Tell Me a Story

Floating Off the Page: The Best Stories from the Wall Street Journal’s
“Middle Column”

Ken Wells, ed.

By the time I found my first job in an advertising agency I knew I had to play catch-up. Fast.

Until then, I’d been treading water. A sales job. A low-level client-side job. Never really sure if I was making my way in the world or if anything I was doing was ever going to be of use.

Landing that initial berth had not been easy. In the process, I’d met scores of people in different roles and at different levels. The most impressive, at least to me, were the folks clearly in command of their situation. They knew their business. They knew their clients’ businesses. And they knew a lot of other stuff, too. Stuff that was a lot more interesting than the ephemera I’d been collecting.

The one skill I did possess was knowing how to fill a knowledge gap. It was the late 80s. I was working on a lot of financial services business. Wall Street was in vogue and my walk to the office took me right past one of those old wooden corner newsstands reserved for WWII veterans. I added a daily stop to my routine. Henceforth, I’d walk into the office with my cardboard container of coffee and The Wall Street Journal, folded in thirds and tucked under my arm.

That’s how I went to business school. The Journal was, above all else, a fabulously-written paper. Sure, the Post was more lurid. The Daily News was more blue-collar. The Times, well, it was earning its ‘Grey Lady’ reputation day after day. By comparison, the Journal was covering the hottest business stories in-depth, a new lesson to be learned daily, if not in every story.

I’d buy my Journal at a stand much like this one.

So intent was I on self-education that it took a while for the paper’s other strengths to sink in. None of these was more valuable than the story that appeared daily in the ‘middle column.’ The moniker alone suggested this was something different. I mean, the one thing you could count on about the Journal’s readership was that they all had a working grasp of arithmetic, if not the higher maths, and so would all recognize that the 4th column in a 6-column broadsheet could in no sensible way be cast as the ‘middle.’

Within the cloistered precincts of the Journal’s newsroom, the spot was referred to as the A-hed. At least that’s what the front matter of this volume leads me to believe. The name stems from the typical way the headline for those stories is stacked. The Middle Column offered the paper’s writers an opportunity to stretch beyond the bounds of writing about the business world.

Importantly, it added a different, human element to the paper. While it took a while, I began to notice that my agency confreres would find a way to work these stories into their conversations with clients, bosses and each other. In a business populated by some of the world’s greatest talkers, that was like finding a key to the liquor cabinet.

The pre-4-color/USA Today make-up, which I much preferred. I recall this particular A-hed. It was my introduction to Maker’s Mark.

There was another important lesson built into the A-Hed, too. Because it was the space reserved for unconventional storytelling it was also the place where writers got to display style. Commercial writing can be formulaic. Arguably it should be formulaic, with individual editors defining the admixture and the contributors that go into crafting it.

Still, no less a copywriter than Jerry Della Femina pointed out that given the same assignment, six copywriters would come up with  six different campaigns. So, personal style matters, even in business. It’s how you develop that style and make it work for you that counts.

What exactly might you find in the Middle Column? Ken Wells, himself a Journal editor with a few of these gems to his credit, has assembled a broad cross-section of tales. Helpfully, he’s divided them into categorical chapters that include portraits of business leaders in the off-hours (Men at Work), experiential reporting (Scribes Describing), leisure (Plays the Thing), Curiosities (Things You Might Not Know) and five others.

Robert W. Woodruf, the man responsible for the ubiquity of Coke, among other things

Consider the profile of Robert Woodruf, the man responsible for transforming Coca-Cola from a regional teat to a company that would conquer global beverage markets. John Huey paints a portrait of a diminished patriarch, well past autumn at age 91, whose focus seems to be fixed on a prior century. In retirement, he’s done his best to recreate an antebellum Southern plantation, albeit with employed staff. When this appeared in 1981, it may have turned some folks’ thoughts to emulating him. Now, it just seems extremely distasteful.

How about the world of sport? Take Mark Robichaux‘s 1996 look at an alternate form of catfishing that may have originated in Louisana‘s bayous before migrating outward. The Middle Column was where I first encountered noodling for flatheads, even though It was Burkhard Bilger, a New Yorker writer, who expanded it between hard covers.

While I’m asking questions, just how many languages has the Bible been translated into? That’s a matter to be considered in light of a number of factors, as a cursory glance at Wikipedia will demonstrate. But there’s one language not on the list. That’s curious because teams were toiling away as recently as 1994. Perhaps the disagreements that  Carrie Dolan came across in her story about the, ahem, scholars attempting a translation into Klingon finally took their toll.

To noodle, you rewrite the old blues song and stick your hand and forearm into a hollow log.

I hope you’re beginning to see why the price of the daily paper was worth it for the Middle Column alone. Looking backward, twenty years after this anthology looked back twenty years or more, it’s apparent how times have changed. Or have they? On the one hand, there’s Geraldine Brooks‘ recounting of her attendance at an Egyptian belly dancing school and her first semi-public performance. It’s hard to imagine the editor who greenlighted that piece escaping a contemporary career defenestration. (Although I got the sense that the story was Brooks’ idea.)

Then there’s Paul Hemp‘s tale of British outrage at a new form of entertainment imported from Australia, dwarf throwing.  At the time of Hemp’s report, 1985, Albion only had one promoter of the would-be next-big-thing and only one little person who willingly participated in the critical role.

Of course, its mere existence sparked outrage. Plus ça change …

 

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