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The Skinny About Media Lingo

Unusual Origins of Media-Inspired Words

By Richard Weiner - May 15, 2006
Broadcasters, editors, publishers and other media people use journalism terms and other jargon. mediabistro readers are "media-savvy" but may not always know what it means when a magazine editor asks that you go long with a warm-and-wonder or violin piece.

These terms, and about 2000 others, are defined in my new book, The Language of the Media: The Skinny About Best Boys, Dollies, Green Rooms, Leads and Other Media Lingo.) A long title, I know, but a low price ($14.95). Here are some more terms used by magazine editors and others in the media industry:

To go long is to write an article that is longer than average, such as a 20,000-word article in The Atlantic. Warm-and-wonder is a heartwarming upbeat article. A violin piece is a lead story (first major article) that sets the tone for the magazine, particularly if it's a theme issue (devoted to a single subject).

Are you a freelancer? In the Middle Ages (from about the 6th to the 16th centuries), a "free lance" was a mercenary or independent solider, with a lance or spear, who sold his services. Carrying out this tradition, freelancers (men and women) now sometimes combat with editors.

Are you a stringer? A stringer is a correspondent, generally part-time, for a newspaper or other publication, who is not on staff. The origin is from "on the string," being paid a variable amount depending on the quantity of writing accepted by the editor. In the 19th and early 20th century, some editors paid a part-time reporter by keeping the reporter's clippings tied together on a string and literally paid by the number of clippings or the number of column inches published, also perhaps measured with a string. Another possible origin comes from the era of hot metal, when type was assembled in a galley tray. Each writer's lines of type were tied together with a string.

Are you a contributing editor? If so, your name may be listed in the staff box, but you probably are a freelancer or part-time employee and not a fulltime staffer. Your occupation or identification usually appears in a bionote at the bottom of the first or last page of an article.

Are you a masthead editor? The masthead area in a publication indicates its name and other information, such as year founded, personnel, motto, and statement of policy. Contrary to popular usage, the masthead is not merely the publication's name (called the title or flag, appearing on page one).

The masthead generally appears on the editorial page of newspapers and on the contents page of magazines. The word comes from the top part of a ship's mast, which displays the flag of the country of origin. A masthead editor is a managing editor or other editor whose name appears on the masthead. A masthead meeting is a conference, usually convened every weekday morning, that brings together these top editors. Congratulations, you're in the "big time."

The theme of this article is to explain the jargon used by editors and other media people. This paragraph is called the billboard graf. Editors often shorten paragraph to graf and this paragraph starts with the announcement (a billboard) or the "reason why" of the article. At The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, it's called the nut graf, as it has the facts or essential information the nut or kernel.

A magazine sometimes is referred to by its publisher as a title. For example, Hachette has many titles, including Metropolitan Home (a shelter magazine) and Woman's Day (a service magazine; it provides useful information that is a service to readers).

Incidentally, when you write to a publication, be sure to spell its name correctly. Common oversights, particularly in email, include Better Homes & Gardens (note the ampersand), Ladies' Home Journal (apostrophe after the s), Parents (no apostrophe) and Woman's Day (singular, apostrophe before the s).

Insiders often call a magazine a book, such as a women's book, probably because publishing a topical magazine has a lot in common with book publishing. Front of book (sometimes hyphenated) means the first section, usually including the contents, a letter from the publisher or editor (an ed let), letters-to-the-editor and other departments preceding the main section (called the editorial well). Advertisers consider "front-of-book ads" to be more desirable, as indicated by Vogue, Vanity Fair and other successful, high-profile trendy mags (slang for magazines).

Back-of-book (hyphenated) material comes at the end, sometimes including listings, classified ads and an essay or department that regularly appears on the high-readership last page. This area or backyard also includes the continuations (called jumps) of articles from the front or middle sections.

The staff box, or list of personnel, sometimes lists editorial people on one page and publishing and production people on another. The listing often includes contributing editors, usually freelancers not on staff.

Publishers Weekly (no apostrophe) is a trade magazine, which is a business publication that covers a specific industry; in this case, the book trade. Incidentally, trade books are general interest books sold in bookstores (the book trade) and other retail outlets, as well as online or via mail order or telephone, as differentiated from textbooks and other specialized books.

Piece is a multimedia word for an article, broadcast segment or musical composition. Earlier in this piece I referred to my new book. About the definition of the title:

  • Skinny: inside information, probably from "getting down to the bare skin."

  • Best Boy: in a film or video crew, the first assistant to the chief electrician (the gaffer or juicer) or the person who moves equipment (a grip).

  • Dolly: mobile platform with three or four wheels, to move a camera or other equipment

  • Green Room: a room near the stage of TV studio for performers and guests; in the 17th century, performers dressed in rooms that sometimes had green shrubbery.

  • Lead: (pronounced LEED) the beginning of an article; also a principal performer, a connecting wire and other definitions.

    Random House, abbreviated as RH, is my publisher. Book editors and designers use the term running head (also abbreviated as rh) for a headline or title repeated at the top of each page or on alternate pages of a publication. It's also called running title. A running foot or footline is a title repeated at the bottom of each page or alternate pages. Running text or straight matter is continuous text in the body of an article, not the headlines, captions or blurbs (also called inserts).

    Media jargon includes other running terms. Before I run, let's end with blurb, a common word in several media. For example, it is a summary or excerpt of an article used before or within the article and also as promotional copy, such as on a book jacket or record cover. Journalists sometimes refer to inconsequential material, such as a promotional quotation, as a blurb. The word was coined by American humorist Gelott Burgess (1866-1951) in his 1907 novel Are You a Bromide? in which a character was given the name Miss Belinda Blurb "to sound like a publisher."

    Let's end by returning to the term billboard graf. You know that a billboard (a bill is a public notice) consists of a panel or sign for the display of advertising on highways or in other public places; and also means the advertisement itself. Formerly called outdoor advertising, it's now called out-of-home advertising, which includes billboards, car cards (in subways and buses) and posters.

    If you live in a city, you probably have passed walls (particularly of deserted buildings) on which the notice, "Post No Bills," was affixed. You may know what that means, but do you know what those "bills" are? The term is short for handbills, once popular in the 19th century when printed notices and advertisements were distributed by hand. Handbills were also used as posters to promote circuses and shows, and usually were surreptitiously affixed on walls, lampposts and other public places. Chances are that you've seen the people who post these "bills" called bill posters or, more commonly, snipers. A snipe means a sheet with a retailer's name, the place and time of a show, or other information, pasted across the bottom of an outdoor poster or other item.

    Back to the billboards. A billboard originally was called a show-board, which explains the name of Billboard, the renowned trade publication of the music and entertainment industries. A baby billboard is a car card, mounted inside or outside a bus, train or other vehicle. A billboard pass is a free ticket to a show, given to a retailer or other person in return for displaying a poster in a store or other venue. That's the skinny about billboards.

    Richard Weiner is a senior consultant at the Porter Novelli public relations firm and the author of 23 books, including The Skinny About Best Boys, Dollies, Green Rooms, Leads, and Other Media Lingo.

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