July 19, 2013

Telegraph News Editing, 1898

"The Telegraph Editor." Omaha World Herald, Omaha, NE. September 18, 1898. LOC.

[September 18, 1898] -

The Telegraph Editor

He Relates Some of the Woes That Fall to His Particular Department.

“So you are telegraph editor! Why, I didn’t know understand telegraphy!”

“Telegraph editor? O, yes; I know what that is.  You are the man who pads out the dispatches after they reach the office.  I used to know one years ago back east, and I tell you he was a good one.  He would take a telegram of a dozen words and with the help of an atlas and an encyclopedia string it out to a column.  Made it read just like a story.  Just let the name of some town down in Africa or over in Asia come to him and before that telegram got to the printer it would have a full description of the town where it was located and all its past history.  Yes, he was a bright fellow.  And so, that is the work you are doing?”

The above are two comments selected at random from a hundred or more that are made upon the duties of the telegraph editor by those outside the profession.  Ninety-five out of a hundred confound him with the telegraph operator and wonder how he learned to run a “telegraph machine” without any one knowing it, and if not corrected go out and spread the report that any one can pick up telegraphy in a few weeks, “for there is Smith, why, I’ve known him for years.  He hasn’t very good sense and never was particularly bright, and he has picked it up in no time.  Taking reports for a daily paper, too!  Think of that! If he could do it, any one could!”

Nine-tenths of these ninety-nine mens also labor under the delusion, if they labor under anything at all, that a telegraph editor’s duty, in addition to working a telegraph key, puts in his time reading up encyclopedias and filling out skeleton dispatches.  Were they readers entirely of an esteemed contemporary this latter might be accounted for.

If the telegraph editor was ever at any time the telegraph operator also, such a fact has never attained wide publication, but there was a time when there was no middle man between him and the compositor.  In early days the telegraph copy was sent to the composing room as it came from the wire and the man who set the type filled out the omitted words.  Those were the halcyon days of the “intelligent compositor,” upon whose shoulders rested the greatest part of the editor’s duties and all of the blame.

But times have changed.  Now the telegraph copy must be carefully edited and if a word or a comma is omitted, it does not appear in the printed proof.  At the same time that the intelligent reporter thus threw down stairs upon the editor the duty of editing his own copy, he also threw off his own shoulders the responsibility of errors in it.  The phrase “intelligent compositor” as a phrase of opprobrium has passed away.

Just where the very common idea originated that a newspaper was in a chronic condition of wanting to be filled, no one about a newspaper office knows.  The fact is that in every daily newspaper office enough copy is turned in every twenty-four hours to fill three or four papers the size of the one published.  The duty of the editorial force or copy handler is so as to cut this copy to fit it into the limited number of columns without abbreviating the sense.  A reporter comes in with what, in his opinion, is a rattling good story, and he spreads himself to the extent of a column.  His copy passes to the city editor, who, after eliminating unnecessary words, phrases and sentences, squeezes the gist of it into a couple of “sticks.”  The reporter howls but the city editor’s blue pencil “goes” in more senses than one.

What is true in the local department of a paper is true in the telegraph.  To the man on the telegraph desk comes every day long winded stories, padded, padded, padded to fill out the number of words each day the business office pays for.  And there he must cut down, not to fit the spaces allowed him, but also, alas! To avoid repetition.  Thus, a story comes in on a murder out in California.  At the place it occurred, of course, it was a matter of much interest; in Omaha of very little.  Yet the reporter out on the coast sent in as many details almost as would have been used in the home town.  The telegraph editor’s business is “to cut it,” sometimes to a stick, sometimes to a couple of lines, as its importance warrants.  Here is a sample dispatch, one above the ordinary in point of succinctness.  It is dated in Minnesota:

“A party of threshing hands had a dispute with a bartender at Kent, Minn., twenty miles west of here.  The bartender named Barton ejected the threshers from the building, but several hours later they returned and one endeavored to force open the saloon door, which was guarded by Barton from within.  As the door was pushed open Barton fired with a shotgun loaded with buckshot.  A thresher whose name is not known fell mortally wounded and expired in about an hour.  Sheriff Bureau of Breckenridge was at once telegraphed to come and take the prisoner and sent Deputy Sheriff Strachan.  On arriving at Kent, Strachan found a determined mob surrounding the saloon with the avowed purpose of lynching the prisoner.  The mob refused to disperse and Sheriff Bureau was telegraphed for assistance.  The sheriff with a posse left at once for the scene of the tragedy.”

People here in Omaha are not particularly interested in a saloon brawl back in M[innesota] and the telegraph editor cut it to:

“In a row at Kent., Minn., Bartender Barton killed an unknown thresher.  A mob gathered to lynch him and a posse is on its way to reinforce the sheriff, who is on the spot.”

Some of the details were left out, but perhaps the western reader got as many of them as he cared to read.

But it is not only such cases that the blue pencil is called into requisition.  Very few dispatches come in so carefully written that they cannot be abbreviated at least a third before superfluous words are eliminated.  Here is a paragraph from a political convention in Colorado:

“The beginning of the opening exercises of opening day began in the opera house this morning.  The opening exercises began with an address by the Hon John Jones.  His address was an eloquent one.  It was upon the tariff.  He said,” etc., etc.

This is not a sample page from a primer, although it sounds like it, but is a fair sample of the style in which telegraphic news comes to a daily paper at so much a word.  It is unnecessary to add that the telegraph editor does not fill it out any more.


The work of that person, in brief, is to take a column article and condense it to a half a column without leaving out any facts; to cut a half column article to a stick; to select the best story from three or four which may be coming in on the same subject; to know at a glance what deserves a “scare head,” a “slug head,” or is worth merely a “brief mention”; what deserves a head at all and what can be condensed into a couple of lines and run as “Short Bits,” “Brief Telegrams,” etc.  To know, the latter is fully as important as to know the former.  But, whatever a telegraph editor’s qualifications may be he must possess this one in common with every other man on the force who handles copy—the ability to cut, cut, cut from the minute he sits down at his desk until “30” comes and he leaves.

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