About Words I Won’t Put in the Title of This Piece Despite the Temptation

“Tim,” Matt said, beer in hand, in a bar in Mexico City, “you have to learn about 50 words that will almost guarantee you play in the papers.” He swallowed. He looked at me and frowned. “But you’re so young,” he said, shaking his head, “you’re probably not going to like it.” He swallowed again, then started listing the words: “naked, violent, brutal, cruel, vicious, rape, clash, showdown, face-off, fists, bare, nude, stripped, fight … ” I can’t remember them all. This was in 1974.  Matt Kenny, 50-something, gray hair, glasses, and quick to smile, was day editor for United Press International in Mexico City.  I was night editor. Matt had been with UPI longer than I’d been alive. That’s me in the picture, taken in 1974, in the UPI bureau in Mexico City. I was unhappy because he had rewritten my lead about a Kon-Tiki-like raft trip arriving on Mexico’s Caribbean coast in 1974. I covered the story live, Matt handled it on the desk. It was a scientific expedition, a social science experiment, or so said the adventurous organizer. Matt rewrote the lead to emphasize “suntanned bikini-clad” women and the co-ed journey across the Atlantic Ocean on a raft. Ironic, 33 years later, he was right: I was very young. United Press International, alias UPI, was a wire service with generations of history as the “other wire service,” the competition to Associated Press, AP, which still lives today. Mexico City was an outpost. We filed stories from Mexico City to the New York editors using a 1940s teletype system (the clackety clackety of old movies and old newsrooms) until my last year there, in 1974, when they got one of the first word processing systems, which we called, with fear and dread, “the computer.” (For you computer historians, it was an early Atex system). What’s most interesting about that whole system, and strangely relevant in the blog world of today, was that the system gave the editors in New York our first sentence only, as they scanned new stories coming in from the boonies (and another rambling historical note, BTW, was that Mexico City was considered the boonies to UPI New York editors in 1974, although it was already one of the largest cities in the world). Repeat, for emphasis: they saw the first sentence only, and from that decided whether or not they wanted to see the first paragraph. Bloggers, consider that for writing pressure. Matt Kenny was not unhappy or bitter or cynical or even hard-boiled. He was a pro. He did his job well. Matt’s 50 words don’t tell us that much about him — I liked him a lot, was proud to work with him — but they tell us a lot about us, the news business, and readership. (Image: that’s me in the picture, in 1972, in the UPI Mexico City Bureau, photo by David Navarro)


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