A Brief History of Newspaper Lingo

New York Times Building, NYC

The first issue of The New York Times was published on this day in 1851, and to celebrate we’re taking look at a brief history of some of our favorite newspaper words and slang.

Before newspapers, there were government bulletins. The Acta Diurna or Daily Acts of ancient Rome were carved in metal or stone and posted in public places. In ancient China, tipao, news sheets produced by the government, were “handwritten on silk and read by government officials.”

In 16th century Venice, a monthly notice was published and sold for one gazeta, a small copper coin, which may be where we get gazette, another word for newspaper.

However, gazeta also means “little magpie,” so it’s unclear if we get the word from the paper’s “price or its association with the bird (typical of false chatter),” says the Online Etymology Dictionary. What we do know is that gazette predates the word newspaper by about 60 years.

Workers at a printing press

By 1649, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), newspapers, journals, and periodicals were collectively referred to as the press. This of course comes from printing press, which was invented in the 15th century and quickly gained popularity in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. By the late 1860s press came to refer to journalists in general, and to journalistic coverage by 1908: “Mr. Leaf. . .has not had a good press lately.”

Both newsman and journalist came about in the late 17th century, says the OED. By then what’s considered the first American newspaper was published in Boston, although “only one edition was published before the paper was suppressed by the colonial officials.” A few years later, a weekly called The Boston News-Letter “became the first continuously published newspaper in the colonies.”

By 1734, you could insult a newspaper by calling it a rag. Know where the bodies are buried? You could make a living as a death-hunter, “one who furnishes a newspaper with reports of deaths,” says the OED.

Reporters weren’t called reporters until about 1776, as per the OED. By 1810, if you were a writer for hire, you might be called a hack, and in the 1870s, a story you got before a competitor was called a beat or scoop.

By the late 19th century, competition betweens papers was fierce. Some resorted to keyhole journalism, says the OED, with “allusion to the action of eavesdropping or spying through a keyhole.”

The Yellow Kid

The term yellow journalism was coined around 1898 during the peak of the “circulation battles” between Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. Yellow journalism is “journalism that exploits, distorts, or exaggerates the news to create sensations and attract readers,” and comes from “the use of yellow ink in printing ‘Yellow Kid,’ a cartoon strip in the New York World.”

Pulitzer and Heart’s sensationalistic exploits were even blamed for the United States’ entry into the Spanish-American War, although historians have noted that “yellow journalism was largely confined to New York City, and that newspapers in the rest of the country did not follow their lead.”

In 1901, the term tabloid was being used to describe newspapers that gave stories in condensed form, “usually with illustrated, often sensational material.” The word tabloid was originally a trademark referring to a “small tablet of medicine,” says the Online Etymology Dictionary, and eventually came to refer to “a compressed form or dose of anything.”

Lead meaning the “introductory portion of a news story” is from around 1912. The spelling didn’t change to lede until 1965, perhaps “to distinguish this sense from other possible meanings of the written word,” such as the molten lead “used in typesetting machines.” The term bury the lead, beginning a story with secondary information and revealing the important points later, is from 1977, says the OED.

Lonely-hearts referring to lonely-hearts columns originated in the early 1930s while agony aunt, a British English term for the writer of an advice column, is from 1974. In 1950, if you wrote a story of “exaggerating praise,” you’d be writing a puff piece. Paparazzi, photographers who “pursue celebrities and attempt to obtain candid photographs,” comes from the “surname of the freelance photographer in Federico Fellini’s 1959 film ‘La Dolce Vita.’”

Tabloid Rack

Tabloid Rack

Supermarket tabloids arose in the 1960s, says Vanity Fair. Neighborhood newsstands and family-owned shops were closing as supermarket chains opened up. Generoso Pope, Jr., the creator of The National Enquirer, perhaps the most famous (or infamous) supermarket tabloid, “understood that the only way tabloids could thrive as their urban habitat declined was by being sold in supermarkets.”

We’re uncertain as to when the term supermarket tabloid originated exactly. The earliest citation we found was from 1980, and Google Ngrams shows its usage beginning around the same time. However, if anyone can antedate us, please do.

In 1971 journalist Hunter S. Thompson coined the term gonzo journalism, a kind of experimental journalism in “which facts are deemed to be less important than perceived underlying truth (especially where deliberately altered consciousness is involved).”

Such journalism could be full of factoids, which contrary to popular belief aren’t bite-sized facts but “unverified or inaccurate information that is presented in the press as factual, often as part of a publicity effort, and that is then accepted as true because of frequent repetition.” The word was coined by writer Norman Mailer in 1973.

Gotcha journalism, “journalism that seeks only to catch public figures in embarrassing or scandalous situations,” says Word Spy. The earliest citation is from 1988. (The gotcharazzi, in case you were wondering, are paparazzi who may say “Gotcha!” when photographing someone in an embarrassing situation.)

The charticle, an article that mainly consists of a chart or graph, is from 1996, while listicle, an article consisting of a list, is newer, from 2003 and apparently coined by a Gawker writer, according to researcher Barry Popik.

Red-top, a tabloid newspaper in the UK, is from 1996, and refers to the red banners often used by such papers. A marmalade dropper is “highly stunning information” that would, presumably, cause one to drop one’s marmalade. Word Spy says the term “has appeared almost exclusively in British newspapers and magazines” and originated around 1995.

A dead donkey is “a news item of no real significance, usually of whimsical or sentimental nature, placed at the end of a news bulletin or in a newspaper as filler.” Drop the Dead Donkey was a 1990s British television comedy set in a TV news company. It seems the term dead donkey comes from the title of the show.

Finally, churnalism, journalism that uses “ready-made press release material copied wholesale,” is from 2001, says Word Spy.

What are some of your favorite journalistic slang terms?

[Photo: “New York Times Building, NYC,” CC BY 2.0 by Alexander Torrenegra]
[Photo: “Workers at a printing press,” Public Domain]
[Photo: “The Yellow Kid,” Public Domain]
[Photo: “Tabloid Rack,” CC BY 2.0 by Paulo Ordoveza]

The Morbid Language of Newspapers

BoingBoing has a short but sweet post (the comments are worth reading too), sent to me by harrisj and mentioned on Wordie by VanishedOne, about the death-tinged tone of journalism jargon. Beat, kill (sometimes for a fee), morgue, widow, orphan, slug, bullet. I’m guessing this stems more from the sometimes bleak nature of what journalists cover than the overwhelmingly bleak current state of the industry—these are old terms, after all. They might also have roots in the noirish self-image a lot of newspaper people have of themselves: secretly every jschool grad from the ‘burbs wishes he or she was Bogart in “Deadline U.S.A.

Some other good journalism lists on Wordie: newspaper names*, this one of tabloid phrases, and my own short list of tabloid headlines, which could use a shot in the arm**.

* Consistently the most common source of search traffic to the site.
** It’s an open list, so feel free.

Peak Paper

Last week three separate people asked me, synchronicitously and with varying degrees of panic in their voices, if I thought newspapers would some day stop publishing in print. One suggested a wager.

My non-answer was that I don’t care, because it doesn’t matter. What matters is that newspapers* find a sustainable online business model. Thinking about that keeps me up at night; fear mongering about delivery methods puts me to sleep.

The question of an end to print presupposes a day when the last newspaper rolls off the last press. The long slow fade of newsprint is accelerating, but we’re unlikely to ever witness the Last Newspaper. Like poetry, newsprint will become increasingly irrelevant to most people, until it comes to rest in a permanent but minor niche.

A good analogy is peak oil, the point at which maximum oil production has been reached and begins to decline, precipitously in some models. After peak oil there’s still oil in the ground, but it becomes increasingly difficult and expensive to get out. Cost and convenience force us to switch to other forms of energy, with predictable dislocations and disruptions. Just so with peak paper, the point of maximum print newspaper circulation.

It’s an open question when peak oil will occur (some think it already has), but peak paper almost certainly happened decades ago**. If I had to hazard a date, I’d say it was the day before the New York newspaper strike of 1962. Prior to the strike, New York had 9 major daily newspapers. The months-long strike sent circulations sharply down, killed at least one newspaper outright***, and gave television news an enormous boost.

I’m not immune to the nostalgia of ink on paper. And I don’t have any silver bullets for supporting post-print journalism, though I’m optimistic that solutions will be found. But speculating about the End of Print is a red herring, a cheap shock tactic to startle those unsettled by a period of difficult transition.

What matters is quality writing and reporting; flapping our arms over how it’s delivered is a distraction. Peak paper has come and gone. Newspapers need to accept that, and focus on what we need to do to make quality journalism possible in a post-print world.

* By which I mean news organizations. I also call a collection of mp3s released by the same person at the same time a “record.”

** I’m talking strictly about newspapers and newsprint. As my friend Arik notes, office paper doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. The closest thing to statistics I could find for historic newspaper circulation was this report. If anyone can point to better stats in the comments, that would be appreciated.

*** The Daily Mirror; the Journal American and the Herald Tribune would be gone by 1966.

Marc Andreessen’s New York Times Deathwatch

I love The New York Times, but like the rest of the newspaper industry it’s being decimated by the Internet. Marc Andreessen has a great post* outlining just how badly things are going for them.

He’s at his scariest and funniest when he lists the members of the Time‘s board, on which, he points out, not a single Internet luminary sits.

The Times has a great web site, but they need to transition from being a newspaper company with a web site, to being an Internet-focused new media company, one that treats their newspaper business like the legacy app it is. To make that transition they need people who’ve led successful Internet companies in senior management and on the board.

Not being an Internet luminary I don’t have any brilliant ideas, but one thing they could do is significantly beef up their online classifieds for jobs and real estate, two specialized areas unlikely to be completely devoured by Craigslist.

* On his consistently fantastic blog. Who knew Andreeseen was such a great writer?

Kids Still Read

Fred Wilson has a post on his family’s media consumption in which he talks about his kids’ attitudes towards movies, TV (watched as often as not on DVD), the web, video games, radio, magazines, newspapers, and books.

For the most part it’s what I’d guess kids would be doing: watching video, playing games, spending time on Facebook. There are a few happy surprises, though. Magazines are holding their own. Hard to say how typical this is–I don’t have any insight into the health of the magazine industry–but it surprised me. I had assumed magazines were in the same world of hurt as newspapers.

Most notable, though, is that reading books is apparently alive and well at the Wilson’s: “They still read books the way we did as kids. That doesn’t seem to have changed a bit. They read them for school, they read them for entertainment, and they read them lying in bed waiting to be tired enough to turn off the lights.”

I found that absolutely uplifting, and anecdotal confirmation of something I’ve previously blogged: there is no replacement for long-form narrative text. Eventually that text may be displayed on an improved Kindle, as soon as someone (Apple or Amazon, most likely) gets it right. The exact delivery method doesn’t concern me much. But that kids still take pleasure in reading books? That concerns me greatly, and it’s great to hear of books holding their own in a home full of other glittering distractions.