Good tabloid writing turns crap into a front-page natural

On August 11, many news organizations covered another dramatic drop of the Dow, this one more than 500 points. So volatile was the market that week that even the roller coaster cliché seemed insufficient. Suddenly we heard talk of a market that was as bouncy and breathtaking as a ride on a bungee cord.

I happened to be on Long Island that day and scanned front pages and headlines displayed at my favorite news stand, The Sugar Bowl. Bill Weiss, the proprietor, carries The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Newsday, the New York Post, and the Daily News. At a glance, I saw a lot of singles and doubles in the coverage, but it was the Daily News that hit a home run – out of the ball park.

This Daily News front page was published August 11, 2011.

I’m staring at that front page right now in my Florida office, and it still delights me.

The fun begins with a brilliantly composed photo of the Wall Street bull sculpture, taken by Marcus Santos from behind the bronze beast. Behind the bull stands a dignified street cleaner, wearing a red and blue uniform. From under the bull’s prodigious hindquarters, he appears to be sweeping something from the cobble stone street into a portable trash receptacle.

The visual gag is unmistakable. Like the man who dutifully follows the elephants in a circus parade, our hero appears to be cleaning up what the bull would have left behind if he were really a bull and not a metal behemoth.

A great photo deserves a great headline, and this one stands out in letters almost three inches high:


After another 500-plus-point drop in the Dow,

he’s the only guy cleaning up on Wall Street

Let’s X-ray the word play on this front page, beginning with the headline: Craps!

The first effect is scatological and satirical, reinforcing the work done by the photo imagery. The bull, symbol of aggressive investors, is crapping on Wall Street. Shot from the back, he appears to be about to run away, escape, to be replaced, no doubt, by the hibernating bear. The combo of “bull” and “crap” fits easily together in the language of the street. Together “bullcrap” becomes a euphemism for “bullshit,” with all its connotations of attacking phony sophistication.

But wait, there’s more: I’m sure that I’ve heard someone say that day trading is a form of gambling, a “crap shoot.” Enter, the dicey metaphor. The bull has lost its bet: "crapped out."

The words “crap” and “craps” have different etymologies. Crap, meaning defecate, is British slang that may derive from the older French word, meaning chaff or refuse. Craps, on the other hand, is probably a corruption of “crabs,” the name of a dice game.

Specifically, craps is the name for the losing toss in the game, a gambling antonym for shooting a “natural.” To shoot a natural, for example, would be to shoot a 7 or 11 on a first toss. A throw of two (snake eyes), three, or 12 (boxcars) can result in the loss of a bet – craps!

Both the gambling and scatological double meanings are echoed in the subtitle with the language “he’s the only guy cleaning up,” that is, doing profitable work. This is tabloidism at its best, a combination of clever, almost offensive messages, created by a team – photographers, writers, editors, designers -- who are, shall we say, on the same page.

I grew up in New York reading tabloid newspapers, especially The Daily News and the Mirror. Because I also read Newsday, a serious paper, I came to understand early that “tabloid” was not just a shape or size, but a sensibility, a way of looking at the world.

The responsible tabloid (a near oxymoron?) does not ignore serious news, but chances are it will see that news in unconventional ways, either through the engine of bald outrage or low comedy.

Johanna Huden was working at the New York Post when she was struck with anthrax through the mail.

When in 2001 editorial assistant Johanna Huden was the first person to be infected by anthrax spores sent through the mail, the New York Post would offer the headline “Anthrax This,” accompanied by a photo of her flipping an infected middle finger at the terrorists.

The Post’s headlines are so delicious/notorious that they have earned a place in an anthology titled “Headless Body in Topless Bar,” perhaps the paper’s most famous "head"line. Other gems  include: “Holy Shiite,” “Lady Is A Trump,” “Axis of Weasel,” and “Kiss Your Asteroid Goodbye!”

The word “tabloid” has always had a bright and a dark side. As I write this, that dark side is being made manifest across the globe in charges of phone hacking against News Corp., Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, a scandal that led to the closing of News of the World.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the word “tabloid” dates back to 1901, when it served as a trademark for drugs or chemicals dispensed in a condensed form. By extension, and in lower case, it came to represent “a newspaper of small format giving the news in condensed form, usually with illustrated, often sensational material.”

Over the last two decades broadsheets have been converted to tabloids across Europe and in other parts of the world, but shrinkage in size does not require adaptation of the content or discourse of traditional tabs.

The Daily News of my youth was a working-class rag, filled with big photos, outrageous headlines and sharp opinions, sports and more sports, gambling on the horses, celebrity gossip and scandals, crime (especially organized crime), and as much sexism (decolletage) as the culture could tolerate. There was even a formula for describing women who were victims or perpetrators of lurid crimes to imbue these tabloid characters with sexual energy. Short women were described as “petite”; tall women were “statuesque”; plain women were “vivacious.”

While we can celebrate the passing of those benighted days, let’s send up a cheer that there are still photographers and headline writers at tabloids who devote their lives to making news interesting, even laughable, especially on a day when we may have lost up to 10 percent of our life savings.

Correction: A caption that appeared in the original version of this story misidentified the tabloid as the New York Post, but it was the Daily News. The error has been corrected.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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