OF ALL THINGS: Memories of the traditional news release
While throwing away some very old papers, I came upon a bunch of news releases and wondered about how such things are handled in these days of Twitter and email and websites and other voodooish electronic mysteries. When I started in the word-manipulating industry, back in the Truman Administration, news releases were always on paper.
They were documents of information that a person or organization wanted to be published. They were usually created by public relations writers in companies or ad agencies.
In varied periods of my erratic career, I have read, written, rewritten, edited and/or thrown away thousands of them. Many contained valuable information. Many others were mediocre attempts to get publicity.
In the Evening Bulletin newsroom in the mid-20th century, an editor would occasionally toss a news release on a writer’s desk and say something like, “Give me a 12-head on this.”
The document would be on the letterhead of an advertising agency. It would have been duplicated by something like a Mimeograph, Ditto printer or Hectograph. (If you don’t know what they were, don’t worry. It’s all right to be young.) The Xerox was still only a gleam in Chester Carlson’s eye.
At the top, the paper would say “For Immediate Release.” There would follow an announcement that the Ajax Bifurcated Ferrule Co. of Manayunk was sponsoring the annual Greater Manayunk Accordion and Piccolo Symphonette concert on Saturday. In about 1,000 carefully crafted words, it would give the time and place of the event, information about the participants, details of the music to be played and of the refreshments to be dispensed and an enlightening history of the accordion.
And a 12-head, in Bulletin typographical lingo, meant that the writer should condense the publicity masterpiece to one paragraph.
The Bulletin, and I suppose most big newspapers, rarely ran a news release as written, no matter how usable.
It always amazed me that big corporations, when they had something to say that was actually news, would send a release that required calling them to clarify something or get a vital fact that was left out.
Most advertising and public relations agencies had writers who produced usable material. I often felt bad when a nicely crafted article by a writer who knew his trade was given to me to redo.
I often thought, when required to rewrite a well-done release, that PR writers should always do the release the second best way, so it could be rewritten the best way for publication.
And it was always fun to brighten up a dull one. Once about 60 years ago, an editor gave me a release from the telephone company, announcing that the new phone directories were about to be delivered, and asked, “What can you do with this?” I did some thinking and some research and got an idea.
(I’ve lost the original, but recreated this slightly abbreviated 1977 directory version for a writing class I was teaching.)
“What has 19 wings and only seven feathers, 12 heads and 39 hands, is 11 inches high, and is coming to your house next week?
“The answer: the Bell of Pennsylvania 1977 White Pages Telephone Directory.
“The 19 Wings, from Beth Wing to Woo Wing, will be found on page 977. The Feathers are on page 279, the Heads on 393 and the Hands on 380.”
It made the front page.
Visit columnist Jim Smart’s website at jamessmartsphiladelphia.com.