Short Stories

Ombudsman

September 05, 1993|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

It's a day for short newspaper stories, one paragraph each and no elaborate documentation. As Ross Perot tells nosy reporters who want to see his economic plan, "If I had known you wanted that, I would have brought my charts."

* In a box showing what else the Orioles $173 million price tag could buy, The Sun listed National Premium beer at what amounted to $6,500 a case. The good-natured brewery sent The Sun a free case of beer with a bill for $6,500 and a discount of $6,500. The Sun doesn't like to accept gifts like that, so the beer was auctioned off inside and the winning $12 bid was donated to Our Daily Bread, a soup kitchen for the homeless. Meanwhile, The Sun corrected its error by saying that National Premium was actually $6.50 a case. That was also wrong, just over half of the going price of National Premium.

* A mouse was found Aug. 10 running around the room where phone solicitors take ads for Sun death notices. The mouse was killed. A feeling of silliness crept into the room, and someone typed up a death notice for the mouse, listing Minnie Mouse and other survivors. The employees quickly killed the death notice. The employees forgot, however, that the computer automatically had taken the name of the deceased and put it in an alphabetized list of all the death notices to be published the next day. The Sun appeared the next morning with "Mouse, Mickey" listed under "M." More than 60 angry readers called. The Sun apologized in the paper and on TV for the prank. But a malicious act of sabotage or disrespect it was not.

* Ruth Brown, of Baltimore, called up last month and said, "There's so much bad news. . . . It's too easy to find. Please write stories that lift people up." Like what? "My daughter was delivered by a doctor 30 years ago. They later became friendly. Because of that friendship, she decided to become an obstetrician. Now she's Nancy Holt-Brown, just graduated from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and will join his practice." The mother was right. It made a nice Sun story a couple weeks later. Many friends congratulated the family.

* Readers have intriguing ideas. Victor H. Block, an 80-year-old Baltimorean who still smacks tennis balls and badminton birdies, said The Sun could fit in more stories and sharpen its writing by cutting out unneeded words. One of several examples: "Clinton . . . is not expected back at the White House" (strike "back"). Another reader said beware of reporters with little notebooks: the word "libel" was Latin for "little book;" when Romans trashed opponents, they published nasty statements in little pamphlets.

* We once knew a guy who grew up in Highlandtown, had never been to Towson and had no plans to go ("I have no business there"). Many people don't know where local neighborhoods are. The Sun recently misplaced a Snow Hill inn in Western Maryland before moving it to the correct Eastern Shore. The Geezers, a weekly gathering of Sun alumni, enjoy their old paper but think the current staff's local geographic knowledge is sometimes wanting. They argue: Make geography as important as politically correct topics such as gender, race and religion.

* Some Sun columnists still light up my office egometer. That's a mythical instrument through which columns are run to see how many times the writers refer to I, me, myself and my. Some Sun and Evening Sun columns score more than 30 personal references. Of course, some columns based on personal experiences are good, and other self-references are OK occasionally. But some overload on "I" this, "me" that. The best columns are often windows looking out on other people. The glass is clear, stained or warped to reflect writers' thoughts but the focus is on life outside.

* Cliches, mixed metaphors continue. An NFL spokesman reacted to early boos for the name "Rhinos" if Baltimore gets a pro football team by saying on Page 1 of The Sun that "Nothing is set in stone." Lowell Sunderland, an editor, noted that this was a variant of the venerable cliche, "Nothing is carved in stone," and what the fellow probably meant was "Nothing is set in concrete." A local radio executive became a runner-farmer with this mixed metaphor on his station getting an award: "Being two years out of the blocks is not an easy row to hoe."

* Older newspaper people end their stories with -30- instead of "end." The number is so traditional that for years folks of the press sent floral wreaths in the shape of 30 to their friends' funerals. "-30-" was even a 1959 Jack Webb newspaper movie. Why "30"? Theories abound. Favored is some kind of old telegraphers' sign-off, code for that's all or good night or the equivalent of the "XXX" sign-off. One editor here says 30 was as high as some editors could count without taking off their shoes.

Ernest Imhoff is readers' representative for The Baltimore Sun.

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