks, "What's the wood?" Synonyms: Screamer, Slammer, Railroad hed, Hammer hed.* Cereal Spitter -- Gory photograph of death and/or mayhem. Origin: You have to ask? Modern-day spin-off: Reader-friendly shooters and editors at most newspapers today use what they call the "Wheaties" test to make sure photos are in good taste. Synonym: Spaghetti Shot.* Leggin a Yarn, Leg man -- When reporters didn't use E-mail, Voice-Mail, or Rolodexes, but pounded the pavement in search of the truth. Don't get the term confused with the number of columns on a news page, or the "legs" of a story. Leg men often were columnists' assistants who specialized in getting items (yarns) for columnists like Walter Winchell, Earl Wilson, Herb Caen. Most of them also appreciated ladies' gams, but that's a different story.* Thumb Sucker -- Long take-out that jumps from page to page; the kind of story USA Today says readers hate.* Slug -- Single word to identify a story, as in "Slug it SHOOT." Origin: The metal slug that fit into a slot on top of a galley of type.* Rim Rats -- Copy Editors. Origin: Sitting at the horseshoe-shaped copy desk, or rim, hour after hour, reading reams of copy, editors would mysteriously transform into rats. But why rats? Ask any reporter.-30-Stephen G. Bloom, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News and Sacramento Bee, is a professor of journalism at the University of Iowa.


Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ }}