Tales from the backshop
(This column originally ran in the Press-Republican, Plattsburgh, NY, March 24, 1996)
Today, the term "boilerplate" is usually associated with lawyers: It's those required blocks of verbiage that never change from one contract to another.
But boilerplate was a newspaper term in the days before offset printing, and it rose up to bite the Plattsburgh Daily Press a century ago.
On March 23, 1896, the Press ran a column headlined "Unfathomable Snobbery," about a young army officer harrassed until he resigned his commission by fellow officers and their wives for marrying the daughter of an enlisted man. It was, the story said, "a systematic persecution ... at the hands of the tabbies of both sexes who constitute our snobbish and ridiculous army aristocracy."
But there was a problem: The story had been revealed as a falsehood several weeks before, by a military writer who reported that the young officer was popular and happy at his post and had resigned for health reasons.
It was a terrible mistake for a paper in the hometown of Plattsburgh Barracks, and the redfaced Press included the facts of the case the next day in an editorial that contained an odd mix of explanation and self-forgiveness:
"The article in question was a product of the syndicate system and did not come to the knowledge of any member of the editorial staff before its appearance," the editorialist wrote. "This explanation will be sufficient to relieve us of any imputation of intention to attack the social usages of the army."
But it wasn't sufficient in the view of the Plattsburgh Republican, a feisty little weekly ever willing to chortle publicly over such a delicious blunder by its larger rival:
"This apology ... naturally suggests an inquiry or two," the Republican scoffed: "Since no member of the editorial staff had any knowledge of this article, how then did it get into the Press...? Was it the office cat or the stock 'scapegoat?'"
The delighted Republican also ran outraged letters to the editor, calling it "scurrilous journalism ... of a character to make Ben Franklin turn in his grave and the shades of Faust and Gutenberg regret that printing was ever discovered," wrote an anonymous "Citizen," warming up for this indignant run-on sentence:
"Our citizens feel ashamed of so unworthy an item in their only daily journal, for although that journal itself is an unworthy representative of journalism, printing its news after it is 24 hours old, yet in the absence of any other daily newspaper it has been tolerated, but it was not expected that it would add spite to its other weaknesses."
The second letter was suspiciously loaded with inside references to the operations of a newspaper: "A pall of mystery hangs over our great freight train-despatch daily," wrote the anonymous critic.
"Who done it? ... Was it Cock Robin? Or the Official Papster? Or the Bucksaw Editor? Alibis are in order...."
References to a "freight-train-despatch daily" and the "Bucksaw Editor" were slams at the Press for not including enough local writing. It's likely the article was boilerplate: Part of a long bar of lead print, typeset in New York City and sent to Plattsburgh to be cut to fit whatever holes in the paper needed filling. A feature article like this could be held to run anytime, and, in this case, had apparently been sitting around since before the follow-up story that branded it a lie. Then, when something that length was needed to fill the column, the story had been sawn off and put into place.
The Republican's editorialist merrily hammered the point home: "By the way, it has generally been understood that the Press's 'news' departments were filled with 'boilerplate' matter, cast in New York, but since when has its editorial pablum been created in the same manner, by a boilerplate 'Editorial Syndicate?' And where does the work of the 'Editorial Staff come in, since, as it appears, a handsaw is all that is needed to get the work of the editorial syndicate into shape for printing?"
Today, the technology has changed: Local media still rely on outside features, though they arrive through satellite dishes instead of trains, and it still happens that, for all the editorial controls in place, something occasionally gets through that oughtn't to have. And it still causes gleeful guffaws among media rivals when it happens.
Today, of course, those rivals are TV and radio stations, but the big difference is that we've all become too mature, professional and responsible to publicly ridicule the mistakes of our competitors.
Or maybe we've become too thin-skinned to risk having the tables turned.
(The media still decline to criticize each other with much in the way of élan, though there's no reluctance on the part of various web sites. The real trick is finding web sites that understand how these things happen. Recently, we lost one of the greats, Charlie Stough, and I would direct you to this remembrance of a funny, funny ink-stained wretch.)