The first time I really thought, “Oh my god, Jerry Seinfeld is brilliant” was when he did a joke about newspapers, and how relieved the editors of a newspaper must be when exactly the right amount of things happen everyday to make the paper come out perfectly, so that at six o’clock at their deadline, you don’t go, “Oh, one more thing happened,” and now you have a blank page with two paragraphs.
I’ve always loved that joke, too. Because while it is meant to be seen as ridiculous, it taps into a sense of wonder I had about newspaper from an early age.
When I was in second or third grade, I read a book of short stories aimed at people my age. It had a theme — each story opened a window on some different aspect of the big wide world, meant to show kids the possibilities for when they grew up. One story, the one I remember best, was about a kid who went to work for a newspaper as a copy boy (which would be my first newspaper job, at the Memphis Commercial Appeal, years later). The reader followed the boy as he learned about everything it took to publish a newspaper each day.
I was struck with awe at the enormity of such a task. I couldn’t believe any group of people, no matter how experienced or talented, could get all of those things done in a day, every day. And yet there was the proof, on my doorstep each morning.
Decades later, after I had mastered every aspect of the process, I used to wonder sometimes at the complaints we’d get from readers. Someone would be griping at me about some small thing that, in his or her opinion, wasn’t quite right in the paper, and I would remember that story and how it impressed me. And I’d think, Hasn’t this person ever thought about what a miracle it is that the paper comes out at all? Obviously not, or they’d have backed off a bit.
I’ve never thought a single actual error in any paper I worked for was excusable. And readers deserved to demand the same high standard from us. But occasionally, when they were going on and on about some tiny thing that had gone wrong (or that they saw as having gone wrong), I’d find myself wishing they’d pause, just a moment, to be impressed by everything that was right, against all odds…
Oh, wait, one other thing… Having spent a lot of years making the news fit the paper, ruthlessly wielding a light-blue felt pen (which humans could read, but the camera that shot the page when it was done could not pick up) in composing rooms, or trimming with marginally greater delicacy on a computer screen, I found myself puzzled that Yahoo paid a high-school kid tens of millions for an app that… well, here’s the description:
Yahoo was attracted to Summly’s core technology for automatically summarizing news articles. The technology, which included an algorithm for deriving the summaries, was created with help from SRI International, a Silicon Valley research-and development firm that has an artificial-intelligence lab and has an ownership stake in the startup….
In 2011, Mr. D’Aloisio founded his company, at the time called Trimit. He redesigned the app to automatically boil news articles down to 400-word summaries and re-launched it as Summly in late 2012 with help from SRI…
I thought, hey, I could have done that for Yahoo for half the money. And I wouldn’t have needed an app for it. It only takes seconds per story. I’ll admit, the slashing I used to do in composing rooms (and on computer screens) wasn’t always a work of art when I was in a hurry (which was most of the time) — but I kind of doubt this app is any more respectful of the writers’ precious words…