Thursday, September 09, 2004

Presidential endorsement from the United Rim Rats of America

From Ed Sargent, a colleague of mine on the Universal Desk at the Dallas Morning News:

As John Kerry and George W. Bush gather endorsements and donations based on the weighty issues of war, terrorism and the economy, the nation's copy editors are anxiously waiting to see who wins the endorsement of the United Rim Rats of America. Their very careers could depend on the outcome.

The United Who?

Copy editors are the last line of defense at any newspaper. They're the last people to read the stories before the mighty Wifag press starts churning out thousands of newspapers per hour, to be bundled up and tossed on your doorstep or put in your favorite rack before sunrise. All of this happens in the middle of the night, which is why copy editors often feel that they're treated as the stepchildren of journalism.

They also happen to be the people who write the headlines. That's right: Not the reporters or the big-shot editors with fancy titles and glass offices – it's the folks with the green eyeshades and the whiskey bottle in the lower desk drawer. OK, not any more, but that's their stereotype. And that feeling of perpetual mistreatment gave rise to the proud term of "rim rat" for those who slaved away long into the night in the noble profession of copy editing.

Why rim? Because many years ago, long before the advent of computers and the ubiquitous cubicles that American offices have succumbed to, copy editors sat around the outside edge -- the rim, if you will -- of a large, U-shaped desk. The person in charge of the copy desk sat in the "slot" of the U. These terms are still used in many newsrooms today to designate who's doing what on the copy desk, even though the U-shaped desk was long ago rendered to sawdust.

The United Rim Rats of America is a mostly apocryphal fellowship of these important but oft-overlooked members of the journalistic fraternity. Meetings, if any have really occurred, are historically held in the parking lot of a tavern near the newspaper office after closing time. The group doesn't do much because copy editors are notoriously picky, so they can't even agree on whether Rim Rats is one word, two words or hyphenated.

This loose-knit but important group is not to be confused with the august American Copy Editors Society, a noble product of the professionalization of copy editing that actively works to improve copy editors' skills, working conditions and perceived worth within the ranks of journalists. Unlike the URRA, ACES is open, above-board and takes absolutely no political stands.

But the only thing the URRA has ever done, other than swell the coffers of alcohol purveyors and, long ago, tobacco companies, is to endorse a presidential candidate. They've done this in every election since "independent" newspapers -- that is, those that weren't directly controlled by political parties -- emerged in the mid-19th century.

Their criteria? The URRA pays no attention to party platforms or political philosophy or flip-flopping or attack ads. The endorsement always goes to the candidate with the shortest last name.

Why? Because the president of the United States is in the news every day, and the shorter the last name, the easier it is to write a headline that conveys what the leader of the free world did that day. "Smith signs peace treaty" tells you much more than "McFluegelhornstein inks pact." Copy editors are generally stuck with the space they're given to write a headline on a particular story, so having a president with a short name is crucial.

The tough part of this endorsement is that letters have different widths. To account for this, the URRA uses the ancient art of "headline counting." For decades, this is how copy editors made sure headlines fit the allotted space. Now, of course, a computer does the counting. Most lower-case letters are 1 count, but because m and w are wider, they count 1.5. And f, i, j, l and t, being thin, count a half. Most capital letters count 1.5 each, but wider ones count 2 and narrower ones count 1.

In recent years, we've been blessed with presidential candidates with relatively short names, particularly men such as Gerald Ford, both Bushes and Bob Dole. Why Republicans have shorter names than Democrats is an interesting question, but the URRA and its purported members take no interest in that sort of partisan trivia.

The "head count" for Ford and Bush is 4.5, while Dole comes in at 4, among the shortest, along with Polk and Taft. Clinton was longer (he never won the URRA endorsement) but was still within reason at 6. Reagan was 6.5.

From the early 20th century through the 1960s, most candidates had longer names than they do today. In the 1980s, copy editors cringed at the thought of a Mondale (7.5) or Dukakis (7) presidency. The real nightmare, though, came in 1972, when Richard Nixon, an easy 5, faced George McGovern, a full 9 and a half.

Luckily, the U.S. Constitution prohibits the foreign-born governor of California from seeking the presidency, although he's already caused plenty of havoc on copy desks around the world with the 15 counts of Schwarzenegger. He often shows up in headlines simply as Arnold, a mere 6.

For many years, candidates with longer names were the norm: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Stevenson, Kennedy, Johnson, Goldwater and Humphrey all coming in with at least 7. To solve the problem, headline writers usually referred to them by their initials, generally counting 4 to 4.5: FDR, JFK, LBJ and even HHH. One was known in headlines by his nickname, Ike. For many copy editors, he's still the greatest president ever, counting at a mere 2.5, beating out Taft and Polk by a full count.

The practice of using initials stopped with the 1968 election of Nixon, whose name was the same length as RMN.

In the 14 elections since 1948, the URRA has picked the winner eight times, using Ike, JFK and LBJ instead of their real names. The last URRA winner was George Bush in 1988. The group backed Republicans 10 times in those elections. The Republican Party also gets favorable nods from copy editors, at least when they’re working, because it can be called GOP (4.5 counts), while Democrats are always Democrats (9.5).

In 2000, the URRA endorsement, like the election, was a dead heat. Bush and Gore both officially count 4.5. But like the popular vote, Gore got the edge because r is slightly narrower than its lower-case brethren, just not enough to count as a half.

And r will prove tricky in this year's contest. Kerry, while counting at 5.5, actually comes in shorter than that because of his two r's. But Bush stands solidly on his 4.5 count, and takes home the 2004 endorsement of the United Rim Rats of America.

So will this endorsement affect the election’s outcome? Don't count on it.


At 7:14 PM, September 09, 2004, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Damn, when did we get to be august? And why wasn't I informed?

John McIntyre
President of ACES

At 11:37 AM, September 10, 2004, Blogger Nick said...

Did Ed right all that? Give him a column!

At 12:26 PM, September 10, 2004, Blogger Nicole said...

He most certainly did. I smell a newsletter opportunity ...

At 10:49 PM, September 15, 2004, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And once upon a time, I had an IBM typewriter, but not the kind with the ball. This was a standard looking typerwriter, but it used optical spacing instead of monospacing, much like the mentioned headline counting. The backspace was a 0.5, so I needed to keep a chart handy if I had to backspace over several letters, since it was hard to just guess it. It finally broke, so I ditched it. But it would be quite a conversation piece now.


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