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December 26, 2010

Digital Killed the Bus Crash Story

I saw this headline in today's New York Times and I felt quite nostalgic:

Back in the day, the foreign bus crash story was a staple of the Gray Lady. It was not that the paper wanted to show off the breadth of its international staff; these short, dispensable stories were a necessity in the days of analog (physical) typographic layout.

Once upon a time, type was set in hot lead, and the columns were supposed to be of equal length. No writer knew what length (in column-inches) the other writers had produced; the odds were against the columns balancing out.

To resolve the problem, the NY Times kept a constantly updated stock of bus crash stories, brief short pieces that could be used as filler. They were called "K-heds".

There were other types of stories used for column balancing; they weren't all bus crashes — there were reports of arriving ambassadors and departing steam ships — but the bus crash became a self-parodying favorite among the writers and editors.

In 2006, Jack Shafer wrote a Slate article exploring "the rise and fall of the 'bus plunge' story", and explained that the introduction of cold type in the late 1970's, and the 1980's development of page layout software did away with the need for the "bus plunge K-hed".

What made today's headline jump out at to me is that it's the first bus crash story I've seen in the paper of record for years if not decades, and I realize that it's only present because of the American fatalities - as Jack Shafer quoted foreign correspondent Mort Rosenblum's formulation, "A hundred Pakistanis going off a mountain in a bus make less of a story than three Englishmen drowning in the Thames."


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