John Kelly's Washington

No more 'spiking' and 'killing' in our kinder, gentler newsroom

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By John Kelly
Monday, October 18, 2010

We have a new computer system here in the Washington Post newsroom. Actually, it's a "content management system" or CMS. Because we now showcase our stories - er, content - in so many ways, on so many different platforms, we need a tool that can speed the content wherever it needs to go: the newspaper, the Web, your mobile phone, that chip the government implanted in your brain.

That's what a CMS does. Think of it as one of those Play-Doh accessories where you rotate a wheel and press a lever to extrude the clay in different shapes. Want a long, triangular tube? Schwoop. Want a long, star-shaped tube? Schwoop. Want a long, blog-shaped tube? Schwoop.

This is the fourth or fifth different computer system I've had to learn at The Post, depending on whether you count the one that only lasted a few weeks and then was quietly taken out behind the building and shot. My first system remains my favorite. It was called Rayedit (designed by Raytheon, the makers of the Patriot missile!), and it featured hulking cathode ray tubes sheathed in putty-colored metal and keyboards the size of Samsonite suitcases. The screen displayed in any color you liked, as long as it was green.

It's easy to make fun of computers and the irritation they cause us humans - why is it that every new system takes away an old feature for every new feature it adds? - but soon we adapt. I'm sure eventually I will become as adept at Methode (that's its name) as I was on Rayedit.

But before I do, I feel I should pause and mourn the passing of an old newspaper word. Now that Mthode is here, stories are no longer "spiked."

To "spike" a story is to eliminate it before it sees print. It has its origins in a physical act. If you look at old photos of newsrooms from the '30s or '40s, you will see eyeshade-wearing men, their sleeves held up with garters, sitting at long tables. Sticking up from those tables are metal spikes. A story that was insufficient for whatever reason would be smashed atop the spike, the paper perforated and pinioned like a butterfly or the head of a traitor.

We long ago stopped using metal spikes, but the word persisted. In our old computer system, you could dispatch a story by clicking on a drop-down menu, highlighting the word "Spike" and clicking enter. It was a bloodless, digital spiking, but I always got a kick out of knowing the word connected me to journalism's past.

We "killed" stories, too. "I'm killing Mayor17," an editor might say, referring to the story's name and publication date. Or she might say, "Metro dies," referring to a story on the Metro system that appeared briefly on the list of that day's possibilities but, like an embryo too fragile to survive outside its mother's womb, never drew breath.

There is a violence inherent in these terms that I think is entirely appropriate. Life is not a bowl of cherries. Newsrooms are rough places. Journalists can be bastards. Every living thing dies. Such were the thoughts that flickered across my subconscious every time I spiked a story.

Now, however, my drop-down menu doesn't say "Spike." It says "Delete," just like on your computer.

Spike has been spiked.

This will make no difference in the day-to-day operations of The Washington Post. I do think it's symbolic, though. Battered by so many forces, accused of so much perfidy, the mainstream media doesn't want to be seen as violent. And so we become more touchy-feely: Comment in the space below! Send us photos of your kittens! Please! (Oddly, at the same time we lay on the treacle, the rest of the world gets more bitter, the comments we beg for more mean-spirited.)

In "Nineteen Eighty-Four," George Orwell wrote about the Memory Hole, the place where unpleasant facts go to die. It was a metaphor but, in his description, it was a physical thing, too: a flap-covered hole in the wall, into which scrap paper could be dropped, "whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building."

Somewhere down there, "spike" is turning to ash.

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