The rise and fall of the "bus plunge" story.

Media criticism.
Nov. 13 2006 5:50 PM

The Rise and Fall of the "Bus Plunge" Story

What killed this former New York Times staple?

(Continued from Page 1)

Bus Plunge Kills 37 Sikhs
NEW DELHI, Sept. 18 (Reuters)—At least 37 Sikh pilgrims were killed when a passenger bus fell into a ravine at the foot of the Himalayas, it was reported today.

According to ProQuest and Nexis, the Times published at least 14 bus-plunge stories in 1969, six in 1970, 11 in 1971, 14 in 1972, and 10 in 1973. Their numbers dwindled for much of the rest of the 1970s but came back in 1980, when the paper published eight before they all but vanished from its pages.

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Instead of decreasing, bus-plunge stories should have increased in the 1980s, if only because that was the decade China, the world's most populous nation, opened its doors to the international press. China has all the ingredients needed: mountain ranges, thousands of miles of bad roads, and many overloaded buses. Indeed, a Nexis search confirms an ongoing plague of Chinese bus plunges, but the New York Times hasn't published a China plunge since 1987.

New York Times, March 7, 1964
New York Times, March 7, 1964

What drove the bus-plunge story out of the Times? Extremely short articles were a creature of the analog world, and as the digital broom swept through newspapers in the 1970s, it began whisking the whole genre out of the Times. Allan M. Siegal, who recently retired from the Times as an assistant managing editor, worked on the foreign desk during the 1960s—the bus-plunge heyday. The foreign desk ran a huge number of short items in part because it had a policy of noting every Cabinet change in every sovereign nation in the world. Seymour Topping ended that practice in 1967, when he became foreign editor, but the paper still continued to publish news shorts of small consequence. The Times archives for June 15, 1968, reveal a two-sentence write-up for G. Mennen Williams' arrival in the Philippines, as he assumed the post of U.S. ambassador.

No matter what their editorial policies, newspapers of the era had a physical need for short articles. Typesetting was still a time-consuming industrial art, with craftsmen pouring molten metal into molds—"hot type"—to form a newspaper's words, sentences, and paragraphs. Because the length of a news story couldn't be calculated precisely until type was set, makeup editors would have to physically cut overlong pieces from the bottom to make them fit. If a story ran short, they would plug the hole with brief filler stories typeset earlier in the day.

This Times plunge story, for example, filled the loose space at the end of a news column on July 21, 1964:

Bus Plunge Kills 8
LAS PALMAS, Canary Islands, July 20 (UPI)—Eight persons perished today when a small bus plunged over a 300-foot cliff into the sea near the town of Mogan. One man jumped from the vehicle before it reached the edge and was saved. All the victims were Spaniards.

As typeset, this article takes up 10 lines. I assume that the copy editor who cut this piece from the AP wire included the sentences about the jumper and the victims' nationality to maximize the makeup editors' options. By physically snipping one sentence, the makeup editors could reduce it to a nine-line story on the fly. By snipping two, they could cork an even smaller layout hole with a six-line story.

At the Times, the shortest stories—a one-line hed and a single paragraph of copy—were called "K-heds."

"The great challenge was to edit those things as short as they could be and still have them make sense," Siegal says. Great acclaim came to the editor who could artfully reduce wire stories to their absolute essence. One of Siegal's favorite K-heds, which ran in the Times in the 1950s, read in its entirety:

Most snails are both male and female, according to the Associated Press.

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