Mr. Tidbit (and his alter-ego, Uncle Al) offer their thanks to the billions of readers of this blog (possibly a slight exaggeration; the reader-counting software typically lags by several days) who have unaccountably continued to read new posts despite having read previous posts.
Such loyalty demands explanations when changes occur. So:
Until now, posts about peculiar new food products appeared each Wednesday, and they did not vary in length (a requirement for the newspapers in which Tidbits appeared).
Mr. Tidbit has grown tired of these shackles, although he himself is the one who forged them in Life — or was it Sports Illustrated?
Anyway, from now on, new Tidbits posts will appear more randomly, at unpredictable length, and will more often than the recently relentless grocery observations focus not on new food products but be instead the pointless ramblings described on the blog cover page as “allegedly humorous columns.”
Here’s the first of those, one of the many that might be merely retellings of the pointless insider stories with which old newsroom people like to regale each other. What remains to be seen is just how very pointless old (or young) newspaper outsiders will find them.
One of the less-understood (and less-appreciated) newsroom functions is that of the copy desk, a collection of copy editors whose tasks include fact-checking, making cloudy writing less cloudy, fixing typos, trimming the length so the story will fit in its assigned space, unviolating the rules of grammar, writing the headline and so on.
Many copy editors have their own favorite stupidity, for which they scan the work of reporters and wire services with particular glee. One such excellent copy editor was an older fellow (older than Mr. Tidbit) who worked on the Minneapolis Tribune; we’ll call him Bob.
Bob’s favorite writing mistake was redundancy. If asked for an example — and sometimes even if not asked — he would produce this stunning collection: “A widow woman was out walking her big Saint Bernard dog when she met a Jewish rabbi.”
Most of the time Bob’s repair of this sin of extra-commission was indeed a welcome improvement. Once in a while it was not. The incident treasured by many staffers concerned a kidnapping that took place in Miami. The kidnappers’ instructions were to put the money in a cloth bag and drop it into the water at a specific point on the Venetian Causeway. As the wire-service story described the event, several hours later a man wearing a wetsuit climbed out of the water, holding the bag of money, and was arrested.
When the first edition of the paper came off the presses and copies were distributed around the newsroom, one of the first people to glance at that story was the wire editor who had scheduled it. “Who handled the Miami kidnapping?” he called out.
“I did,” said Bob.
“When I read the wire version, it said he was wearing a wetsuit. Now it says he was wearing a suit!”
“Well if he was climbing out of the bay,” Bob explained, “of course his suit was wet!”
* * *
In order to put that one into context, it behooves Mr. Tidbit to relate an example of Bob, an excellent editor, sensing correctly that there was something wrong in a news obit.
(A news obit is an article written by a reporter, and that appears on a news page, as opposed to a paid classified-section obit, written and paid for by survivors.)
Nowadays there might appear just one large news obit in any edition, with information and quotes from multiple sources. Back when this happened there might well be multiple news obits in one day’s paper, each much shorter, and sometimes based entirely on what relatives had told the funeral home, which would call the information in to the paper.
Like all other news stories, news obits went through the copy desk. And editing the obit of Clemmons Ah (a southern Minnesota lumber-company executive, as Mr. Tidbit recalls it) happened to fall to Bob. He immediately started subjecting other editors, and anyone else nearby, with his observation that he had never heard of the last name Ah. “Why don’t you go ask the reporter who wrote it,” the copy desk chief suggested.
Scratching his head and continuing to mutter “Ah? Ah! Ah?” Bob trudged the length of the newsroom to the desk of the summer intern who had taken the call from the funeral home and written the brief obit based solely on that call.
The intern, registering offense at the idea that he had somehow been careless in executing this fairly minor task, boomed out something like “If you’re asking whether I checked the name, I most certainly did. I said ‘That’s C-L-E-M-M-O-N-S A-H?’ And the funeral home director said ‘Yes. C-L-E-M-M-O-N-S A-H’.”
Bob gave up and returned to his desk, still muttering “Ah? Ah! Ah?,” did whatever else was required to clean up the obit and turned it in.
The next morning, the newspaper received an angry and anguished phone call from the widow of A. H. Clemmons.