The snake rule, or words we keep in newsrooms for no good reason

Elizabeth Donald
5 min readJan 22, 2024

To this day, almost no one in a modern newsroom knows what a pica pole is, with the exception of myself and a few veterans old enough to remember computers that needed a boot disk.

Like many things that have disappeared, the pica pole once was an essential tool for laying out a newspaper. Now it makes for a good backscratcher when the shift gets long.

Language is an essential part of any given culture — or subculture, if you want to get deep in the weeks. The culture of the newsroom has had more changes than most areas in American life, and much of it in the last 25 years or so. The changing demographics of the nation’s workplaces have definitely altered the face of newsrooms, though not enough to be truly reflective of the populations they cover as of yet or to properly reflect the growing ranks of women journalists. The economic and societal forces outside the newsroom have also shifted the practices and culture within the newsroom, and none moreso than the accelerating supplanting of the paper product with online news.

Yet we hold on to the words and phrasees that mean little or nothing to the young journos coming up through the ranks. They learn the terms as they assimilate into newsroom culture, but few really understand that those words belong to a more analog era.

For example, to “spike” a story means to kill it, to make a definitive choice not to run it. It’s not the same as a story that didn’t pan out or was held for an indefinite time, but a story that was fully reported and written and yet never published.

Allegedly this goes back to the days when reporters typed out stories on typewriters and delivered them on paper by hand to the editor. If the editor decided not to run it, he’d stick it on a long metal spike on his desk. (And before someone yells at me for being sexist, in that era said editor was almost certainly male.) These long metal spikes are unlikely to pass muster with OSHA or human resources today, but we still say a story was spiked when an editor has decided to kill it.

Other phrases and habits that cling from ancient days include the continuing measurement of a story’s length in inches, as in column inches. This is a highly variable measurement, of course, as…

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Elizabeth Donald

Journalist for more than 25 years, freelance writer, editor, photographer, and fiction author. Subscribe at patreon.com/edonald or visit donaldmedia.com.