Thursday, February 26, 2009

Crisis Deepens: Rich People Embarrassed To Build New Pools, Opt For Outdoor Fireplaces Instead.

This quote kinda jumped out at us this morning from Kimberly Stevens's Home section story about rich people choosing to build outdoor fireplaces instead of swimming pools, in a nod to the economic crisis.

Stevens's lede describes how a Hollywood television-industry couple has nixed their plans to build a pool at their Silver Lake home, because it seemed "too extravagant," and opted instead for a "sleek, outdoor aluminum fireplace" that only took up $2,300 of their $150,000 landscaping budget.

“Anyone with a conscience right now is not going to dig a hole in the ground, line it with cement, fill it with 60,000 gallons of water and some chlorine and wait for it to evaporate,” Jay Knowlton, the couple’s landscape designer, told the NYT reporter.

Anyone without a conscience, please call Jay Knowlton. He's about to have some time on his hands.

Note To David Colman: The "Peacock Revolution" Was 40 Years Ago. Check Your Own Clips.

The lede on David Colman's Styles front-page story this morning on trousers makes a clever-sounding reference to a "Peacock Revolution" in men's fashion during the last decade.

Sounds cool. We're always interested in revolutions, and we'll read almost anything about pants.

But a quick check of the historical record reveals that the "Peacock Revolution" has been over since the 1970s. At least, that's what David Colman told us the last few times he mentioned the "Peacock Revolution" in print.

Colman's lede this morning was clever enough to catch our attention:

It is one of the driest, slyest ironies of the Peacock Revolution of the last decade. As men have turned themselves out in dandified splendor, they have all but neglected the signature aspect of the peacock’s glory. That is, the tail.

The tail! Ha, we get it!

But a quick search of Google, Nexis and the NYT index for a revolutionary manifesto revealed that no such upheaval has occurred since the invention of the bell-bottoms.

On January 6, 1969, NYT reporter Leonard Sloane first reported the phenomenon in a story with the headline: "In Men's Wear, It's a 'Peacock Revolution.'"

Reports from the revolutionary front pretty much disappeared for the next three decades, until it was revived in the NYT by...David Colman!

In an April 19, 2007 story about men's underwear, Colman wrote:

Not since the Peacock Revolution of the ’60s has there been such variety, all of it going to disprove a cherished maxim of men’s wear: that a man is more loyal to his brand of underwear than to any other article of clothing.

Then, in a December 13, 2007 piece on men who wear pelts, Colman commented:

Unlike the over-the-top fur pants that wandered down the runway at Gucci a few season’s back — they looked like holdovers from the fur-happy Peacock Revolution — smart designers like Marc Jacobs, Stefano Pilati at Yves Saint Laurent, and Lucas Ossendrijver at Lanvin are confining fur to the linings and trim of coats and hats.

On October 30, 2008, Colman's coverage of the revolution continued in a 1970s reminiscence with yet another reference -- that time placing it properly, in the 1960s:

This fin-de-1970s moment was the culmination of the fumbling style awakening called the Peacock Revolution, begun in England a decade earlier.

It's a little confusing, but at least you have to admire Colman's revolutionary spirit. It's a constant call to arms. Or legs. or tails.

UPDATE: We've gotten this amiable response from David Colman:

Per your nytpicking over the dates of the Peacock Revolution:

I had hoped to make it clear by referring to "this decade's Peacock Revolution" that I was referring to a P.R. that was NOT the original, which as we both know was long ago. Similarly, one might refer to "this decade's Gilded Age," which I think we would accept while knowing that the original was also long ago.

I am glad, however, that you got the joke, and that you also got to catch up on my clips. And who knows, maybe you are better dressed for it now?


David C.

George Clooney's New Movie Co-Stars Nick Kristof. Frankly, We Preferred "Michael Clayton."

We love George Clooney as much as the next NYTPicker. And we get Nicholas D. Kristof's point -- that people who might not ordinarily click on a NYT video of starving children shot in Eastern Chad will do so for the star of "Leatherheads."

But what exactly is the value of this four-and-a-half-minute video, posted this morning? Watch and you'll learn almost nothing about the issues Kristof supposedly wants us to care about. Instead, you'll see shots of the columnist and the actor tossing a Frisbee, trading witty references to Brad Pitt, chuckling about private jets, and discussing who got which side of the tent.

Should celebrities be front-and-center for the causes they support, or work behind the scenes? That's a dilemma we don't have any desire to resolve right here. Clooney has always happily hogged the spotlight for good causes, and capitalized on his fame to bring attention to world problems -- and there's nothing wrong with that.

But it seems to us that if Nick Kristof and the NYT is going to shamelessly feed off the fame machine, they ought to do it in a more sophisticated and educational way than this goofy, worthless video.

Kristof has always played both sides of this issue. He clearly relishes the personal attention he gets for focusing on third-world issues others ignore, like poverty and oppression. But at the same time it's hard to quibble with that concern; he uses his NYT perch to pressure world leaders into action.

It seems highly doubtful to us, though, that any world leader would watch this Clooney video and gain any respect for Kristof. If, as he claims, the only way to get people to learn about genocide is to put Clooney in front of it, then he ought to use Clooney as a teaching tool, not as a comedy prop or talking head. Listening to Clooney and Kristof talk about themselves doesn't do much for any cause except their own.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Arango & Perez-Pena Publish Big News Corp. Story, But Manage To Miss Big News Corp. Scoop

Today's business section leads with a 1,507-word takeout on the troubles at Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., but reporters Tim Arango and Richard Perez-Pena managed to miss the big News Corp. story of the day: this afternoon's surprise departure of News Corp.'s number-two executive, Peter Chernin.

The NYT's media reporters litter their story today with references to top sources within the company, but they somehow failed to ferret out the scoop that appeared first at 1:30 p.m. New York time on Nikki Finke's Deadline Hollywood Daily blog, and was confirmed at 3:06 p.m. by the Los Angeles Times on its website.

The NYT story focused on the financial drain on News Corp. created by Murdoch's $5 billion purchase of the Wall Street Journal last year, but made no mention at all of Chernin's status -- even though a recent Business Week story had already raised the possibility of a Chernin exit if he couldn't negotiate a new contract.

Remarkably, the NYT didn't post the news of Chernin's exit from News Corp. until some three hours later, and that post -- by Arango -- attributed the news to "a person briefed on the matter who declined to speak publicly because the company had not made a formal announcement."

Wonder how Arango and Perez-Pena explained their failure to get the Chernin scoop to their editors, given that they'd spent much of the previous week interviewing sources with supposed knowledge of the workings of Murdoch's company.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Hey, Jim Dwyer -- "Somewhere" There's A Column That Hasn't Been Done Before, Dude.

Jim Dwyer's "About New York" column yesterday had a familiar ring to it -- and we're not talking about the melody from Leonard Bernstein's "Somewhere," either.

The columnist made a rare front-page appearance with his account of the famous Bernstein melody -- the opening notes to "Somewhere," from "West Side Story" -- that happens to hum from the undercarriage of certain New York City subway trains.

News to you? Maybe, if you started reading the NYT for the first time this past Monday.

In last Sunday's NYT City section, in the F.Y.I. column by Michael Pollak, this exact topic was covered and explained in detail -- not for the first time, and apparently not for the last:

"Why do many subways, when leaving the station, make noises that sound like the opening notes of “Somewhere,” one of Leonard Bernstein’s songs for the show?" a questioner wrote.

"F.Y.I. gets this question a lot," Pollak replied. No kidding! His explanation:

The similarity is both unintentional and unromantic, explained Deirdre Parker, a spokeswoman for New York City Transit. The sounds, she said, are made by the electrical equipment in something called the R142 Alstom propulsion inverters, which take the direct current from the third rail and converts it to alternating current in the cars. “There was no design to make them sound like musical notes,” she said.

Pollak's answer also mentioned the fact that Randy Kennedy, the NYT's estimable transit reporter/columnist for several years, had already written a column on the the topic. Had Dwyer missed that, too? Apparently.

Called "Three-Note Mystery Haunts Riders On No. 2 Line," Kennedy's January 29, 2002 column pioneered the path taken yesterday by Dwyer -- interviewing subway riders, MTA officials and the train's manufacturers in search of pithy quotes. Kennedy got them first; a messenger described the melody as "some kind of a plot by the Japanese to brainwash us all.'"

By contrast, here's Dwyer's best quote: “We didn’t know it was there until one day a Times reporter called in 2002,” said Gene Sansone, the chief mechanical officer for the subways.

The NYT's website currently runs a feature called "One in 8 Million" -- an oblique reference to the famous television-show opening that declared, "There are 8 million stories in the naked city...and this is one of them."

It might be nice if Dwyer, the writer entrusted with the NYT's beloved "About New York" column -- a bastion of originality that has been held by such great NYT alumni as William Geist and Anna Quindlen -- took that mantra to heart, and looked a little harder for stories that haven't been told so many times before, especially within the previous week.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

UPDATE: Still No Response From Joe Sexton, Metro Editor, or Catherine Mathis, Spokeswoman, Re Dalton Suicide Coverage

A few regular readers have wondered whether we ever heard back from the NYT's Metro Editor, Joe Sexton, or the NYT's spokeswoman, Catherine Mathis. We'd written to them earlier in the week to find out why the NYT failed to cover the suicide jump of a 17-year-old Dalton junior on Wednesday.

Previously, the NYT has been responsive to NYTPicker questions about coverage, which we appreciate. With snarky blog coverage of the NYT available everywhere -- including serious allegations posted with no attempt to get comment -- the NYTPicker has tried to set itself apart by seeking response to its items, when appropriate.

In this case, we believed there might be some legitimate reason the NYT chose not to cover the Dalton suicide story -- a reason that might be illuminating for readers who often wonder, as we do, what makes a seemingly significant story unworthy of the NYT's attention. In the wake of our first item, and the email to Sexton and Mathis, an anonymous commenter posted the theory that executive editor Bill Keller's daughter goes to Dalton, and suggested that connection influenced the decision. We don't know if that's true, but no one has spoken up to contradict it.

We'd be delighted to take that comment down if it isn't true, and to give the NYT a chance to explain its thinking. The paper has lately demonstrated a desire to be transparent about its coverage -- witness the regular "Talk To The Newsroom" sessions where readers can grill top NYT editors about stories in the paper, and its weekly Public Editor columns on the editorial page.

Here's the full text of our email. We look forward to a response and will print it in full as soon as we get it.

Dear Mr. Sexton,

We posted an item on our blog last night wondering when the NYT was planning to report the tragic death of a Dalton student yesterday, a story that was widely covered elsewhere in the NYC media.

We saw no coverage of the story either on the web or in this morning's print edition.

Here is what we have written:

We are wondering if you can explain to us your reasoning behind not reporting this story, either on the website or in print. In the past, the NYT has covered apparent student suicides as news stories. This one would seem to be of particular reader interest, given the prominence of the school in New York City, and the tragic nature of the student's death.

Thank you for any help/insight you can provide us, and we look forward to hearing from you.

The NYTPicker

Thursday, February 19, 2009

UPDATE: More Puff Pieces On Armani, Plus The Designer Disinvites Fashion Critic Cathy Horyn From His Show.

Does the NYT give away free blogging rights to its advertisers?

That's a question the NYTPicker raised last fall about the City Room's Q&A with the artistic director of the Big Apple Circus -- a regular advertiser in the NYT -- and wonders about again today with the launch of a guest blog by regular NYT advertiser Giorgio Armani.

Armani has been advertising in the NYT for as long as there have been shoulder pads in men's suits. But today's so-called "double-truck" ad in the NYT's front section -- a splashy two-page spread smack in the middle, announcing the opening of the Italian designer's new Fifth Avenue store -- represents the kind of ad the NYT loves most: a hefty six-figure purchase by a prestigious client.

Fashion advertising has been a cornerstone of the NYT's business for decades. But in recent years, as other market segments have declined, the major fashion retailers and designers -- who keep buying fancy full page ads in the newspaper and the magazine, along with its still-flush fashion supplements -- have become even more crucial to the paper's bottom line. That means treating those advertisers with the care and attention that befits companies that contribute millions of dollars each year to the NYT's editorial budget.

What else could explain the absurdly self-promotional "Giorgio Armani Takes Manhattan" blog that began appearing on the NYT website yesterday? As part of the T Magazine's blog, "The Moment," the silver-haired Italian design legend has been given space to chronicle his arrival in Manhattan for fashion week -- which just happens to coincide with the opening of his new store, as advertised.

"Ciao, New York!" Armani announced yesterday, in his first post. " I just arrived this weekend for the opening of my new Fifth Avenue store, which I am celebrating on Tuesday night. I am stra-contento to be here. I flew in from Milan, on Alitalia, and I must say that the service was impeccable. The staff was very well mannered and elegant. I was in first class and ate a very nice breakfast and then went right to sleep."

Not nauseous yet? Keep reading.

"My usual driver, Jonathan, was waiting to pick me up outside in a small black Audi," Armani continues. "It was a nice car, but I told him to bring a van tomorrow. Please, I need more room."

And then:

I have an apartment on Central Park West, which makes me feel like a real New Yorker. It’s a penthouse with terraces all around," he writes. Sounds good, but wait -- there's drama ahead!

"I sleep very well in that house, but there’s one big problem: too much light," the designer moans. "I’ve noticed that Americans never block out the light properly in bedrooms. In Europe we like to close ourselves off in the dark. I took care of that problem by putting in black-out curtains and now I sleep like a baby."

Poor Giorgio...too much light in his Central Park West apartment!

Actually, we'd be more depressed to learn that the NYT didn't deal Armani this blog in return for advertising. To think that editors at "The Moment" blog consider his poor-little-rich-boy ramblings worthy of a home on the NYT website -- purely as journalism -- is a notion even more frightening than the idea of Giorgio Armani waking up to blinding sunlight through his Central Park West window.

[UPDATE: The NYT's fawning, blanket coverage of Armani has continued all week, including a City Room blog post about his $1 million contribution to the NYC public schools; a Dining section story about the restaurant opening in his new Fifth Avenue store; his continuing, ghost-written journal on "The Moment" blog; and a Diner's Journal blog entry that covered the restaurant in sumptuous detail.

Now comes today's 1,277-word puff-piece profile on the front page of Thursday Styles, by fashion reporter Eric Wilson, that identifies Armani as "one of the wealthiest and most successful designers in the world." How does Wilson know that? Because Armani, whose company is privately held, told Wilson that last July it reported sales of $2.1 billion and profits of nearly $300 million. No further information is provided to put his business into context -- except Wilson's assertion that Armani is "the biggest news of New York Fashion Week."

Of course he is, thanks to the NYT's obsequious and endless coverage of one of its most loyal advertisers.

Meanwhile, the NYT's fashion critic, Cathy Horyn, reported yesterday morning on her "On The Runway" blog that she was disinvited to Armani's runway show this week, because the designer didn't like her negative comments about his January couture show in Paris. This was left unmentioned in Wilson's wet kiss to Armani in today's paper. While it's not unheard of for a fashion designer to ban a critic from a show, the NYT's promotion of Armani seems especially inappropriate in light of the Horyn ban.

Shouldn't the NYT mention in print Armani's attempt to strong-arm the NYT into letting him control its coverage of his shows? Yes. Will they? Doutbful.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

It's Wednesday at 11:18 P.M. Why Hasn't The NYT Yet Reported The Dalton School Suicide Story?

News of the tragic apparent suicide of a 17-year-0ld Dalton School student this morning -- reported by the Associated Press at 12:22 p.m., and since posted on every major NYC news website -- has yet to appear on the NYT's website at this hour.

Little is yet known about what happened, of course -- the stories that have turned up on the Post, Newsday and Daily News websites don't have much information. There have been scattered details about the time, the circumstances and the shock created by the student's fall into the school playground during the middle of a school day.

But for New Yorkers who turn to for authoritative coverage of local events, the failure of the NYT to post anything at all left readers scrambling to websites with far less news resources.

The failure of the NYT to post a story seems an odd mistake at a time when the paper crows regularly -- and legitimately -- about its wondrous website. The NYTPicker checks the site every five minutes or so, and we doubt we're alone; the combination of wire-service speed and top-quality reporting makes it indispensable for people who want to stay current at all times.

And let's face it; Dalton is an East Side institution that counts thousands of NYT readers among its alumni and family. News of a Dalton suicide is, frankly, of intense interest to its website readership.

For the NYT to have held back its story for tomorrow's print edition seems like the wrong decision to us, and probably to the thousands of readers who've looked at for authoritative coverage of the story this afternoon and evening, in vain.

[UPDATE: No story on the Dalton suicide appeared in the NYT print edition on Thursday. The NYTPicker has emailed metro editor Joe Sexton to hear his reasoning re: the paper's decision not to report the incident.]

[UPDATE: The City Room blog included one paragraph on the Dalton suicide in Sewell Chan's "Morning Buzz" roundup, posted at 9:06 a.m.]

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Gay Talese, Blogger, Posts An Item About Beggars On City Room Blog. No Surprise, It's Pretty Good.

Gay Talese -- the former NYT reporter, author of several brilliant books, winner of a George Polk career achievement award (just yesterday!) and famously resistant to most forms of modern technology -- has just written what may well be the first blog post of his career, for the NYT's City Room blog.

Talese seems to have adapted perfectly to the form. It's a fun, breezy account of a recent series of interactions he had with panhandlers in his Upper East Side neighborhood. Hoping to help one boost his income, Talese took out a piece of laundry board from his jacket pocket and penned a new pitch on the spot, to replace a sign that said "Homeless. Please Help" and wasn't quite working:

“Please Support Pres. Obama’s Stimulus Plan, and begin right here … at the bottom … Thank you,’’ Talese scribbled, and handed it to the man, who put Talese's rewrite to work right away. The author then went home, printed up two dozen more signs and taped them to more pieces of laundry board, for distribution to beggars throughout the neighborhood:

The next day, on Sunday, and during the Monday holiday as well, I handed out these boarded messages at random to people who approached me for money, explaining why I thought their economy would be stimulated by my street signs. I further pointed out that the big bankers and industrial leaders the government was bailing out had lobbyists and public relations companies doing their bidding; but these wandering men who were seeking handouts in the street had to tap into the topicality of their plight, had to link themselves into the headlines and the top priority of President Obama. Stimulus, stimulus!!

Of course, Talese the reporter has followed up on his pitch, and, with his customary immodesty, claims some success:

Jimmy Roberts, who had stationed himself on Fifth Avenue near 58th Street, said on Monday, “It’s a powerful pitch.’’

Of course it is; Gay Talese wrote it!

Maybe the man who still -- at last report -- communicated with the outside world only by phone, mail and fax will now embrace the blogosphere. What a crazy new chapter for an amazing NYT career that began when Talese was hired as a metro reporter in 1956.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Maureen Dowd Should Brush Up On Her Jane Austen. It's Mr. Knightley, Not Mr. Knightly.

Maureen Dowd's Sunday column chastises President Obama for what she considers his mocking treatment of Vice President Biden in public -- an interesting take on the relationship between the cool commander in chief and his loquacious sidekick.

But Dowd concludes with a pretentious quote from Jane Austen's "Emma" to seal her argument -- and gets it wrong.

Just as she's lecturing the president to brush up on his Austen, Dowd manages to misspell the name of one of the novelist's most famous characters:

Still, the president should brush up on his Jane Austen. When Emma Woodhouse belittles Miss Bates, an older and poorer friend, at a picnic, Mr. Knightly pulls her aside to remonstrate. “How could you be so insolent in your wit?” he chides, reminding her that it is unfeeling to humble someone less fortunate in front of others who will be guided by the way she behaves.

That’s how it works ... not surprisingly.

As any Austen reader knows, the character's name is Mr. Knightley, not Mr. Knightly.

In the next paragraph of the novel, Emma continues to insist of Miss Bates: "What is good and what is ridiculous are most unfortunately blended in her."

Which is not a bad description of Maureen Dowd.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Ken Little, You Rule! Even The NYTPicker Has To Admit, The New "Article Skimmer" Is Totally Rad.

Like, wow. The NYT web developers outdid themselves this time. Its new "First Look" blog highlights the website's latest bells and whistles, and here's the first one, a killer app that organizes the NYT's entire content into an easy-to-read "Article Skimmer."

Check it out. We're already hooked.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Crisis Deepens: A Yacht Club Closes, Manicurists Lose Business, Dating Websites Prosper.

The NYT doesn't disappoint today in its ongoing coverage of the recession's impact on rich Americans. Three stories chronicle the crisis as it pertains to people who aren't really experiencing it.

Our journey begins with Peter Applebome, a Metro columnist who informs us that the Knickerbocker Yacht Club of Port Washington, N.Y. -- founded in 1874 -- will soon close as the result of the recession. "Pulling teeth is easy," a Long Island dentist and club board member, explained to Applebome. "This is hard."

To Applebome's credit, he acknowledges the absurdity of covering a closing like this amid a national crisis: "The term 'yacht club,'" he writes, "does not exactly evoke populist sentiments or mainstream economic concerns." It does, however, evoke the interest of NYT editors endlessly obsessed with how hard times impact the wealthiest among us.

Next comes Catherine Saint Louis's Styles piece on manicures, which reports that regulars have reduced their visits -- and even changed their nail polish color to clear, so that chips won't show up as clearly. "Clients that would come every two weeeks are coming every three," explains one salon owner.

Again, a reader might wonder why the NYT seems so oblivious to the fact that for millions of Americans -- millions of New Yorkers, for that matter -- a professional manicure isn't even an option these days.

Further into the Styles section, reporter Abby Ellin looks into a supposed upsurge in dating since the recession began -- measuring it, of course, by increased spending by consumers who still have that rare commodity known as "disposable income."

Ellin reports that more Americans are spending $34.99 for the monthly membership fee in than ever before.

"Because of the economy there are a lot of people who are out of work and have free time and can spend more time online going to dating sites," explains an analyst who obviously gets all his recession-related news from the NYT.

Is The Ikram Goldman Story A Scoop? NYT Says Yes. We Say No.

We'd run out of blog space and energy policing every instance the NYT gets caught up in its own arrogance -- but here's a good one to start your day.

This morning's Styles cover story on Ikram Goldman is being presented to readers as though this is the first time her role as Michelle Obama's stylist has been reported anywhere -- even though her existence and association with Mrs. Obama had been reported in the Daily News and the Huffington Post.

Yet reporters Cathy Horyn and Eric Wilson breathlessly declare, in the second paragraph of their 1,637-word profile:

Despite the close study that people have made of Mrs. Obama’s style, it is not known that her wardrobe is being managed largely by a boutique owner in Chicago. Ikram Goldman, whose store is called Ikram, has played an unprecedented role since the election, serving as gatekeeper between the fashion industry and the first lady.

But on Inauguration Day, the New York Daily News published a profile of Ikram Goldman by reporter Piper Weiss, entitled "Meet Ikram Goldman - the woman with the keys to Michelle Obama's closet." Eight days later, a Huffington Post profile ("Ikram Goldman, The Most Powerful Woman In American Fashion") by Nour Akkad appeared on the website.

Both stories made essentially the same point as the Horyn/Wilson profile, that the Chicago fashion stylist plays a central role in helping the First Lady decide what to wear.

The NYT's piece goes a bit further than the previous pieces, chronicling Goldman's role in this month's Vogue cover shoot of Mrs. Obama. It also raises a question of conflict of interest on Goldman's part because she is a retailer, and could profit from the sale of clothes Mrs. Obama wears. It's a good piece and brings up legitimate questions that aren't adequately answered by Mrs. Obama's spokeswoman.

But in-depth reporting doesn't entitle the NYT to misrepresent its story as the first of its kind, when it's not.

Words like "it is not known" telegraph to readers that this is the first time they're hearing about Goldman's existence, or her current job. That's not true for the millions of people who read the Daily News or the Huffington Post.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Crisis Deepens: Laura M. Holson Reports Decline In Dessert Orders At Michael's.

The NYT's continuing coverage of the economic crisis moves to Michael's this morning, the lunch scene for the literary world where suddenly, customers are now forced to forgo bottled water and, at times, even appetizers.

The thesis of Laura M. Holson's story is that business lunchers no longer leap for the check -- a dubious notion to begin with for anyone who has ever been within arm's reach of a Michael's lunch tab. Holson contends that in the wake of the downturn, publishers once happy to plunk down the Amex now stare at the check in the hopes of rendering it invisible.

The story exists mostly thanks to the generous quote-mongering of Larry Kirshbaum, a former publishing executive-turned-agent whose flair for exaggeration should be a cautionary tale for anyone who might want to publish his memoirs.

Kirshbaum complains that instead of long lunches at Patroon, his colleagues take him to the Comfort Diner on East 45th Street, "where a grilled cheese sandwich costs $8.95." Didn't Holson or Kirshbaum (or the editors of the Dining Section) stop short on that price? That would rank among the most expensive grilled-cheese sandwiches in the United States.

Sure enough, a check of the Comfort Diner menu online (elapsed reporting time: 7 seconds) revealed that the cost of a Comfort Diner grilled cheese sandwich is, in fact, $5.95, with bacon and tomato available at no charge.

Next, Kirshbaum asserts that a "top book publisher" invited him to lunch this week, only to then reveal the restaurant of choice: McDonald's.

A great detail. Sorry, but we don't believe it. Not after the grilled-cheese fiasco.

You know reporters are pressing a hard-to-prove thesis when they're forced to quote a corporate flack -- in other words, someone paid a salary to give interviews to desperate NYT reporters. Holson (formerly on the Hollywood beat) pads her piece by quoting Peter Thonis, "chief communications officer" for Verizon Communications. Thonis tells her he now takes reporters to coffee, instead of lunch, to help them avoid ethical issues created by their poverty. "It is a tricky balance, maintaining relationships in these precarious times," Thonis said. Spoken like a true communications officer.

But there is a tricky balance here. It's between our genuine concern for Americans suffering from the ravages of a painful recession, and the NYT's seemingly endless obsession with the narrow concerns of the not-quite-so-rich as they cope with the fallout. It's time for the NYT to stop embarrassing itself with these stories, and devote its dwindling reportorial fire power to the real, painful problems confronting Americans who can't afford a grilled-cheese sandwich at any price.

Monday, February 9, 2009

NYT: Buy A Kindle Or We'll Shoot This Newspaper.

You can skip Richard Perez-Pena's some-holds-barred account of the NYT's financial troubles this morning, and go straight to the home page right now for the paper's fawning coverage of the new Amazon Kindle. "New Kindle Is Faster, Smarter, Thinner," boasts the headline of the lead story right now -- a virtual love sonnet to the second-generation electronic reader. The story follows a morning of live-blogging from the Kindle announcement at Amazon HQ.

Why should the NYT pay so much money to cover an event that has solely to do with selling digital readers to the public, for profit? The answer is obvious, and maybe a little sad.

You know the Kindle. It's the rectangular plastic thingie from Amazon that was supposed to kill off books. Well, it turns out they got that wrong a little. It's gonna kill off the American newspaper instead.

One of these days, we'll all have a Kindle, just like we're all getting iPhones and Netflix and TiVo. They're still a little expensive, but that will change. It's $379 (with free Super Saver Shipping!) so it may not replace the newspaper just yet. But over the weekend, the NYTPicker found itself in the presence of a longtime print subscriber who could not manage to turn the pages of the sports section without crinkling them up. Kindle will take care of that.

“We see the Kindle and we see e-books as a real opportunity because we think that it will not cannibalize the physical part of the business and it will also generate and create new readers of books,” Markus Dohle, CEO of Random House, told the Times. That quote might just as easily come from the mouths of an NYT executive.

Come on, let's sell some Kindles, everybody!

[UPDATE: The NYT website just updated and toned down its Kindle headline. Now it reads, Amazon in Big Push for New Kindle Model.]

Sunday, February 8, 2009

There's A New Game In Town: NYT Launches KenKen, Print Is Saved.

Tomorrow's NYT marks the launch of KenKen, a new daily puzzle that will surely save print journalism from immediate death.

Yes, this Sudoku-style game will now appear six days a week alongside the crossword, apparently as a sop to readers still starved for a puzzle even after reading Thomas Friedman's column. The title means "cleverness, squared," according to Will Shortz's accompanying story.

Shortz looks like the big winner here, at least for the time being. Amazon already lists 14 different Will Shortz KenKen books for sale, some of them co-authored with Tetsuya Miyamoto, a Japanese math teacher who invented the game in 2004.

How exactly does this help the NYT? Presumably the newspaper thinks that adding a game will deliver yet more customers for its print edition. But why put a new game in the NYT that apparently delivers more money to Shortz's bank account than to the company's beleaguered bottom line? Just wondering.

As for the NYTPicker, we're still mourning the loss of the Saturday NYT News Quiz.

Clark Hoyt Commends NYT Reporters For Clever Re-Packaging Of Daily News Scoop.

In his Public Editor column this morning, Clark Hoyt raises an important question that the NYTPicker brought up on January 23: what about all those pesky web Caroline Kennedy scoops that turned out to be wrong? Shouldn't they be corrected, too?

But as usual, the NYT Public Apologist Editor frames his discussion around what his employer has done right lately. This week, he leads off his column with an extended replay of what he called a "smart, useful revelation" in the NYT's Wednesday story about Gov. Paterson's behind-the-scenes media manipulations -- Danny Hakim and Nicholas Confessore reporting on the role played by Paterson media strategist Judy Smith in leaking false stories to reporters, including at the NYT.

It was one of those stories -- about Kennedy's supposed withdrawal from the race due to tax and nanny issues -- that turned out to be false.

But at 2:48 a.m. on January 26, 2009 -- nine days before the NYT piece appeared -- political reporter Liz Benjamin of the New York Daily News posted the Smith scoop on her "Daily Politics" blog. Under the headline, "Hired PR gun doomed Caroline," Benjamin wrote:

Judy Smith, a Washington-based PR guru and former Bush White House deputy press secretary, orchestrated the ill-conceived character attack on Kennedy, sources said Sunday....

There was an internal agreement among Paterson staffers to refrain from attacking Kennedy. Then came the leaks from inside the governor's office that Kennedy's supposed tax, nanny and marital problems had tanked her bid for Hillary Clinton's Senate seat - taking many staffers by surprise.

"There were radically different statements all coming out of the governor's camp at the exact same time," a Paterson adviser said.

The administration released a formal statement insisting no information gathered from candidates for Clinton's seat led to Kennedy's withdrawal.

Yet it was Paterson who signed off on Smith's plan to release dirt on Kennedy, the sources said.

Benjamin's post went on to note:

Smith's client list has included Monica Lewinsky, the family of murdered Washington intern Chandra Levy, Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson, who is battling corruption charges, and scandal-scarred former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry.

Paterson has used campaign cash to pay Smith's firm, Impact Strategies, $64,367 since October, according to his Jan. 15 filing with the state Board of Elections.

The Hakim-Confessore story, nearly two weeks later, had none of Benjamin's background or perspective. And yet Hoyt characterizes it this morning as a scoop that helps mend the mistake it made two weeks earlier on the web.

There, Hoyt notes with annoyance, Hakim and Confessore reported the rumors being spread by the Paterson camp. The public editor chides them for not being more careful, and for not including the paper's own mistakes in its recent narrative:

But it should have gone further. It should have examined The Times’s own role in the story — posting the orchestrated leak on its Web site and allowing “a person close to Gov. David A. Paterson” to make nasty comments about Kennedy anonymously.

That's where Hoyt draws the line. He should consider looking farther back, and finding the multitude of mistakes made along the way by Hakim and Confessore & Co.

Has the public editor forgotten the NYT's original report? That one -- on the night the story broke that Kennedy was about to withdraw from the race -- falsely led readers to believe that Kennedy had bowed out because of her uncle's ill health. That story ran on the NYT website for most of an evening in which readers were scrambling to find out what was going on.

That story no longer exists in the NYT archive. But a summary of it can be found in Sewell Chan's morning roundup n the NYT's City Room blog the next morning:

Ms. Kennedy did not elaborate, but a person who spoke to her suggested that her concerns about the health of her uncle, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who suffers from brain cancer and was hospitalized after a seizure on Tuesday, contributed to her decision.

That may have been the last reference in print to that version of events, which never made much sense to anyone, given that Sen. Kennedy had been diagnosed with brain cancer months earlier. The Paterson-Smith scenario turned out to be far more plausible to a hungry news media, which included Hakim and Confessore.

Why doesn't Hoyt hold Hakim and Confessore accountable for that equally false story? Why haven't the reporters busted the Kennedy source who lied to them that night? Why doesn't Hoyt give credit to Liz Benjamin for breaking the Judy Smith story, and ask the NYT what took it so long to follow up?

Also, why didn't the NYT give Benjamin credit for her scoop in its story? Their version had only a few narrative details not already covered in the Daily News:

According to advisers to the governor who were involved in the process, the leaks against Ms. Kennedy were coordinated by Judith A. Smith, a consultant who has been acting as the governor’s top communications strategist.

On Jan. 22, the morning after Ms. Kennedy withdrew, Ms. Smith spoke to Mr. Paterson, then went to the governor’s Midtown Manhattan offices, the advisers said.

There, she told at least two people to call major media outlets around the state. She instructed them to tell reporters that the governor had been dismayed by Ms. Kennedy’s public auditioning for the job, that he never intended to select her as senator, and that the tax and nanny issues had led her to pull out of consideration.

The NYT February 4 story adds detail to the account, but most of that was implied in Benjamin's story.

As usual, Clark Hoyt's column raises as many questions as it answers, if not more.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Bill Keller: "Readers of The New York Times Do Not Need To Be Treated Like Fools."

Early this evening, after nearly 24 hours of radio silence, executive editor Bill Keller returned to the NYT website with an extended response to attacks on the paper's coverage of the Gaza War.

In a rambling, 1,560-word essay, Keller spoke eloquently and with force on the issue, as he has all week deflecting criticism on numerous fronts. As with most NYT editors, Keller carries some arrogance into the discussion. But he seemingly can't help but defend his noble correspondents against charges that they're playing favorites in the age-old conflict.

Keller opens with the kind of whiz-bang lede you'd expect from a Pulitzer winner:

"When the author of Proverbs wrote 15:1 ("a gentle answer turneth away wrath") he clearly didn't foresee the passions that would beset his neighborhood a couple of millennia later. Gentle — and thoughtful, and agonized, and heartfelt — answers have consistently failed to turn away the wrath of those who believe that The Times is a captive of one side or the other, that our reporters in the field march to some partisan tune, that the articles and photographs we publish are part of a campaign to demonize Israel or, alternatively, to do the bidding of some Jewish cabal."

From there, Keller then launches into a damning attack on the tabloid culture that uses scare headlines to inflame readers' emotions.

Words are the main tools of our craft. They can be used to inform and explain. They can also be used to inflame, or to pander. The tabloid press has a vocabulary of headline words — HERO, THUG, MADMAN — that are aimed not at the minds of readers, or even at their hearts, but at their viscera. Over time, the promiscuous use of such overheated language and adolescent name-calling cheapens both the language and the user. And it is insulting to readers. It tells you what you are supposed to think, implying you are too stupid or insensitive to make your own judgment. I prefer to think that readers of The New York Times do not need to be treated like fools.

Words can also be a litmus test, a password to establish your adherence to a particular point of view. To describe a politician as "liberal" or "conservative" (while almost always inexact) is generally neutral. To describe the same politician as "left-wing" or "right-wing" may say more about you than about your subject. It identifies you.

NYT stories don't do that. Nor will he allow the debate over the use of the word "terrorist" to weigh on him. He believes that more important issues remain. In the end, he challenges the paper's critics to stop sniping at his reporters:

Covering the Middle East is grueling work, emotionally taxing, intellectually challenging and sometimes physically perilous. The reporters who do it expect to be second-guessed, but they don't deserve to be vilified.

One consistent element of Keller's answers to questions this week has been his eagerness to point out the high-quality work of his staff. Yes, it may come off as arrogance, but it also demonstrates Keller's loyalty to his reporters and his passion for their work. As a former reporter himself, Keller brings a clear-minded and fair perspective to the Gaza issue that's hard not to admire.

Wonder why Keller waited until after the close of business on a Friday afternoon to put this out. It was the only admission of weakness all week by an editor who spent most of it passionately playing from a position of strength. He'll always argue, no matter what the topic, that the NYT covers it better than anyone else -- at one point this week he basically wrote off the Los Angeles Times as a second-rate paper, and had no nice words for the Washington Post.

And he's probably right.

Alessandra Stanley's Reign Of Error: With Today's Correction, TV Critic On Pace To Shatter Record

Kudos to Alessandra Stanley. With today's correction of her Monday review of "RuPaul's Drag Race," the NYT chief television critic has racked up her fourth mistake of 2009 --putting her on pace for a 50-error year.

And if that's not enough, today's Stanley "TV Watch" column on Super Bowl commercials contains another mistake: Stanley misspells the name of the Jenny Craig weight-loss program as "Jennie Craig."

If Stanley keeps it up, she may even exceed 60 corrections in 2009 -- a record to rival Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak or Barry Bonds's 73 home runs in a single season.

Today's correction reports that Stanley misidentified the famous costume designer for "Dynasty" -- Nolan Miller -- as "RuPaul" guest judge Bob Mackie.

While no public statistics are kept for NYT corrections, we believe this latest string represents a landmark achievement in the history of the newspaper of record. Stanley's last correction appeared just 12 days ago, acknowledging two mistakes in a Week In Review essay on Mickey Rourke.

These stats also don't include a mistake made in a recent review of TNT's "Trust Me," in which Stanley erroneously identified the creators as executive producers of "The Closer." The NYT has yet to publish a correction of that error.

Stanley has famously flubbed numerous facts in her career as an NYT television critic -- including such gaffes as referring to CBS's hit series "Everybody Loves Raymond" as "All About Raymond." A recent change in procedure by Stanley -- in which the critic began checking her facts before filing her reviews -- had resulted in a record-low 11 corrections in 2008. It could not be learned whether Stanley has abandoned that controversial methodology in her quest for a new record high in 2009.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Bill Keller Really Shouldn't Be Drinking Rolling Rock At The 10:00 A.M. Editors' Meeting.

NYT Executive Editor Bill Keller has just posted this bizarre attempt at humor in response to reader Devin Banerjee's serious question on the "Talk To The Newsroom" web feature this afternoon:

Q. I think a lot of young journalists and editors, myself included, are curious about what a day in the shoes of Bill Keller is like. Can you walk us through a normal work day for The Times's executive editor?
— Devin Banerjee, Stanford, Calif.

A. Really? You'd be interested in that? Well, I think my life is pretty much what you would imagine it to be.

I wake up most mornings to the telephone, invariably some world leader or international celebrity seeking my counsel. Lately it's been a lot of President Obama — again with the damn puppy? — but sometimes it's Richard Holbrooke to pick my brain about Afghanistan, or Bruce Springsteen asking if it isn't time for another Arts and Leisure cover story about Bruce Springsteen. The valet brings breakfast with the handful of newspapers that have not gone out of business. In the limo on the way to the office, I help Warren Buffett sort out his portfolio and give trading advice to George Steinbrenner, not that he ever listens.

At the office, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and I have our morning conference call with Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez, Kim Jong-il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — plus Fidel Castro when he's compos mentis. Dictating the world's agenda entails a lot of conference calls. I've been encouraging the cabal to save some money by using iChat, but first we have to persuade Putin to wear a shirt.

Lunch at the Four Seasons is always a high point. Today it's my weekly tête-à-tête with Bill O'Reilly. He's really not the Neanderthal blowhard he plays on TV. He's totally in on the joke. After a couple of cosmopolitans, he does a wicked impression of Ann Coulter. We usually spend the lunch working up outlandish things he can say about The New York Times and making fun of Fox executives. (Once Rupert Murdoch showed up for a lunch date, and O'Reilly had to hide under the table for half an hour.)

I spend most of the afternoon writing all the stories for the front page. (You knew those were all pseudonyms, right?) I write Tom Friedman's column, too, but, I swear, Bill Kristol wrote all his own stuff.

By then it's time for drinks and dinner. If you're reading this, Julian, I think the duck tonight. I had the foie gras for lunch. And no time for dessert. The Secretary of State is coming by to give me a back rub.

[UPDATE: With the next "Talk To The Newsroom" question, about the expansion of the NYT index, Keller really starts to loosen up and let the comedy fly:

Reading over my previous answer, I recognize that it ill behooves the executive editor to attempt satire this early in the week. Friday, maybe Thursday, and only during Happy Hour. So let's get this trolley back on the sober track. What'll it be? The Middle East? Not yet. Liberal bias? Oh, please! The index? Now you're talking!

It's only Tuesday, folks. This is going to be fun.]

[ANOTHER UPDATE: The Nytpicker contacted Devin Banerjee, who asked Keller the question about how he spends his day, to see what he thought of the editor's comedy skills. Turns out Banerjee goes to Stanford and works as deputy editor of the Stanford Daily -- and surprisingly enough, the future NYT job applicant had only flattering things to say to the Nytpicker about Keller:

I was both surprised and entertained by Keller's response -- surprised because my question was entirely serious, and entertained because I did think his response was pretty funny. I always knew Keller had a great sense of humor, but I was expecting him to perhaps begin the response with something satirical and then actually address my question. I guess not. Based on the response to the question following mine, though, I think he has recognized that his response was not one readers were expecting: "Reading over my previous answer, I recognize that it ill behooves the executive editor to attempt satire this early in the week." Anyway, I'll be meeting him in early April at an event for The Stanford Daily, so rest assured that I'll get my response!

Brilliantly played, Banerjee. And remember, for that April meeting: Rolling Rock is the executive editor's brew of choice. Having a case on ice wouldn't hurt.]

Monday, February 2, 2009

How Your NYT Gets Made: Dan Barry Reads The Winston-Salem Journal, Adds Flower.

In this morning's NYT, Dan Barry offers yet another of his faux tone poems from the heart of America, with the kind of flowery prose that's supposed to remind you of his astonishing literary gifts.

But hey, give the guy credit. In a matter of days, Barry can take a boring article from a small local paper and turn it into a NYT "This Land" column, with all brand-new words and reporting.

Take this morning's column. He did.

Just last Monday, in the Winston-Salem Journal, a reporter named Kim Underwood wrote a piece called "Poor Ellen Smith: Greensboro man rewords and records a song about a relative who was hanged." In it, Underwood told the story of a young singer named Randy Furches who was the latest to perform the famous old song about a local woman killed in 1892 by her young lover, Peter DeGraff. DeGraff was later hanged for the crime, adding to the legend of the case.

Here's Underwood's lede:

On Feb. 8, 1894, 6,000 people showed up at the gallows on Liberty Street across from where Smith Reynolds Airport is today to watch Peter DeGraff hang for the murder of his 19-year-old girlfriend, Ellen Smith.

As it turned out, that was the last public hanging in Forsyth County.

Randy Furches, a descendant of DeGraff, has updated "Poor Ellen Smith," a traditional bluegrass song about the murder, and recorded it in time for the 115th anniversary of the hanging.

Underwood's piece goes on to interview Edith DeGraff Thornett, the granddaughter of DeGraff's brother, Peter, who had researched the case and shared her knowledge with Fuches. Thornett describes how her family had never mentioned the case. Uaing Thornett's research, Underwood recounts the story of the murder, the hanging and the song.

This morning, one week later, Barry weighs in with his version. While the words and reporting are substantially different, he tells essentially the same story as Underwood. Here's his lede:

One hundred fifteen years ago this month, on open land now occupied by warehouses and office buildings, a bantam of a man mounted the gallows built in his dishonor. He raised his hat and bowed before the 6,000 people gathered to see the floor beneath him drop. He carried a small Bible.

A trial six months earlier had laid out how this ne’er-do-well of 22, Peter DeGraff, had charmed a poor, simple woman named Ellen Smith. How she followed him around town like a puppy after their child was lost at birth. How he avoided her, accused her of being with other men, muttered that he’d like to kill her. How he sent her a note fraught with misspellings one day, sweetly requesting she meet him by a spring close to where people now play tennis, down the hill from the Zinzendorf Hotel, long gone.

How he shot her through the heart, his gun so close that its powder singed the outfit she had chosen for what she thought would be a romantic reconciliation. How she was not yet 20.

Of course, how can Underwood compete with a man who can use words like ne'er-do-well in a sentence? Her His straight-ahead prose pales in contrast with Barry's cockeyed cadences, the sort of writing that calls attention to itself with its use of imagery. Listen to him describe DeGraff's public hanging:

Moments later, he was dancing on air. Then he was hanging limp, a human exclamation point to the last public hanging in Forsyth County.

A human exclamation point! Sweet stuff. [UPDATE: An anonymous reader has informed the Nytpicker that the phrase "human exclamation point" was used in the NYT less than a year ago by David Carr, to describe the actress Tilda Swinton at the Oscars: With a shock of red, short hair and a very thin draped in black velvet, [Swinton] looked like a human exclamation point.

To be fair: The re-packaging of local news for national consumption is as old as the Ellen Smith murder case, and it's a legitimate practice. There's no copying involved, or even any ethical violation; Barry did his own interviews, used his own language, told the story his way. One could even argue that there's a benefit to it -- that NYT reporters bring good local stories to light by translating them for a national audience who might otherwise go without.

But with today's story, really, what's the gain? There's no news in this little yarn out of Greensboro, no developments worth noting, just a tiny little scoop dug out of nowhere by Kim Underwood for her his local paper. It doesn't exist in today's NYT to showcase a good yarn -- this is a 115-year-old murder case, now closed, and with no significant new facts to illuminate the story.

No, it's only there for the chance to give Barry yet another launch pad for his overheated prose. It seems a shame that with a mandate to find stories anywhere he wants, Barry still needs newspapers elsewhere to guide him around the country. Maybe if he spent less time crafting his ledes, and more time talking to people, his stories would be as unique as his voice.

"Our journalism has never been more glorious."
--Jill Abramson, managing editor, New York Times, January 7, 2009

Worst Lede Of The Day: Judy Battista On Yesterday's "Frenetic" Super Bowl Game.

With one of the most exciting Super Bowl games in history as her inspiration, the NYT's NFL beat reporter Judy Battista chose to open the paper's lead story on yesterday's epic Steelers-Cardinals battle with a lede about the pre-game festivities:

TAMPA, Fla. — Few football franchises have so many great alumni who appear on the field to whip up the fans each time the team appears in the Super Bowl. But there was Lynn Swann, the great Pittsburgh Steelers receiver, a Terrible Towel in his hand, right before kickoff Sunday, just the way that Franco Harris, the great Steelers running back, had appeared three years ago in Detroit. Swann and Harris delivered Super Bowl titles as part of the Steelers’ dynasty a generation ago, and Swann was a subtle reminder that while the Arizona Cardinals were the team dusted with magic in these playoffs, the Steelers had history on their side.

That history got a few new heroes on Sunday night to stand beside Swann and Harris, Joe Greene and Jerome Bettis. After a frenetic finish, the Steelers won their sixth Super Bowl title — more than any team in the National Football League — not because of their defense, but because an oft-maligned offense allowed them to defeat the Arizona Cardinals, 27-23.