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” evergreen story that could run at any time, and was a term that my parents, both Chicago newspaper reporters, 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 space would seem to be at a premium in a paper, with editors and writers having to go to the mat for their stories, there is, at the end of the day, often a copy hole to fill.  This was true then, and has been true on every publication I’ve ever worked on–including, web ones.  Sometimes you just need “10 Gardening Tips From Our Canadian Neighbors” to do the job.

Having such fillers in your back pocket 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!”)

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

The musk ox had a much-derided companion in mid-century journalism, which prided itself on reporting that took actual work. This was the  “fanny piece,” a “news” story that required no actual work, and that you could just sit at your desk and write. (This is sort of a fanny blog).  These non-news fillers were bit players in daily journalism once upon a time, and the difference between them and actual news was mostly discernable. Has the musk ox perished from journalism, or are we awash in it?

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