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 3)

To fill the shorts void, Lelyveld added the various "briefing" sections that exist today. For my money, they're a poor substitute. Most of them run much longer than K-hed length, so there's little art to their editing. And there's always something more "newsworthy" to run in the "World Briefing" than a spectacular traffic accident in the Andes.

The abundance of bite-sized pieces scattered about gave readers multiple points of entry into yesterday's newspaper. Parched by a long story about tax policy that jumped from Page One, a reader could always count on finding a little oasis where he could replenish himself. Knowing that most pages contained a few shorts gave readers added reason to flip through the paper and nibble here and there.

New York Times, June 30, 1980
New York Times, June 30, 1980
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Everybody claims to have a cure for what ails the modern newspaper: more color, better printing, better graphics, more attitude in reporting, less attitude in reporting, more local coverage, punchier articles, and on and on. Am I the only one who finds the layouts of today's newspapers to be too symmetrical, too sterile, and too predictable? I won't pretend it's a magic potion, but if I ran a daily, I'd fleck it with random news-wire shorts: freighter sinkings, strange statistics, diplomatic postings, "News of the Weird"-type reports, industrial accidents, animal facts, and, yes, bus plunges. Lots of bus plunges.

Had I been in charge of the Times on Oct. 28, 2006, I would have directed the foreign desk to distill a 266-word AP account of a bus accident in Nepal down to 43 words and drop it onto A10 of the Oct. 29 edition. It would have read like this:

Nepal Bus Plunge Kills 42
KATMANDU, Nepal, Oct. 28 (AP)—Forty-two people died when a bus skidded off a mountain road 250 miles west of here and plunged 250 yards into a ravine. Another 45 were wounded. Such deadly accidents, often caused by poor roads and aging, overcrowded vehicles, are common in Nepal.

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Addendum: Ready for a second plunge? See this follow-up story. ... Here's the latest bus-plunge story, hot off the wires. My holiday plans are to recruit the local chapter of the Third World Club and drive in my Honda van to the bottom of a Shenandoah Mountain ravine in hopes of making K-hed news. Yours? Send e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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