The rise and fall of the "bus plunge" story

Nowadays, layout editors can just expand the size of a photo or cheat the typesize to make a story fill a gap. But in the days before such digital magic, newspaper editors needed a steady supply of filler stories — short items, just long enough to plug gaps of a few inches at the bottom of a page. The words “bus” and “plunge” both fit nicely in a one-column headline, and created a subculture of sorts among journalists.

“If a bus fell anywhere, they would cut that story from the wire and
send it to the copy desk and put it in the paper, whereas earlier
perhaps they wouldn’t have,” Siegal says. It was no longer a matter of
how badly shorts were needed. “They became newsworthy in and of their
own right because it was amusing to get the expression ‘bus plunge’
into the paper as often as possible.”

Not all bus plunges were
judged equal by the foreign desk, according to Siegal. “It was better
when buses plunged in countries with short names,” he says. “A bus
plunge in Peru was infinitely easier to deal with than a bus plunge in
Argentina or Paraguay.”

Of course, it’s callous to make light
of anybody’s tragic death. But by the gallows-humor standards of
journalism, competing to publish bus-plunge shorts was fairly benign.

was more self-parody than anything else,” Siegal says. “It was a very
low-key, harmless parody of the stilted language characteristic of
tightly formatted headlines.” — Jack Shafer, Slate

I’m blogging this because I’m amused… I had certainly noticed “bus plunge” stories, but it never occurred to me that the stories are a minimalist art form, inspired by the gallows humor of journalists. 

My favorite journalism anecdote is still the one about reporters routinely inventing a detail about a cat surviving a shipwreck.