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Newspaper Writing - Rewriting

( Originally Published 1911 )

On some evening newspapers a squad of men begin work soon after the city editions of the morning papers are off the press. Before dawn these men are on duty, busily preparing copy for the first edition of the paper, which goes to press before news begins to pour in through the regular channels. This work is in charge of an assistant city editor, who paves the way for the city editor. Copies of the morning papers and a pair of shears are his equipment. Stories that promise further development during the day he lays aside for the consideration of the city editor; others that may safely be rewritten and made to appear as new he deals out to the squad of writers; still others, those that are dead after one telling, he throws away. Stories that hold the possibility of a libel suit—or, as the newspaper man says, contain dynamite — are mentally labeled dangerous and held for investigation — or the wastebasket.

Now assume that to the rewrite man is handed a clipping telling of the arrest of a leading citizen for exceeding the speed limit in his automobile the night before. The citizen gave bond to assure his appearance in police court the following day. The story fills, say, half a column in the morning paper. " Cut it to a stick " is the order. The novice probably would begin by saying that " John Jones, cashier of the First National Bank, was arrested last night for speeding," that being the substance of the lead in the original story. Not so the rewrite man. His story begins somewhat like this :

On the docket of the First District Police Court this morning appeared the name of John Jones, cashier of the First National Bank, charged with exceeding the speed limit in his automobile. Mr. Jones was arrested last night, etc.

Here the news writer has given his story a new lead without in the least going beyond the facts. He knows that an arrest for violation of a city ordinance is followed by arraignment in police court; from the district in which the arrest was made he knows in what court Mr. Jones must appear. It is assumed that the writer is an experienced re-porter, acquainted with police procedure in the city in which he works. Later in the day the lead of the story is changed to tell the disposition of the case. Nearly all the stories rewritten from other papers are subject to changes during the day or are thrown out altogether to make way for later news.

Suppose the story tells of a fire in which persons were killed. The fire was in a factory, which, contrary to law, was not adequately equipped with fire escapes. The morning papers told the story in detail. So far as the facts about the fire are' concerned, the story is old. The rewrite man, drawing on his knowledge of similar events, begins his story in this manner :

An investigation was begun today by Building Commissioner Smith to fix the responsibility for the loss of ten lives in a fire which last night destroyed the paper-box factory of Blank and Company at 1010 Y street.

Then the story tells of the lack of fire escapes on the building and proceeds to give details about the fire culled from the published account. In later editions the lead is changed as developments warrant.

On some evening newspapers the rule is to use the name of the day rather than " to-day," " yesterday " or " tomorrow." The paper can then be dated one day ahead and sent out as a mail edition without the necessity of changing local stories to conform to the new date line.


I. Concisely told story of a fire. From the Chicago Evening Post:

Lives of firemen were imperiled and a loss estimated at $35,000 was caused early to-day by fire which swept through the three top floors of a five-story brick building at 2427-31 West Fourteenth street. These upper floors were occupied by the Platt-Maschek Company, novelties, of which C. C. Maschek is president.

The two lower floors are occupied by C. A. Hiles & Co., Inc., tool manufacturers. This concern escaped with a slight loss.

Starting supposedly from crossed electric wires on the fifth floor, the fire broke through the roof and had spread to the fourth and third floors when it was discovered by Policeman Thomas Feeney, who was passing. Flames and smoke rolled out of the fifth floor windows. Feeney pounded on the front doors of the building and attracted the attention of Edward Claus, a watchman, who was on the first floor and unaware that the building was burning.

The two attempted to ascend a stairway to the third floor, believing that there was another watchman in the novelty concern, but flames and smoke burst through a door and they were compelled to retire. Glass in the door was broken by the heat and Feeney was cut about the face and hands.

A general alarm was sounded and Marshal Horan arrived in his automobile. He sent in five special calls and took charge of the many companies of firemen. The heat was intense and firemen who had mounted the roofs of adjoining structures frequently were compelled to climb down.

While firemen were still at work on the flames about twenty-five girls reported for work. It was said they would be thrown out of work by the fire.

(Notice how the two leading facts in the story are combined in the opening sentence, the fact that firemen were in peril coming first, then the property loss. The writer manifestly has taken pains to get the firm names correct.)

II. Brief news dispatch telling of a death by fire:

NEW YORK, Dec. 12.- Mrs. F. A. Hilliard, 76 years old, a wealthy widow of Milwaukee, was burned to death early today in her room in the Hotel Bristol. She set fire to her clothing in attempting to light a candle. Mrs. Hilliard registered at the hotel Nov. 6. She attracted attention by her eccentricities. She refused to use either electric light or gas, and insisted on burning candles in her room.

(All the salient facts are told here in less than seventy-five words—the who, when, what, where and why of the story. This is the compressed form in which the story was carried in the news dispatches. As a local story — that is, published in the city in which it originated — its human-interest element would justify the giving of more details — but nothing of a horrible nature. News, unless it is national in interest, shrinks in importance in pro-portion to the distance from the scene of the happening. This rule, of course, would not apply in this case to Milwaukee, where the story would be local in significance because of the residence of the woman in that city.)

III. Fire story summarizing the main facts in a few lines, as carried in the report of a press association :

JOPLIN, MO., Nov. 16.- Fire of unknown origin this morning destroyed the entire business section of Duenweg, a mining town six miles east of here. Seventeen buildings were burned, the damage being estimated at $75,000.

(It is significant, in studying relative news values, that this story, dealing with property loss, gets only half as much space as-that telling of a woman's death. Both appeared in the same newspaper.)

IV. Death story which covers all the important points. From the Baltimore Sun:

ATLANTA, Nov. 13.- United States Senator Alexander Stephens Clay, of Georgia, died of heart disease at the Robertson Sanatorium today after an extended illness.

His death was as peaceful as it was sudden. He was talking to his son Herbert when he suddenly ceased speaking and fell back dead.

During the morning and early afternoon the Senator appeared in better spirits than usual. The attending physicians said that he was apparently recovering from the slight relapse of Saturday.

Mrs. Clay came to Atlanta from Marietta in the morning, but when she found the Senator so much improved she returned home. The only member of the family present at the deathbed was the Senator's son Herbert, who is mayor of Marietta.

According to the physicians Senator Clay's death resulted from dilatation of the heart, superinduced by arterial sclerosis. The Senator had been ill for nearly a year and went to the sanatorium on November I to take the rest cure. He appeared to be improving until Saturday, when he suffered a relapse which his weakened condition was unable to withstand.

The body was removed to the Clay home at Marietta, where the funeral services will be held Tuesday. Senator Clay was 57 years old, and is survived by a widow, five sons and a daughter, besides his parents, Mr. and Mrs. W. J. Clay, of Cobb county.

(An account of Senator Clay's political life, in 350 words, follows.)

V. Death story in which the cause is of special interest:

CHICAGO, Dec. 5.- Prof. Charles Otis Whitman, head of the Department of Zoology and director of the Zoological Museum at the University of Chicago, died of pneumonia today. His death was due to exposure a week ago, when, late at night, he left his room to look after a flock of pigeons which he had been studying. Friends say that Prof. Whitman feared the pigeons would be frozen.

Prof. Whitman, who was 68 years old, was widely known as a zoologist. He was born at Woodstock, Me., and was educated at Bowdoin College, Leipzig University, in Germany, and Johns Hopkins University.

Surviving Prof. Whitman are his widow and two sons, Frank and Carroll. Arrangements for the funeral have not been completed.

VI. Graphically told story of the death of a famous " man-bird " :

LOS ANGELES, CAL., Dec. 31.- The winds, whose treacheries Arch Hoxsey so often defied and conquered, killed the noted aviator today. As if jealous of his intrepidity, they seized him and his fragile flying machine, flung them down out of the sky and crushed out his life.

He fell dead in the field from which he had risen but a short time before with a laughing promise to thousands of cheering spectators to pierce the zenith of the heavens, surpass his own phenomenal altitude record and soar higher than any other man dared go.

Cross currents, whirled off from a vagrant storm that floated in from the sea, caught his biplane and shot him downward 563 feet to earth.

His body lay broken and twisted almost out of all semblance to a human form. All of the spectators in the grand stand witnessed the tragedy, as it occurred directly in front of them on the opposite side of the course.

They sat in awe-stricken silence until the announcer gave out the words through the megaphone :

"Hoxsey has been killed."

Then from every part of the great stand came sobbing of women, who but a short time before had clapped their hands to the daring aviator as he arose from the field for his fatal flight.

" Of course the success of this attempt is contingent upon the kind of weather I find up there," said Hoxsey just before he left the ground. " Some of the temperatures one encounters in the higher altitudes are simply beyond human endurance. But, if I can stand it and my motor works as well as it has been working, I'll come down with a record of 12,000 feet or more."

Even at that moment the wind attained a velocity that kept more cautious aviators on the ground. After he had ascended it gained rapidly in violence. Moreover, it created a "Swiss cheese " atmosphere, the most treacherous meteorological condition that man-birds have to con-tend with.

There is nothing by which it may be known why Hoxsey did not go higher than 7,742 feet, which his barograph showed he had attained, but he had apparently encountered at that altitude the same conflicting air currents that finally overcame him. Notwithstanding this, and with the same reckless daring he had displayed during the last week, he descended by a series of spiral glides, and was performing one of his thrilling rolling dips, when his biplane suddenly capsized and shot to earth.

Over and over the aeroplane turned as it fell, with a speed so swift that of all the thousands who saw the tragedy not one could tell what effort the aviator made to save himself. When the wreckage had been cleared sufficiently so that his body could be reached, he was found planted firmly in his seat, his arms around the levers. The fall telescoped the biplane.

The steel sprocket which drove the propellers lay across Hoxsey's face, the motor resting upon the right side of his body. Every one of the ribs on that side was shattered into fragments. An iron upright, broken by the force of the crash, held the aviator's body impaled upon its jagged point.

The stop watches of the judges in the stand registered the exact second of 2:12 o'clock when Hoxsey's machine turned over and plunged in its fatal fall. The news of the tragedy was telegraphed over wires leading out of the press stand before the machine struck the ground.

(Enough of the published story, which filled more than three columns, is given here to indicate the detailed method of treatment. The death of Arch Hoxsey in itself was a big news story, of nation-wide interest. Its importance as news was enhanced by the fact that another noted aviator, only a few hours before, had met death in a similar tragic manner on another aviation field.)

VII. Story of a suicide printed because of the unusual means employed. (Names and addresses given here are fictitious.) From the New York World:

James Wilson, aged seventy, a photographer, committed suicide by drowning himself yesterday afternoon in a tank in his studio at No. 17 Blank street.

Wilson lived at No. 616 R street and was in the photograph business with his son. The studio is on the third floor and consists of three rooms.

Water leaking through his ceiling about 5 o'clock yesterday afternoon attracted the attention of Henry Smith, who has a printing shop on the floor underneath the studio. He sent a workman to investigate and when the man re-turned and said that Wilson's door was locked Smith notified the police.

Patrolmen Stephens and Jones of the Blank Street Station broke open the Wilson studio door and in the rear room found water running over the sides of a tank used in developing pictures. This tank is zinc lined, is 2% feet wide, 2 feet deep and 4 feet long, and stands 5 feet up from the floor, the upper edge being only 2 feet from the ceiling. Inside this tank was Wilson's body.

Wilson was 5 feet 2 inches tall and weighed 200 pounds. To reach the top of the tank he evidently stood on a sink beside it, but how he managed to crawl inside has puzzled the police. First, thinking that Wilson might have been trying to repair the tank, the police made a search for repairing tools, but found nothing of the kind. Wilson was dressed in his underclothing, and his outer garments were found hanging on hooks.

The tank had to be chopped down before the body could be removed and taken to the Morgue.

Mrs. Wilson said last night that her husband had acted queerly yesterday and seemed to be brooding because a man whom he had had in his employ for a number of years was to leave him at the end of the week. She said one of their sons committed suicide about seven years ago.

(Observe that the writer gives concrete details. Instead of saying, 'vaguely, that Wilson, a large man, drowned himself in a small tank, he gives Wilson's height and weight and the exact dimensions of the tank.)

VIII. The following leads show how stories have been brought up to date :

1. ST. LOUIS, Dec. 9.— Colonel Abe Slupsky wears modestly today the metaphorical wreath of hops that goes with the championship in beer drinking.

When he drank a bottle of beer in the café at Hotel Jefferson last night it marked the completion of a task begun thirty days ago. Every day since then, Sundays included, nineteen bottles of beer preceded the good-night one. Etc.

2. Search in a snowstorm failed today to find the three robbers who held up three men and stole nearly $20,000 in cash and checks on the Egremont trolley extension yesterday. The amount taken was given out as $10,000, but the Woronoco Construction Company stated today that yesterday's full pay roll was $20,000, and only a few men had been paid off when the hold-up occurred. Of this amount nearly half was in checks. Etc.

3. BELFAST, Dec. 10.— Political excitement is at fever heat today, following last night's riots that resulted from several Orangemen voting for the Irish Nationalist candidates. Those so voting are being called traitors and their houses are under guard today to prevent violence being done them. Etc.

4. Several hundred college boys from the University of Blank crawled from the sheets this morning with dry throats, big heads and a universal tendency toward " never again." For last night was " football night " and the college boys " did things up brown." Etc.

5. John K. Smith, millionaire broker, following his fourth arrest in a month because of his strange antics with automobiles, is in the observation ward of the City Hospital pending an expert investigation as to his mental condition. Smith was arrested yesterday, etc.

6. PROVIDENCE, KY., Nov. 26.- It is believed today that the ten men entombed in Mine No. 3 of the Providence Coal Company by an explosion are dead. . . . A windy shot in the mine yesterday caused a terrific ex-plosion, etc.

IX. Write a local fire story from the following notes, assuming it is to be printed in an evening pa-per in a town of about 20,000:

Home of A. B. Smith, 600 Converse avenue. Fire discovered at 1 A. M. by neighbors returning from theater. One of them broke in front door with a stick of cord wood and aroused the family, who were asleep on the second floor. Fire had started in the attic from crossed electric wires, and had burned down into the closet in the room occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Opening the closet to get some clothing, Smith was driven back by flames. His wife fainted and he carried her out. His hands and face were slightly burned. Two children, girls, 8 and 5, were carried out by neighbors. The house, two-story frame, burned rapidly. Only a part of the furniture on first floor was saved. Loss about $10,000, covered by insurance. Whole building was ablaze when the firemen arrived. Smith is cashier of the Second National Bank. Man who broke in door, A. L. Jones, a grocer, 604 Converse avenue.

X. Assuming that the death of Senator Clay (see No. IV) was first published in the morning papers, rewrite the story in I50 words for an evening pa-per.

XI. Condense the story of Wilson's suicide (see No. VII) into a telegraph dispatch of 150 words.

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