Recently I adopted the arguably worthwhile habit of reading the New York Times. But, speaking purely as a bumpkin, mind you, I am puzzled by the small print which follows 95 percent of the by-lines in the paper: "Special to The New York Times." How special can these be, since many of the writers appear almost daily in the paper? And most of the stories, while informative, strike me as rather run-of-the-mill. What is so "special" about them? Or is this just another case of hype stripping a word of all meaning?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
Clearly, Mike, you have not had much experience with the New York Times, in which every story is special, simply by virtue of having appeared in that newspaper’s distinguished pages. This is what is known as the New York Times Mystique. I recall the experience of a journalist acquaintance of mine, who applied for a job as a Times sub-editor of some sort, only to learn that the pay was $12,000 per year, or something equally dismal (this was a few years ago, you realize). Upon complaining that sewer scrubbers in Borneo make more money, he was told, in rather wounded tones, "But you’d be working for the New York Times!" I mean, whoopee.
When accompanied by a by-line, "Special to The New York Times" means, as one might suppose, that the story was written exclusively for the paper by one of its own correspondents, rather than by one of the wire services, say. The precise origin of this practice is lost in the Mists of Antiquity, but apparently the paper at one time wanted to demonstrate the vast scale of its newsgathering resources. Nowadays they do it mainly because that’s the way they’ve always done it, inertia being one of the principal determinants of Times editorial policy. One Times copy editor I happened to chat with about this one time was still miffed by the fact that the paper had stopped using the line "By Wireless."
When "Special to The New York Times" appears without a by-line, it usually means that the story was contributed by a "stringer," one of the paper’s overworked, underpaid part-time correspondents. Occasionally, though, it means that what you’re reading is basically a rewritten press release. The same is true of most of those little squibs you see in the Wall Street Journal that say "By a Wall Street Journal Staff Reporter." An unusual twist was given to the "Special to …" tag in Chicago. The old Chicago Journalism Review once reported that "Special to the Sun-Times" over a story on an out-of-town sports event sometimes meant (and maybe still means, for all I know) that the reporter had watched the game on television, thus giving new meaning to the term "electronic journalism." Let this be an inspiration to all you hustling journalism students.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.