A staple in old-time newspaper lore was The Spike, and I was around for the last one at The Washington Post.

To spike a story was to kill it. A disgruntled conservative journalist named Arnaud de Borchgrave once wrote a book called The Spike to set forth his theory that a cabal of leftwingers had seized control of journalism and were killing righteous reporting like his.

But spikes also had a more benign use. They were where editors stuck copy when they were through with it and didn’t want to mix it up with live copy that they were using or might still use. These were literally spikes — probably big long nails — set in lead from the composing room to weight them down. But in an emergency, you could go down through the stack on the spike and recover what you had put there.

The technique for spiking copy was to grasp it in the palm of your hand and jam it downward on the spike, spreading your fingers so the spike would go between them. The hand that killed the spike belonged to an editor with a palindromic name who worked on the Post foreign desk, Lew Diuguid. One day he grabbed a piece of copy in the palm of his hand and jammed it down on the spike in the accepted manner but neglected to spread his fingers, and he impaled his hand. He survived but the spike didn’t. It was thereafter banned from the Post newsroom, and we threw paper away in more conventional fashion.

We generated a lot of waste paper in those days, because the wire stories and news releases came in on paper instead of electronically. I don’t remember when The Spike disappeared, but I do remember when our waste paper went Hollywood. It would have been between the 1974 publication of the book All the President’s Men and the 1976 release of the movie of the same name starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. The movie makers came around to interview Post staff about Watergate, meanwhile building an exact copy of our newsroom out on the west coast. But they were stymied at the effort to replicate the stacks of paper on every reporter’s and editor’s desk. So they asked us to put our waste paper into cardboard boxes beneath our desks. These were regularly collected and sent to California, where our waste paper was arrayed on desks to play its assigned role in the movie. You can see it for yourself.

P.S. Carl Bernstein has had the unique distinction among ink-stained wretches of being portrayed by two major movie stars. The first was Dustin Hoffman, and the second was Jack Nicholson. He was the male lead in Heartburn, written by Nora Ephron and closely based on the breakup of her marriage to Bernstein. It launched her successful screenwriting career.

Copyright 2010, J.V. Reistrup

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