Before overheardinthenewsroom.com and Twitter, even before Jay Leno’s first ‘‘Headlines’’ segment, The Baltimore Sun had its own repositories of newsroom humor, carefully picked so that only the best would achieve immortality.
The wit therein was bold, acerbic, succinct, rapier-like. Pithy, even? Yeth, indeed.
Some privately curated collections saw confidential showings – the canonical quotes from copy assistant Johnny Ketchum must be mentioned here – but the two most prominent archives from the 1980s and ’90s were ‘‘The Wall’’ at the metro desk and the copy desk’s trove of SII computer messages. The soul of both sets of quotes is their brevity and how they speak, in some deep but ultimately indefinable way, to the heart of newspapering.
David Simon, former police reporter turned television producer, lays claim to the creation of ‘‘The Wall.’’ It was inspired, he says, by a similar collection in the newsroom of The Diamondback, the campus paper at Simon’s alma mater, the University of Maryland, College Park. At The Sun, ‘‘The Wall’’ was actually a pillar in the metro area that accreted more and more taped-up scraps of paper with memorable sayings.
Like China’s emperors, a quote on the wall could only survive if it had the Mandate of Heaven. The process is not exactly clear, but arbiters would rule, possibly in a shadowy conference room in the far reaches of the mezzanine, on the worthiness of candidates. One thing was certain – you could not ‘‘play to The Wall’’ and get away with it. Some entries were delivered as jokes, others uttered in wide-eyed innocence. The victors earned a corner of real estate scarcer than that on the Upper East Side.
When the fifth-floor newsroom was on the verge of demolition in 2000, Mike James stripped the wall and deposited the box for safekeeping in his garage. He would retrieve selected cards to be handed out at farewell parties and the like, but when one party rolled around, he wrote: ‘‘We looked high and low for that box and we couldn't find it. I know I would have never thrown it out, so I must have it somewhere.’’
Be that as it may, thanks to James, Simon and several others, we’ve done a good job of recreating the classic
quotes – by definition the most memorable.
On the copy desk, the SII editing system offered users four lines of 64 characters – not a bit more – in which to craft their messages. The constrained framework lent a haiku-like grace to the creations. In its own way, it presaged the 140 characters of Twitter messages. Conventions were followed. Messages often included quotes from stories, followed by editorial comments. In others the quotes could stand alone, unadorned (unlike the room described in one chunk of raw copy as ‘‘gold-gilded’’).
Recipients would save their favorite messages and submit them periodically for inclusion in collections, which would show up on the copy desk bulletin board or in the computer. A wander through the vast archives reveals personalities – the vicious malcontents, the whimsical, the grammarians to whom the misuse of the pluperfect subjunctive is a laff riot. There are themes that come and go over time, prompting a flurry of notes during one week, say, but never seen again. A rule for the collections: Always present the entries in chronological order. Serendipitous patterns then emerge, even among messages sent days or weeks apart.
Perhaps even more than ‘‘The Wall,’’ these messages reveal the pressure of perpetual deadlines escaping like steam from an emergency valve. Hear shouts of defiance, cries of despair, calls for help, sighs of surrender. Thrill to the ever-teetering balance of power between assignment desk and copy desk.
Presented here are selected messages from a golden decade, preserved lovingly by John E. McIntyre, former assistant managing editor for the copy desk. They are not G-rated, but gross libels were omitted. In some cases a note may have been plucked, ruthlessly, from the middle of a long sequence, but in keeping with tradition, each new arrangement makes its own magic.
The year 2000 marked the end of both ‘‘The Wall’’ (‘‘too dirty,’’ administrators grumbled) and the SII system. The new system, with its e-mail-like messages of unlimited length, somehow never offered the comedy challenge of those four stark, blank lines. But we are indebted to the archivists on both sides of the aisle who preserved for posterity the quotes