During my first 3 months on a newspaper, I was not trusted to handle “real” stories and so I was put to sub-editing what they described as “fillers”, throwaway pieces that were stored on a special shelf by the compositors and hauled out randomly to “fill” awkward holes at the bottom of uneven columns of type.
They were used only if they were the right shape and the unused stories would be binned at the end of each day — along with any “precious” headline I might have fretted over. The subject matter would vary wildly, from the absurdly trivial to the plain awful. But I did not care deeply what they were about: so long as my copy made the cut.
One example of the former that I can remember was the tale of a man whose newly-installed baby monitor would wake him up with transmissions of Radio Moscow progammes. I still recall how delighted I was that the chief accepted my 5cms topped by two decks of 18pt Times Bold: “The Spy Which Came in From the Cot”.
The other type of “filler”, on the other hand, would be tragically brief wraps of events not considered of great value by my news editor. The sterotype of these were “X die in Bush crash in India” and “Y Killed in Flood in Pakistan”. In these cases the number of fatalities would have to be catastophically high in order to transform the story’s status from “filler” to “news - over a hundred at least. For what it is worth, I was working for an Indian news editor on a “black” newspaper in apartheid South Afirca at the time. And I never asked him to explain himself.
Still, when today I read about a killing spree in an American mall, my response owed a great deal to those early lessons in the relative value of news. I could not help but shrug and think … “good filler”.