Thursday, July 30, 2009

Heads Up

Writing newspaper headlines can be a high art, but also a risky business. The story labels must fit in a precise space in a style specified by the publisher, and be written in a minute or two. Trying to quickly capture the gist of a story in an appealing way doesn’t always work out.

Almost anything can result in a headline gaffe. The classic example used in journalism school in the 50s stemmed from the fact that Manly and Fertile are two small towns in Iowa. A newspaper serving both communities announced a wedding thus: Manly Man Weds Fertile Miss. Wonder how many offspring resulted?

A headline blunder ruined my first attempt to cover a basketball game as sports editor of the Daily Tribune in Wisconsin Rapids in 1964. The home team scored an important win, and I affixed a rather large headline to my story. It said something like: Dempsey Scores 19 as Raiders Win. Seems ok, however, the young man’s name was Dempze, not Dempsey. Dempze was a well-known family name around Wisconsin Rapids, and Chief Editor Carl Otto blistered me with a commentary on my headline writing abilities when he saw my version.

Otto skewered me so thoroughly that I greeted his comeuppance with relish a few months later. He had a special red phone in his office available for a “stop the presses” command just like those in the movies. Every day, just before the presses were turned on, the printing plant superintendent hustled into Otto’s office with a proof of the front page. He and Otto sat side-by-side checking Page One to ferret out any errors needing last minute corrections. One day they somehow missed a badly misspelled word in the biggest headline on the page. When he found out (after thousands of copies had been printed), Otto turned redder than the phone he had failed to use that day. Playing dumb, I observed he didn’t appear to be feeling well, and offered any help I could give. That turned him purple.

My headline recollections were inspired by an internet message forwarded by Ray Brown, retired Intermountain Research Station scientist, and Dave Tippets, public affairs officer at the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Fort Collins, CO. The message showed strange headlines published by papers around the world Here they are, with comments:

Alton Attorney Accidentally Sues Himself (Wonder which of him won)

County to pay $250,000 to advertise lack of funds (That’ll help)

Volunteers search for old Civil War planes (Difficult task. Didn't the first plane fly in 1903?)

Army vehicle disappears (Story was about an Australian Army vehicle with camouflage paint that mysteriously vanished)

Caskets found as workers demolish mausoleum (Probably were bodies in them, too)

Ten Commandments: Supreme Court says some OK, some not (Now, there’s a choice?)

Utah Poison Control Center reminds everyone not to take poison (Duh)

Federal Agents Raid Gun Shop, Find Weapons (Surprise!)

Statistics show that teen pregnancy drops off significantly after age 25 (I would have guessed 20)

One-armed man applauds the kindness of strangers (Oh come on, we know what the headline writer meant)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Help, the Old-Fashioned Way

The emergency help system recently went down in our county for mysterious reasons. While 911 was useless, we were advised to dial a ten-digit number if we needed cops, firemen, or medics.

In the 1940s, and perhaps even earlier, you could get help in my hometown without knowing a single digit. You just picked up the phone and when asked “number please” told the operator what the problem was. She turned on two yellow lights at opposite ends of “Main Street” (Wisconsin Avenue). One was attached to the corner of Bradley Bank; the other was hung on Allen’s Grocery.

The lights were a signal to the police. They contacted the switchboard operator who told them what was needed and where. They then dispatched themselves or whoever else was required to handle the emergency. If a blaze was the problem, a siren heard throughout the city alerted volunteer firefighters.

It sounds like a Rube Goldberg operation now, but the small-town system worked, and taxpayers didn’t have to pay for three shifts of dispatchers and a batch of sophisticated electronic gear.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Twelve Seconds of Fame

When Walter Cronkite died this week at 92, commentators rushed to describe his two decades of fame as the “most trusted man in America.” Cronkite was very famous. As many as 18 million viewers regularly tuned into the CBS Evening News when he anchored the program from 1962 to 1981.

For 25 years, I thought his program had given me two minutes of fame. I appeared on the show in 1973 as a U.S. Forest Service spokesman reporting on western forest fire activity. Telling new acquaintances that “I once was on the evening news with Walter Cronkite,” always was an attention-getter and a positive shot to the old ego, because until recent years just about everybody had seen and admired Cronkite.

Quite a few people told me they saw the forest fire show. But a quarter century passed before I saw it. I was interviewed at the Boise Interagency Fire Center (now the National Interagency Fire Center). My work was hectic, with no time for television watching, so I missed the original show. I asked others for descriptions. They said it ran about two minutes, and looked all right. I called it “my two minutes of fame” for years after that.

When the fire crisis was over, the Director of Fire and Aviation Management came out from the national office to tell personnel at the Boise center what a good job they had done. He planned to show a tape of the Cronkite program as part of his presentation. Just as the tape was about to roll, I was called away to answer an urgent media telephone request. I missed the show again.

Last year, in an idle moment, I googled myself and discovered that Vanderbilt University had the show in its Television News Archive. I invested $35 to view it. Sure enough, there I was, delivering a couple of uninspired sentences describing the fire situation.

The show segment did run about two minutes. But I was only on camera for 12 seconds. My fame was fleeting.

And that’s the way it was on Aug. 21, 1973.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Dialing His “Cell”

A recent news report of national survey results said drivers talking on cell phones were one of the top three causes of “road rage.” If my old golfing buddy, Hank Cheatham, was asked for his opinion he probably would have picked cells as enemy Number 1, and perhaps also as Numbers 2 and 3.

Cheatham was vocal about his dislike of cell phones. He didn’t own one, said he never would, and never missed an opportunity to register disgust when a cell rang within his earshot. When cell use broke the serenity at a golf course, Cheatham exhibited an advanced case of “course rage.” Cheatham also disliked slow golf play, and didn’t hesitate to make his feeling about that known.

One day, two foursomes of our pals were waiting impatiently at the par-three tenth tee while several groups ahead of us dawdled between shots for what seemed inexcusable lengths of time. To the amazement of the other seven hackers, Cheatham pulled a phone out of his bag and made an elaborate show of dialing a number.

“Randy,” he said loudly, apparently to the head pro, “things are really screwed up on the back nine. You should send somebody out here right now. If you don't get these people moving, we will quit playing golf here."

We were amazed by the whole episode. Harry Tullis, who started the group playing at that course about 30 years earlier, was bug eyed and speechless. Then, our player nearest Cheatham examined the phone and started to laugh. Cheatham’s “cell” was the type sold at Toys R Us.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Winning by Losing

In Arizona, a young man recently won an election for a Town Council seat in a small city when he drew a king to beat his opponent’s six. The candidates cut the cards after they tied in the balloting with 660 votes each. The news story said using a gambling method to resolve an electoral tie was relatively rare, but did happen in Arizona from time to time.

It happened in Wisconsin at least one time, but with a different twist, according to family lore. Apathy reached such a height (or depth) in my hometown about 60 years ago that no one could be persuaded to run for one of the vacant alderman positions. Two undercover campaigns apparently were launched without the knowledge of the candidates. When election results were tabulated, my father and the other noncandidate had identical write-in vote totals for the seat on the City Council.

Dad and the other man cut the cards to resolve the issue. Dad drew the high card. The drawer of the losing card won the honor of serving as a City of Tomahawk alderman.