Although this article was written quite a while ago, it is still relevant in the present era as daily newspapers are shriveling and changing in shape. In the day this was written, most papers were eight column productions; however, both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are now only six columns wide. In the past, the front page was sacrosanct as to the exclusion of advertising. Today, strip ads proliferate on front pages and most reporting is of the editorial type.
To the uninitiated, the ability to measure one’s writing so that it fits into the confines of a newspaper column or the limited space afforded a photo caption might seem a daunting and unfathomable task.
In reality, mathematics plays a major role in the creation of a news story, a headline and a photo cutline. The primary math is afforded by the fact that an average newspaper column in a standard-sized paper is some twenty-one inches in length. Column width can vary, but is usually just less than two inches and there are normally eight columns to a page.
Given these constraints, how does the newspaper manage to create meaningful, in-depth news accounts of varying size? To begin with, the “dummy”, or mock-up, of each page that goes into a daily paper comes from the advertising department to the editorial department. Because advertising pays the bulk of the bills, it is important that the initial “dummy” is made up by the advertising department based on the number of column inches of ads that have been sold for that issue. Standard pages, such as the front page, the editorial page and the comic page are the exceptions and are the sole purview of the editorial department.
It might be well to mention at this point that advertising has no influence on editorial and vice versa. At least that is the way it is supposed to work in the perfect world.
Once the editorial department gets the dummy pages from the advertising department, the stories are ready to be given position, relative to their perceived importance to the reader and headline writers stand by to create intriguing banners to lead readers to the story.
Here is where the mathematics takes hold. A story may warrant 20 to 30 inches of copy, but if only 12 inches is allotted per the “dummy”, then 12 inches it is. Most competent reporters have a rule of thumb when it comes to gauging how many words a given inch of double spaced typing contains. They can “eyeball” relate this to how many words a given inch of newspaper type contains (depending on the “point” size of the type), and can write their stories accordingly. For mathematical reference, 72 point type size equals one inch. Most dictionaries are printed in a 6 point type (1/12 of an inch in height), and most newspaper columns are printed in 8 or 9 point type size (1/9 and 1/8 of an inch respectively).
Ideally, reporters get their instructions from their editors firsthand regarding any story and then tailor the length of that story to the editorial “hole” that it is to fill in the dummy. (The “hole” for this column is 750 words). When such communication is not forthcoming, reporters must rely on their skills of writing in the “inverted pyramid” style that is taught in Journalism 101.
This style of writing enables the author to tell the salient facts of the story in the first paragraph and the other details of the story, in descending order of importance, in subsequent paragraphs. This accomplishes two things; the editor can easily “chop” the story from the bottom upwards, without destroying the content, to make it fit and the headline writer can scan the opening paragraph and write the headline from the information contained therein.
Headline writing is also a mathematical exercise, as the number of characters in the headline is determined by the number of columns allotted and type size selected. Whether the headline is in upper/lower case, or all capitals, is another factor in the headline “count”.
While mathematics is considered the most exact of the sciences and writing the most creative of the arts, it is interesting how well mankind has married the two in the creation of “Journalese”.