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?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

As recently as 1980, the New York Times reserved an honored—if small—place in its pages for "bus plunge" news. Whenever buses nose-dived down mountainsides; off bridges and cliffs; over embankments, escarpments, and precipices; through abutments and guardrails; or into ravines, gorges, valleys, culverts, chasms, canyons, canals, lakes, and oceans, the news wires moved accounts of the deadly tragedies, and the Times would reliably edit them down to one paragraph and publish.

As an example of the genre, it's hard to beat this 30-word gem I culled from the March 5, 1959, edition of the Times:

15 Africans Die in Bus Plunge
MATTAIELE, Union of South Africa, March 5 (Reuters)—Fifteen Africans were killed and thirty others were injured today when a bus careened out of control off a cliff near the Mabusa mission station, about fifteen miles from here.

[More], the old journalism review, discovered the Times' affinity for bus plunges in 1972, reproducing in its November issue 30 examples from the paper. But its editors confessed that they didn't know what to make of the phenomenon: "No one on the [Times] foreign desk is talking."

New York Times, Sept. 1, 1956
New York Times, Sept. 1, 1956

Of course, bus plunges still claim hundreds of lives around the world each year. A Web site records the most noteworthy accidents. On average, the news wires publish one or two plunge stories each month. But the bus-plunge story rarely stops at West 43rd Street anymore. The ProQuest newspaper database shows that the Times published a high of 20 of the shorts in 1968 and ran them frequently throughout the 1970s. But Nexis snares only three examples of the genre in the Times during the last five years.

Writer Tom Miller called the genre's demise to my attention more than a year ago and asked me to investigate. "Are there no more stringers in the Himalayas or the Andes?" Miller wrote in an e-mail, asking if buses, drivers, and highways were safer now.

Miller devotes a chapter to the accidents in his 1986 book The Panama Hat Trail, advising travelers on how best to avoid bus-plunge victimhood. Inspect the bus for balding tires. Does the vehicle have at least one windshield wiper? That's an excellent sign, especially if it's on the driver's side, Miller writes. For the good of your heart, avoid seats that give a view of oncoming traffic. If the driver's wife or girlfriend is a passenger, board that bus: Her presence gives him an added incentive to survive the trip.

New York Times, Oct. 11, 1960
New York Times, Oct. 11, 1960

The chapter check-lists the elements of a definitive bus-plunge story: Plunge should appear in the hed; the piece should be only a couple of sentences long; and it should "include the number feared dead, the identity of any group on board"—a soccer team, church choir, or students—"as well as the distance of the plunge from the capital city." The words ravine or gorge should appear.

Race and culture played a big role in bus-plunge story's placement, too. Miller quotes foreign correspondent Mort Rosenblum's equation: "A hundred Pakistanis going off a mountain in a bus make less of a story than three Englishmen drowning in the Thames." By and large, if an American plunged on a bus, the news was always more likely to run as a free-standing story in a U.S. newspaper than as filler.

This bus-plunge piece, which I found in the Sept. 19, 1969, Times,is as succinct as they come and rings every Millerian bell except the distance from the capital:

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.

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.

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.) 

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.

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

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.

******

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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