For Whom the Ironman Tolls


The Wall Street Journal isn’t all business. Long time readers know that nearly every issue (“nearly” because there wasn’t one on Sept 12, 2001, for example) has a Page One article known as the “A-hed” that is whimsical. I’ve been reading them since I’ve been reading the paper — a pretty long time — but recently learned that they’ve been a regular feature of the WSJ about three times as long — over 75 years — by reading a piece written by Barry Newman.

Newman is known as “King of the A-hed.” He has written … wait for it … over 400 A-heds (*see correction below) in his time at the WSJ. A-heds are now about 1,000 carefully-edited words long, but they probably used to be longer, as much else was in the good old days. That, then, is (conservatively) A Tale of Two Cities times three. But, in my humble opinion, it’s a lot more impressive than what Dickens churned out in serialized form.

A-heds don’t only have to be funny. They have to be something funny that someone, somewhere else hasn’t written about yet, or did but in an unfunny way. Coming up with hundreds of A-heds while having a day job being a reporter is simply amazing. I started writing them soon after I joined the Journal and recently published my eighth and ninth A-hed in fairly quick succession. I had taken a couple of years off from A-heds to concentrate on writing and then selling my book, so call that nine in three years out of the five-and-a-half I’ve been at the paper, which is considered a lot. At that pace, though, I’ll be 178 years old when I catch up to Barry.

Naturally they are about quality rather than quantity, but Barry’s A-heds are great too. Many of them (and those of other current and former colleagues) were collected in a book, Dogfight at the Pentagon. Another, older collection is called Floating off the Page: The Best Stories from The Wall Street Journal’s Middle Column.

Every A-hed has come to me as an epiphany – usually hearing about something that I thought was funny and hadn’t been written about before. How many of those does one person have?

Even if I get out more and start working nights and weekends, I don’t think I’ll catch up to Barry in terms of sheer volume, much less quality, but I’m trying. I once wrote about one of my A-heds on this blog. Since I haven’t been updating Cacophony and Cheese much, I thought I’d recap a couple of recent ones while providing links to the rest. I don’t get paid extra for them or even get any time off from my job of writing and editing stuff about business. They are a labor of love and lots of fun. Even better than seeing them published is interviewing the subjects from odd car collectors to hot pepper eaters, sneaky hitchhikers, minivan racers, scavenger hunters and grammar pedants.

My most recent A-hed was about companies named after (or sharing the name of) fictional ones. For example, there were Stark Industries, Wayne Enterprises, Pied Piper, and Bluth Construction. Their founders didn’t call them that because they were superhero or comedy fans. They came about them in the normal way, such as having the last name “Stark” or “Bluth.” Still, having a name like that on the masthead makes life anything but normal for their owners. Then there are iniTech, Vandelay Industries, and Virtucon – all intentionally named after their fictional counterparts with lots of fun and unexpected consequences. Finally there Japan’s Cyberdyne Systems which makes a HAL robot but claims not to have gotten the name from The Terminator or 2001: A Space Odyssey. (It’s a heckuva coincidence, don’t you think?).

The one before that was about the disappearance of the word “whom” from the English language. Among the people I interviewed was the author of Dr. Whom: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Parodication and the founder of the Grand Order of the Whomic Empire. I also spoke with a Google engineer who wrote a program that corrects the annoyingly incorrect (to me, at least) “Who to follow” prompt on Twitter. The spokesperson for Twitter was a very good sport about it.


Here’s a list of my earlier A-heds:

The Arms Race to Grow World’s Hottest Pepper Goes Nuclear

Grocery Shoppers, Start Your Engines: Minivans Hit the Racetrack

Offal Tale: For This Club, Everything Is on the Menu

Ahoy, Driver! An Amphibious Car Refuses to Sink Into Oblivion

The Trabant Takes Manhattan on a Tour of East Bloc Nostalgia

Flop at the Box Office Spawns a Generation of ‘Midnight Madness’

At Famous Hudson River Crossing, Picking Up Hitchhikers Takes a Toll

Which one was my favorite? I love all of my A-hed children equally and am looking forward to having a much larger brood.

*Correction: Barry contacted me weeks after this was written and points out that he wrote 400 Page One stories and not 400 A-heds (that figure came from an article about him). I’m still impressed!


About SJ

I rite good.
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