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 2)

The piece's hed is lost to posterity, Siegal says.

New York Times, March 26, 1975
New York Times, March 26, 1975

Solving layout problems with shorts meant newspapers often ran pieces because they fit, not because they burst with "news value." How random was the selection of Times shorts? The page from March 6, 1959, featuring the "15 Africans Die in Bus Plunge" story quoted above also harbored six other K-heds: "Queen Sets African Visit," "Bourguiba Renamed Head," "Inquiry Costs Top 4 Million," "Buenos Aires Port Struck," "Greece Jails Former Nazi," and "Jakarta Accepts Soviet Aid." How many of those stories ran because they were news, and how many ran because makeup editors were working on a jigsaw puzzle against a deadline? (See this Times page, with the K-heds circled.) 

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Siegal left the Times in spring 1966 for ABC News, where he stayed 11 months before returning to the paper and its foreign desk. During his hiatus, he met his Times foreign-desk associates for drinks one night and learned that his colleagues were making overt one of his covert practices.

"One of them said to me, 'We're keeping up the bus plunges in your absence,' or words to that effect," says Siegal. Bus plunges had become an inside joke, with editors scouting the wires for new ones.

"If a bus fell anywhere, they would cut that story from the wire and send it to the copy desk and put it in the paper, whereas earlier perhaps they wouldn't have," Siegal says. It was no longer a matter of how badly shorts were needed. "They became newsworthy in and of their own right because it was amusing to get the expression 'bus plunge' into the paper as often as possible."

Not all bus plunges were judged equal by the foreign desk, according to Siegal. "It was better when buses plunged in countries with short names," he says. "A bus plunge in Peru was infinitely easier to deal with than a bus plunge in Argentina or Paraguay."

Of course, it's callous to make light of anybody's tragic death. But by the gallows-humor standards of journalism, competing to publish bus-plunge shorts was fairly benign.

"It was more self-parody than anything else," Siegal says. "It was a very low-key, harmless parody of the stilted language characteristic of tightly formatted headlines."

The opportunity for self-parody diminished as the paper transitioned from hot type to "cold type" output on photographic film. The makeup editor, who once called down the design skills of a stonemason to lay out a page, became more of a bricklayer in the 1970s, when the digital tools for fitting copy became more sophisticated. The Times completed its switch from hot to cold type on the weekend of July 4, 1978, says Siegal. Newspapers came to rely even less on shorts when full-page layout software arrived in the late 1980s and early 1990s and editors requisitioned every available column inch for their big pieces.

Times Executive Editor Joseph Lelyveld, who ran the paper from 1994 to 2001, bemoaned the disappearance of shorts sometime in the middle of his tenure, says Siegal.

"He felt that our ability to fit pages precisely cost us shorts, and that shorts were in some measure the vehicle for continuity in news coverage," Siegal says.

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