Old words: Save the Musk-Ox

A short note about an odd coinage from the newspaper business that I think has mostly faded away: the “musk ox” story. This was a “filler” eve green story that could run at any time, and was a term that my parents–both Chicago newspaper reports in the mid-century–used.

A musk ox might be a slice of life feature about a perfect family afternoon at Brookfield Zoo or an explanation of the history of park league softball in Chicago, one of the few places in the world that uses a 16-inch softball. In other words, benign stories, no particular news peg and perfect for a slow news day.

Reporters did well to have a few musk-oxen in their desk, stories you could pull out, spruce up quickly and file. This is a reflection of the paradoxical situation that, although it was hard to get a job on a great newspaper (and my mother’s paper, The Chicago Tribune, called itself the “World’s Greatest Newspaper” right on the masthead in those days) and space would seem to be at a premium, with editors and writers having to go to the mat for their stories, yet, there is, at the end of the day, often a copy hole to fill. And sometimes you just need “10 Gardening Tips From Our Canadian Neighbors” to do the job.

Such fillers are a particular boon to columnists and editorial writers, who have the unenviable task of trying to get a base hit day after day. Weather, how things used to be, funny spouses, kids, pets, or even traffic abound as topics. Columnists often seem to fall back on non-news about birds, which perhaps deserves its own Pulitzer category. A friend termed these “The frost is on the pumpkin” pieces, and I will give you even money that there is at least one such column waiting in a computer file at a newspaper right now. (Not to mention, “August in Washington: Hot Sidewalks, Hot Eggs” and “X Isn’t What it Used to be” where X is…’draft beer’ , ‘Dupont Circle’, ‘DC sex scandals’, or “How I Learned to Live With My Pet Chickens!”)

No musk-oxen here…the Trib on a day that was anything but slow, 7/29/1914

I suppose this all betrays a bit too much nostalgia for the musk-ox. Like the “fanny piece,” a much derided type of news story that required no actual work, you just sat down and wrote it, maybe with a call or two at most, the musk-ox is really hardly something to miss. Non-news filler, and people sitting on their butt and opining are not in small supply right now (this very instant, in fact, on this very blog). Maybe what I miss is the distinction. There was once news, it required reporting, and, although hard to nail down precisely why, it was somehow worth the effort, and then there were filler bits, that provided a smile. Now there’s mostly just stuff you scroll by, not even irrelevant enough to be a musk-ox, which at least had the decency not to be a listicle or the tweets of somebody’s private sex life.


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