The Case Against Ticktocks

Chatterbox was feeling restless. Venturing onto his front porch a few minutes before on that icy Sunday morning in January, he’d seen, as he’d reached down for the Washington Post, that the paper had fronted a lengthy ticktock (“From Miscues to Consensus: ‘Almost as if the Hand of Providence Reached Down’ to Senate”) about the making of the Senate deal on how the impeachment trial was to proceed. Now, as Chatterbox poured himself some freshly brewed coffee (black) and shook some Mueslix out of a cereal box, he thought: Damn. I will have to read that piece. Chatterbox retied his blue terrycloth bathrobe and sat down with the newspaper at the kitchen table beside his 5-year-old son, Willie, who was picking his nose and perusing a Rugrats comic book.

“Ticktock” was reporter-ese for a portentous narrative about the making of some significant event, usually having to do with the government. It had been invented decades ago by the newsmagazines, but appropriated in recent years by the major newspapers, which liked to scoop the newsmagazines by running big ticktocks on Sundays. (The newsmagazines didn’t come out until Monday.) The New Yorker had been fond of ticktocks when Elizabeth Drew worked there, but had mostly (and wisely, Chatterbox thought, as he stroked his graying beard and remembered his 41st birthday was fast approaching) stopped running them. Now Drew wrote her ticktocks as books, which seemed more hospitable to the form.

Chatterbox had nothing against ticktocks per se; as a former newspaper and newsmagazine reporter, he’d contributed to many of them. (A defining characteristic of the ticktock was that it was nearly always a collaborative enterprise.) As he lifted the spoon to his mouth, Chatterbox recalled that he’d even read and enjoyed many ticktocks that he hadn’t helped write. Fine-grained narrative detail, Chatterbox thought, could certainly aid a story’s readability when the detail was relevant and interesting. But as Chatterbox paused to wipe some milk that had dribbled down his chin, he further thought: Unfortunately, oftentimes the narrative detail is entirely devoid of relevance or interest or meaning of any kind. Moreover, although ticktocks had the tendency to make the event being described sound as important as the Congress of Vienna, in many cases the event being described was quite trivial. Standing up to pour himself a second cup of coffee, Chatterbox thought: Such is the case with this Post story on the Senate agreement on the impeachment trial, which despite much senatorial enthusing about “comity,” was really an agreement to put off till later the divisive issue of whether to call witnesses.

Chatterbox scratched his belly and called upstairs to his wife. “Marjorie?” he said.

No answer.



“I’m going to write a Chatterbox item saying that newspapers and newsmagazines overuse ticktocks, and I’m going to call for a moratorium.”


“I said, I’m going to write a Chatterbox item saying that newspapers and newsmagazines overuse ticktocks, and call for a moratorium. Do you think that’s a good idea?”

“I’m just getting Alice dressed. Can we talk about this in a minute when we come downstairs?”

“What?” Chatterbox said.

“I said, I’m just getting Alice dressed. Let’s talk about your item when we come downstairs,” said Mrs. Chatterbox.

“OK,” Chatterbox said.

Fifty-three seconds later, Mrs. Chatterbox came downstairs with their 3-year-old daughter, Alice, who was outfitted in a purple dress and a purple headband. Mrs. Chatterbox, still in her bathrobe, gratefully accepted a cup of coffee (milk and sugar) from Mr. Chatterbox. She glanced at the Post and agreed that ticktocks were often merely a way for unimaginative editors to command acres of newsprint on big stories where there wasn’t very much to say. “I do think that would be a good Slate item,” Mrs. Chatterbox said.

And so the following morning, after dropping off some flyers at Alice’s school, Chatterbox went into his office, sat down at his desk, booted up his computer, and wrote, “Chatterbox was feeling restless …”