BUS PLUNGE.

When I was growing up, the newspapers always carried tiny stories on the inside pages about world events that didn’t really affect anyone in the U.S. and that garnered at most a bemused “Huh!” from the reader before he or she passed on to the wars and rumors of wars; you can see a 1959 NY Times page with such stories circled in red here. There were cabinet changes in far-off countries and ambassadorial appointments to far-off countries and extreme weather events in far-off countries, and one special subcategory of these one-paragraph items (which it turns out are known in the trade as K-heds) was the bus plunge, always so called: “Brazil Bus Plunge Kills 26,” “10 Die in Colombia Bus Plunge,” etc. Jack Shafer has done a wonderfully nostalgic piece about these filler items in Slate; it turns out that they were an artifact of bygone methods of newspaper production:

No matter what their editorial policies, newspapers of the era had a physical need for short articles. Typesetting was still a time-consuming industrial art, with craftsmen pouring molten metal into molds—”hot type”—to form a newspaper’s words, sentences, and paragraphs. Because the length of a news story couldn’t be calculated precisely until type was set, makeup editors would have to physically cut overlong pieces from the bottom to make them fit. If a story ran short, they would plug the hole with brief filler stories typeset earlier in the day.

Once such holes no longer existed, thanks to computer typesetting, the need for filler stories vanished, and we no longer read about bus plunges in Peru and Nepal (“It was better when buses plunged in countries with short names”) on a regular basis.


Here’s one of my favorite bits from the piece:

“The great challenge was to edit those things as short as they could be and still have them make sense,” Siegal says. Great acclaim came to the editor who could artfully reduce wire stories to their absolute essence. One of Siegal’s favorite K-heds, which ran in the Times in the 1950s, read in its entirety:
Most snails are both male and female, according to the Associated Press.

The piece’s hed is lost to posterity, Siegal says.

Surely in this age of complete electronic archives someone can retrieve the headline of that one-line wonder! (Via MetaFilter.)

Comments

  1. Well, it’s nice to know that the reason the Times has that “World Briefing” section is that Joe Lelyveld wanted to keep providing at least a few shorts for the benefit of connoisseurs. Alas, they don’t seem to be provided on nytimes.com.

  2. It’s funny, because a colleague and I were talking recently about how layout technology has affected writing. I don’t think you see cut grafs (the bottom paragraphs of a story, filled with extraneous details that could be cut if the story needed to be 100 words shorter) as much as you used to, because it’s easier to mess with the spacing between letters, or to do a line edit within each individual graf, if you need to drop a line or two. And as a result of that, inverted pyramid isn’t so necessary anymore, either. Plus it’s easier to know ahead of time if you have the proper word count for the space. I won’t bore people with the whole long discussion, but I do think it’s affected journalism more than we realize–for the most part, I think for the better, though I do love the idea of the K-hed. And now I’m all nostalgic for my wax roller and my exacto knife, even though I hated layout with a passion back when I had to do it. You always came out of it covered in wax and looking for that one line of text that accidentally got cut off the jump.

  3. Reader’s Digest still has filler stuff at the bottom of some stories–jokes and interesting real stuff.

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