The better newspapers used to have the best filler stories
You know what newspapers don't have anymore?
OK, who said readers? I heard that, and I know where you live.
No, what I was going for was fillers.
In the olden days, before computers, we used to run out galleys of type, which were fed through a waxer, trimmed on a big paper cutter and then laid down on the page in columns until the whole page was covered with well, something. With a story, of course, there might be a picture (accompanied by a caption), and all the copy would attractively wind its way from the top to the bottom, hopefully arriving at the bottom of the space exactly the right length.
But, guess what?
Sometimes it didn't end in exactly the right place. Sometimes it was a little long, requiring a goodhearted but ruthless pasteup person to chop off the end and leave it off to the side of the page.
And sometimes it was short, leaving a place for the goodhearted but ruthless pasteup person to note, with a special non-repro blue pen, FILL.
Then it was the editor's decision to either find a little story to fill the hole or, if the hole was too small, to grab a filler from the filler basket.
True fillers were little one- and two- and three-line nuggets that read very much like fortune cookies. They were often provided by some giant company, or perhaps a nonprofit organization, that had figured out this was a great way to get their message out there for free, mind you.
The Goodyear Tire Co., for instance, would send out entire sheets of wisdom saying things like, It's important to rotate your tires, and Last year, (X-number) thousand motorists bought Goodyear tires for their car.
The Red Cross, on the other hand, wasn't exactly selling anything, but its message to Give blood this week served a similar purpose. The United Way urged readers, Give the United Way.
The message got in, and the copy squared off at the bottom of the page, just like it was supposed to.
But sometimes you needed more than one or two lines of brilliance to fill the space. Sometimes you needed a little story maybe one no more than 3 or 4 inches from top to bottom.
Now, in my early newspaper reading days, I was something of a filler story connoisseur. They were my favorite stories in the newspaper. For one thing, they were short, so it only took a minute or two to read the whole thing.
For another, they were often full of ghastly details mainly because they began their life as full-fledged 20- or 30-inch wire stories (meaning they came from Associated Press or United Press International expecting to be on page one with big hollering headlines.
Alas, they were often hacked down to 3 inches and poked into a hole at the bottom of one of those deep, deep canyons between the ads.
Not every newspaper made proper use of the filler story. The Oregonian almost never used them. I guess their writers were so verbose all an editor had to do to make stories fit was to cut them.
The Oregon Journal, on the other hand, had them all over the place.
The same pattern was true in Salem: the Statesman nope (boring); the Evening Capital Journal yes! (definitely not boring).
Maybe it's a coincidence, but it's been my distinct impression that both of those morning dailies, which eventually gobbled up their afternoon competitors (in both Portland and Salem), were far less interesting to read than the ones they eliminated. The livelier editorials, the snappier headlines, the entertaining diversity in news overall those invariably were in the afternoon papers, until they went away, that is.
Now, I don't know if you already know this about me, but I have a tendency to save things. And I have quite a collection of filler stories from the 1970s and '80s almost all from the Oregon Journal and the Capital Journal.
Here are just a few of the headlines (but I can promise you the stories are every bit as good as the heads) and remember, none of these is more than 200 words or so:
Toothless man kills 2 over porkchops he couldn't eat (OK, I have to butt in here to give you the first paragraph of this story, which is:) WADESBORO, S.C. Click Lonzo Bennett has no teeth, and when his wife served porkchops for dinner he shot her and their daughter and wounded another daughter, police said Monday. Now back to the list:
Wife confesses killing; husband is found guilty
Reagan attacked by nun
Danger found in warmth
Man guns down wieners
Weekly says sellers of fake Hitler diaries were big spenders
Robbers glue victims to floor
Poodle sounds fire alarm
Chicago girl, 10, gives birth; 2 men charged
Authorities kill rampaging hog
2 Youths are Jailed on pizza charges
'Mother' of 49 admits fraud
Now, that's what I call news and every one of them no bigger than a grocery store coupon.
(A former editor for several Oregon newspapers, including the Woodburn Independent, Lake Oswego Review, Beaverton Valley Times and The Times, Mikel Kelly now works on the central design desk for Community Newspapers and the Portland Tribune and contributes an occasional column.)