Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Anybody Got A Question For "Talk To The Newsroom"? Anybody Besides Judith Feinleib, We Mean.

Yesterday's lead-off puffball question in Richard Berke's "Talk To The Newsroom" feature came from Judith Feinleib, of Belmont, Massachusetts.

Does that name ring a bell? It should. It was Feinleib's 30th published "Talk To The Newsroom" question!

Feinleib is rapidly becoming the Helen Thomas of the NYT web feature, except for one key difference: Thomas asks tough questions. But that wouldn't behoove the "Talk To The Newsroom" column, designed to give NYT reporters and editors the chance to make themselves look good in a tightly-controlled situation.

And we're not just saying this because they always ignore our questions. (Okay, that's part of it.)

Actually, so far this week, all three questions come from repeat guests: Devin Banerjee, the Stanford student who asked Bill Keller a question last month about how he spends his day, turned up for his third TTTN appearance yesterday, and Steve Fankuchen, of Oakland, California, asked his second TTTN question.

Shouldn't it really be someone else's turn at the microphone?

Here's Feinleib's latest suck-up salvo, an embarrassing wet kiss directed at the assistant managing editor:

This is your second time answering our questions; you were extremely generous with your time in 2006. Would you comment on what you got from the original experience, on whether and/or how this affected the way you approached your work during the ensuing three years and on what you expect from the experience this time around?

Here's the beginning of Berke's aw-shucks reply, presented as though we're supposed to believe the question was picked at random from a bowl:

What a perfect opening question for my week of blogging. (And who can resist a compliment?)

Feinleib's TTTN debut came on October 18, 2006, when she queried Craig R. Whitney, the NYT's standards editor, on reporters and their rights to speak freely about their political opinions. (By the way, back then, Feinleib was referring to herself ax "Judith Feinleib, Ph.D." She has since dropped her academic credentials.)

Often, Feinleib's questions simply ask NYT editors or reporters to explain their jobs, in a manner that sounds a bit like a third-grader quizzing a visiting firefighter. Here's her question for Khoi Vinh, the design director of nytimes.com, on April 21, 2008:

You have stated that you and your staff are involved with what you describe as the framework for NYTimes.com. To what extent do you and your staff interact with reporters and editors? How does that work? Assuming you do work with the reporters and editors, is that the same as what happens with the graphics team? In any case, how does your team work with the graphics team?

What? Huh? Oh, sorry -- we fell asleep.

It's not that Feinleib's questions aren't valid. Often, by posing basic queries about the editorial process, she gives the subject the chance to give some insight into how journalists work. But too often, you get the feeling that NYT personnel pick Feinleib's questions because of how easy they are to answer, avoiding possibly more challenging queries that get left out.

Consider this yawner Feinleib lobbed at Marc Frons, the chief technology officer of the NYT's digital operations, in late July:

Are reporters and editors becoming more comfortable with technology? How do you see the news producing staff (for want of a better term) interacting with the IT staff as time goes by? Will this become a seamless operation or will there always be some difference between the two worlds?

"How do you see..." or "How does that work?" constructions come up alot in Feinleib's questions.

Therein may lie Feinleib's secret. There appears to be nothing a NYT staffer likes more than a long-winded "How does that work" question, because it offers a wonderful opportunity for a self-serving and long-winded "Here's how it works" answer!

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