Day 338: Meat Of The Press

originally published December 3, 2012

A lot of people have asked me, “Why are you doing this writing project? What do you hope to do with your life once you’ve finished a thousand days? Why are you walking away from me? Are you going to pay for that coffee? Answer me, dammit!!!” Some have suggested I parlay this into a career in journalism, because journalists so often revert to ballad and haiku form, as well as lame bacon jokes and an unreasonable dependence on the same tired old photos for laughs.

I’ll admit, a career in journalism does sound appealing. I could be personally responsible for bringing back the fast-talking city-desk newsie. I could slap a pencil-drawn ‘Press’ badge in the lapel of my fedora, and hold up an old-timey flashbulb as I snap pictures with my iPhone. Sure, I might be derided as more Jimmy Olsen than Woodward and/or Bernstein, and yes, my contemporaries might realize that I’m pouring a lot more care into quickening my rate of speech and injecting as much antiquated slang into my vocabulary as I can possibly fit, but those fat-heads can take a powder; I won’t flip my wig – I’m here to cook with gas, to do some killer-diller buckshot and haul in the easy lettuce.

I could spew out 40’s-era slang to the fuddy-duddies until I’m the cat’s meow, but I should probably also bone up on the jive of the job, the parlance of the press, the lingo of the letter-men. And letter-women. Things have changed since Jimmy Olsen first showed up on the scene.

Man Bites Dog – it’s an expression in the journalism trade that refers to the fact that stories which feature everyday occurrences are more likely to make the news if there’s an unusual twist, like a man biting a dog instead of a dog biting a man. This can project the impression that weird stuff like this happens more often than it actually does. An accompanying saying is how “you never hear about the plane that didn’t crash.”

So a man-bites-dog scenario might be when a foul ball dents an elderly spectator’s skull, yet the sixty-one other foul balls from that same game don’t warrant a mention. Might that unfairly distort how often such a trauma actually befalls a baseball fan? Perhaps. But it makes for good reading, especially if the spectator regains consciousness and is suddenly fluent in Japanese.

A Nut Graph is short form for ‘nutshell paragraph’. When I learned all I know about journalism – which happened during a brief, 15-minute meeting when we were starting up a school newspaper in the sixth grade – I was taught that the who, what, when, where, why and how of the article should all show up in the first paragraph, with the rest of the story’s meat packed down beneath that all-important informative gravy. But that isn’t always the case.

Some stories – usually feature stories – start out more like a narrative. They draw you in as though recounting a tale. Maybe the article will talk about a shoemaker who has fallen on hard times. Maybe the shoemaker (we’ll call him Ol’ Jed) had to put his shop on the market six months ago because he just isn’t drawing the folks in through the door lately. He’s had no buyers though, and he’s worried the bank man’ll show up and foreclose if things don’t turn around before the first frost. Ol’ Jed remembers the good ol’ days, when folks valued a quality pair of hand-made loafers.

Then, about five or six paragraphs in, the nut graph will sum up the real news value of the story, the target the prose is truly aimed at – that the local town has been over-run by giant robotic insects and people are more interested in fortifying their homes and hoarding dry goods than purchasing or repairing a pair of wing-tips.

A Reverse Ferret is a British term, which means I’ll probably never use it unless I relocate. It refers to a complete outright reversal of a newspaper’s editorial position on an issue. I’m told it has to do with the press’s perceived role of ‘sticking a ferret up the trousers’ of public figures, or to make them uncomfortable. It’s a metaphorical ferret, quite possibly the only metaphorical ferret I’ve ever come across.

It all started with editor Kelvin MacKenzie’s time working at The Sun. When MacKenzie had felt the public’s opinion had switched on an issue, he’d allegedly run out of his office and yell, “Reverse ferret!” This would inform his writers that they’d best switch their approach. Also, it may have been an indicator of early-onset dementia – I’m not sure his staff looked deeply enough into this.

Silly Season is another way of defining a slow news time. In the UK, this is when Parliament takes some time off in the summer, and the space political stories would occupy need to be filled with something else. This is when we get stories like “The Year Of The Angry Monkeys” or “How The Common Cold Might (And Probably Will) Kill You”.

Every nation seems to have a Silly Season equivalent. For sports reporters it’s the off-season for their sport of choice, when an item about Troy Polamalu’s latest Head & Shoulders commercial might make the front page at In American politics, it’s that time between early summer and the first week of October during an election year, when the election feels far off and the stories that might make the front page will probably be forgotten by November. Like when Mitt Romney ate that kid in New Mexico, remember? No, of course you don’t.

Shoe-Leather Reporting doesn’t happen much anymore. This is the real reporting, pounding the streets, pen and notepad tucked into one’s breast pocket, probably wearing that fedora I described earlier, in search of the real story. Looking for the guts, the truth, the unfiltered reality of a story. It’s old-school journalism.

I don’t know why anyone would bother with shoe-leather reporting anymore. It’s so old-fashioned; has all the information anyone would ever need to source the truth on any matter, right? Anyone?

I’m not entirely sure journalism is for me. While I love the idea of people yelling ferret-related epithets at me, I’m not entirely sure I’ve got what it takes to cut it in the press game.

Also, I’m a little concerned about those robot insects.

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