Slate writer Jack Shafer notes that “As recently as 1980, the New York Times reserved an honoredâ€”if smallâ€”place in its pages for “bus plunge” news. Whenever buses nose-dived down mountainsides…the news wires moved accounts of the deadly tragedies, and the Times would reliably edit them down to one paragraph and publish.” In more recent times, however, the Times has been virtually free of bus plunge news.
The reason: the move from manual to digital typesettings. In the manual days, such short news items were used to fill in remaining space in columns. Nowadays, that’s not necessary. Most interesting is that many such items were written in such a way that they could be shortened even further due to space needs:
This Times plunge story, for example, filled the loose space at the end of a news column on July 21, 1964:
Bus Plunge Kills 8
LAS PALMAS, Canary Islands, July 20 (UPI)â€”Eight persons perished today when a small bus plunged over a 300-foot cliff into the sea near the town of Mogan. One man jumped from the vehicle before it reached the edge and was saved. All the victims were Spaniards.
As typeset, this article takes up 10 lines. I assume that the copy editor who cut this piece from the AP wire included the sentences about the jumper and the victims’ nationality to maximize the makeup editors’ options. By physically snipping one sentence, the makeup editors could reduce it to a nine-line story on the fly. By snipping two, they could cork an even smaller layout hole with a six-line story.