Journalists pride themselves on avoiding jargon in their writing, but in the newsroom itself, it’s a different story.
Case in point: backfielders, slots, rims, and slugs … these are just some of the terms I heard in my first few weeks of working at the Times.
Here’s what these words mean (to me). Let’s start with a suuuuper simplified workflow of the editing process for a story:
The reporter writes a story.
The line editor reads through the story line-by-line and makes changes to the structure and language as necessary. This person is usually the direct supervisor of the reporter. The line editor is also known as the backfielder or backfield editor; in some newsrooms, these are different people, and the backfield editor gets the first read before the line editor.
The line editor assigns the story a slug, a combination of words that describe and form a unique code for the story. This usually goes into the URL. For example, in this story the slug is “la-me-homeless-count” where “la” refers to Los Angeles, “me” refers to Metro (the story’s Section), and “homeless-count” refers to the topic of the story. There are also separate slugs used for print publication, as well as slugs attached to images and other parts of story content.
Once the reporter and backfield / line editor(s) agree on a version of the story, they send it to the copy desk. The slot, who is the boss of the copy desk, assigns the story to the copy editor, aka the rim editor. This person reads through the story and makes sure it adheres to the style guide, writes captions, etc.
Of course, the process is more complicated IRL, and not every place works this way. But why are slots called slots? And did “slug” come from the animal, the boxing term (e.g., “He slugged me in the chest”), or better yet, the word for a bullet fired from a gun (I watch a lot of Law & Order)?
The terms “slot” and “rim” hail from the days when the copy desk was U-shaped. The boss would literally sit in the slot of the U, so that he/she could easily hand out assignments to people on the rim.
As for “slug”, the answer is none of the above – the term comes from hot-metal printing. A slug was the word for a line of lead, in those days. Linotype machines cast these lead lines, containing text, onto printed pages (also probably where the term “typecasting” comes from!).
EDIT June 7, 2016: on the importance of slugs
Turns out, something as seemingly mundane as an internal naming convention can cause a mild controversy / confusion.
Today, there’s been a flurry of activity about an image that Hillary Clinton’s campaign team tweeted out following the Associated Press’s report that Clinton had reached the number of delegates needed to win the Democratic presidential nomination. The image associated with the tweet was titled “secret-win-V2-060416c_02.png”, leading to rumors of a conspiracy / collusion to prematurely call the race.
“secret-win-V2-060416c_02” was part of the image’s slug, or the unique name given to the png (portable network graphic) file.
A nice reminder that people do pay attention to a slugs, even if they misinterpret what the term entails…