According to the joke, the prisoners at the local penitentiary have become so familiar with the jokes they tell one another that they’ve enumerated them and can crack themselves up by merely shouting out favorites by number. A new prisoner tests this principle by hollering “37,” but gets no response. “Why isn’t anybody laughing?” he asks a fellow inmate. “It’s all in the telling,” comes the answer.
I thought of this joke this morning as I read the accounts in the Washington Post and the New York Times about an FBI computer system that is two years behind schedule and $100 million over budget (“Report criticizes FBI on computer project” and “FBI Computer System Is Late and Over Budget, Report Says,” respectively).
Government computer systems that are woefully behind schedule and ruinously over budget have become such a news staple that it would be a wonder if editors haven’t already numbered the stories, and others like it, for their newsroom convenience. The very least editors could do for readers is color-code generic stories to make it easier for us to skip them.
Although we hate the generic news story, it deserves our pity. It never asked to be born in its feeble, mundane state. It is usually the creation of an editorial system that attempts to do too much with too many stories when it should be giving three or four dozen pieces the time and space they deserve instead. Behind many generic stories stands a good story begging to be told. For instance, the botched government computer system story would be a great peg for a piece about a computer system that arrived ahead of schedule, under budget, and functions better than promised, and that explained how and why that happened.
One way to drive generic stories into extinction would be to compile an open-source list of generic headlines and feed them into a database. Any time a story headline in the publishing queue was a close match to one in the database, the software could alert editors that they’re close to printing a piece that has all the news value of one titled “Sun To Rise in East Tomorrow.” Alternatively, editors could simply spike the lame copy and demand a rewrite.
This morning, with the help of my Slate colleagues, I started building such an open-source list of headlines. Give it a gander:
Apple To Announce New, Secret Product
Social Media in [Country X] Faces Crackdown
Middle East Peace Process Restarted
Security Lapse Exposes Private Data of Millions
Market Falls on Fear of Inflation
Market Rises on Hope for Inflation
Long-Shot Candidate Challenges Status Quo
Inside the White House: Aides Disagree on Policy
Partisanship on Rise in Congress
Lobbyists Exert Influence Over Legislative Process
Congress Recesses With Unfinished Business
Leading Corporations Pay No Taxes
Standardized Test Scores Rise, Racial Gap Remains
Despite Gains, Women’s Pay Lags
Day Care Found To Advance Children’s Social Skills
Day Care Found To Delay Children’s Social Skills
Americans Heavier Than Ever
Heart Drug Found To Cause Heart Attacks
Election Shatters Campaign-Spending Records
Additive Linked to Cancer
Broadcaster Fired Over Offensive Remarks
Interest Rate Jitters Drive Dow Down
Markets Rise on New Unemployment Numbers
Mixed Signals From Fed Send Stocks Lower
President Extends Olive Branch to Washington Insiders
Irregularities Found in Pension Fund
Civil Rights Leaders Embrace Personal-Responsibility Message
Lindsay Lohan Violates Parole
Brett Favre Mulls Retirement
CSI Launches Spinoff
New Job for Kinsley
As rebellions go, mine is miniature. But if you’re equally sick of generic stories, help me eradicate them by building a headline database: Join the “comments” thread below and add a few generic headlines of your own.
And remember, it’s all in the telling.
For specifics, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. For generics, monitor my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a “Press Box” correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word generic in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to email@example.com.