Having Fun With the Formula Writing of Journalism

From Connecting, a daily newsletter edited by Paul Stevens and sent to current and former AP staffers:

Dan Sewell 
– The recent posts reminded me of a classic story about legendary Miami News reporter and AP Miami federal court stringer Milt Sosin, retold in his 2000 NYTimes obituary.Tired of editors’ memos about writing shorter, punchier leads, he posted his own one-word lead:“Quit.”  2nd graf: “That’s what reporter Milt Sosin did today.”

Charles Richards 
– In my beginning journalism class at Texas Tech back in the early ’60s, my professor talked about the reporter who called in to dictate his story:

“God stood on a hill overlooking a residential district ravaged by Tuesday’s catastrophic tornado and …”

The desk supervisor interrupted him in mid-sentence.

“Forget the tornado!” the supervisor yelled. “Interview God!”

Mike Harris – All this talking about AP’s so-called formula stories reminded me of an incident that took place during my time as AP’s Indiana Sports Editor in the 70s.

Back then, we rarely staffed the minor league Indianapolis Indians. Instead, we had the reporter from the afternoon Indianapolis News string the games for us. He nearly always sent in three tight paragraphs that conformed very well to AP style.

One afternoon, I strolled into the AP office in Indianapolis and started reading through the previous day’s report. When I got to the story from the previous night’s Indians game, I was surprised to see it stretched out to eight paragraphs. My first thought: This must have been a helluva game.

I started reading and was struck by the fact that the game seemed to be pretty routine. Then I realized there were four extra paragraphs explaining a key play in the game, which appeared to my eyes to be a routine double play.

The same young lady who had been working the desk the night before came in for her shift a few minutes later. I asked her about the story and she said, “I asked him to explain it to me because I didn’t know what he was talking about when he said double play. And, if I didn’t know, how could I expect other people to know?”

I pointed out to her that people who don’t know enough about baseball to know about a double play probably would not read past the first paragraph and asked that she not make those kinds of changes in sports stories without checking with me. There were no more four-paragraph double plays after that.


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