Friday, July 10, 2009

The Perils Of Anonymity: Or, Why We Can't Have Lunch With Jennifer Preston Right Now. (Or Ever.)

Yesterday morning, in the spirit of good journalism, we emailed NYT Social Media Editor Jennifer Preston to follow up on our recent posts about her disappearance from Twitter.

We would have emailed Preston earlier, but it took us a day or so to find her email address; NYT reporters and editors often assign themselves obscure email addresses, presumably to avoid inboxes filled with unsolicited mail. Rest assured Preston's email address is not, but instead an odd combination of letters from her first and last name. We got it, though!

We got an email back from Preston right away, and she couldn't have been friendlier.

"Call me at 212 556 XXXX -- would love to chat," Preston wrote us at 9:13 a.m. "I'll be there in about 20 minutes. Or, do you have a number for me to call you?"

Well, yes, we have a number. But as Preston and the rest of our readers know, we're an anonymous website. Giving out our phone number (or, for that matter, chatting on the phone) wouldn't do much to preserve our anonymity.

And so, in keeping with the pleasant spirit of Preston's email, we wrote back:

alas, we seem to be afflicted with a debilitating case of laryngitis :( no telling when we're going to be cured. any chance you'd be willing to g-chat?

Soon afterwards, we sent Preston a G-chat invitation. We didn't hear back all morning. She wants to talk on the phone, and who can blame her? So do we. There's nothing we'd like more than to pick up the phone and have a nice, long gabfest with the NYT's Social Media Editor about her plans, her hopes, her dreams. We love yakking!

So finally, at 1:16 p.m. yesterday afternoon, we wrote Preston again:

Are you only willing to answer questions on the phone? We'd love to chat, too -- there's lots of ways to do that these days! Gchat is one. Or if it's wasier you could just email answers to the questions we asked, much like the comment you gave to Mashable. :)
Thanks, hope to hear from you.
The NYTPicker

No word from Preston until last night, at 7:22 p.m., when she wrote:

C'mon, give me a buzz. Here's my cell phone number: 917 XXX XXXX. am sure that I wouldn't recognize your voice. Or, would I?
What is this, with this anonymous thing, anyway....I mean, where's the transparency? Social media is big into transparency. Not very social....your way.
I love Gchat. and Facebook chat, too.
Don't be afraid. Call me. Jennifer

We had to chuckle at her reference to "transparency." The NYT is legendarily opaque. It often fails to respond to reporter inquiries (we're still waiting to hear back from chief spokeswoman Catherine Mathis about the NYT's internal inquiry on the Maureen Dowd plagiarism case). And many of its reporters and editors, including Preston, still cling to email addresses that purposely make them hard to reach.

But we didn't want to engage in a debate; we wanted an interview. So at 9:12 this morning, we wrote back to Jennifer to take her up on her self-professed G-chat love:

re your "anonymous" question, here's a post where we addressed that a few months ago.

glad to hear you love gchat. let's do it. this morning would be great for us, sooner the better! looking forward....


Less than a half-hour later, at 9:36 a.m., Preston wrote us back:

am not doing a gchat unless you let me buy you lunch -- not interested in excuses about anonymous. i have written hundreds of tough stories about people, places and things -- always with my byline...told in the fairest way I could.
how about you?

c'mom it would be fun...coming out and all....could be that you saw light on importance of being social...important step in your development as a journalist (and okay, as a human being.)

So now G-chat was off the table, and instead the Social Media Editor was offering us a chance to unburden ourselves and grow as a human being!

No, thanks. All we wanted was an interview.

This isn't the first time a NYT editor has taken a tough stance with us about our anonymity, of course. A couple of weeks ago, when we were reporting our item about David Pogue's speech to the Consumer Electronics Association's CEO Summit, we emailed assistant managing editor Craig Whitney for comment. We won't reprint his response, but suffice to say it was a tad snippy.

Fortunately for us, Catherine Mathis has been unfailingly courteous whenever we contact her for comment on a story. Sometimes she ignores questions she doesn't want to answer (hey, so do we!) but she treats us as the legitimate news operation we always strive to be. We like the way she writes "Dear NYTPicker" at the top of her emails, like that's our first name -- you know, NYTPicker Brown or something.

So what's up with the anonymous thing, anyway? We get that a lot, and we're just self-absorbed enough to think you're still wondering. We've tried to explain it before but it never quite seems to get through.

Look, it would be great for us to attach our real names to this eight-month-old enterprise. We think it's been pretty damn good so far, and we wouldn't mind getting some personal praise and ego stroking for our efforts. It must be obvious to NYTPicker readers by now that we're not making any money. Also, we've lost several stories as a result of our position; news sources (not just NYT editors) have refused to respond to email questions from an anonymous blog, and we can't really blame them. We're sitting on a huge, explosive story right now about the NYT that we can't confirm because of our invisibility cloak. It's a pain.

But here's the thing: if you knew who we were, it would become about us, not about the information and substance that we hope makes NYTPicker a valuable resource. You'd be calculating our biases, our backgrounds, and our experience as contributing factors in our coverage. And we'd be restricted, too, from writing about people who we might possibly know, and who would consider our coverage a personal affront. Yes, the writers of NYTPicker include those whose lives and careers intersect with the NYT -- though not necessarily in the ways you might think.

The NYT itself recently addressed the anonymity issue in a fascinating "Opinionator" blog post by Eric Etheridge that noted the noble tradition of anonymous writing going back to the Federalist Papers. It weighed the pros and cons carefully, and made for compelling reading.

We're asking readers of The NYTPicker to accept our way of doing business as the price for what we produce. We'd like to think we're performing a public service -- let's face it, there's no one else out there to tell you that the anagram of "New York Times" is "Write, Monkeys," even as we expose David Pogue's conflicts of interest and examine Maureen Dowd's plagiarism. We're going to keep at this and obsessively report on the NYT without fear or favor, for as long as we can afford it. We hope you'll forgive our anonymity, and embrace our effort. We love the NYT just as much as Preston, and someday we'd love to take her to lunch and toast its greatness with some tasty Bellinis.

Meanwhile, let's do G-chat.


Anonymous said...

Let me say "two cheers for anonymity." Sometimes it's necessary.

Anonymous said...

Make it three.

Anonymous said...

Just keep doing what you're doing. Good job, guys.

Anonymous said...

Just to quibble on your repeated point about email obscurity, but are you sure that reporters (and not corporate IT) are picking their own email addresses? And also, are you aware that reporter topic pages (like this one clicked off a story today) have a prominent Email This Reporter link) on the top?

This is not to say that the Times couldn't do more to share reporter contact information, but I think you're reading too much overt intent where it might not be.

Anonymous said...

Using the "Email This Reporter" link is like sending a letter without sealing the envelope. No one at the Times considers their email to be truly private, but doing it this way is asking for a whack in the head.

Michael Powell said...

Sending an email through the NYT bylines is akin to a whack in the head? Say what?
A fair number of us try to answer emails that come over the public transom, save perhaps for those that suggest the reporter commit a uncomfortable act with a strange animal.
As for email addresses here, I hate to puncture the obscurantist conspiracy theory but most are pretty being typical of the breed. In the case of Preston, there are four or five Prestons, and so four or five different email addresses are required. Hers is really not a particularly weird amalgam of letters.
Anoymity, meanwhile, is what it is. Understandable, perhaps, and yes there's a tradition to point to, although it's most couragous historical utility rests with taking on monarchs and czars. But it's not particularly weird that a reporter or editor would want to make voice contact--that desire goes back 50 millenium or so and tends to build trust ...

Anonymous said...

It's driving them crazy that you won't go away, and that they can't figure out who you are. Keep it up!

Re: 'quibble on your repeated point about email obscurity' said...

Ever try to e-mail, say, the standards editor?

Anonymous said...

The standards editor is at
It's on the internet, in plain sight.

'Plain sight" means what? said...

Neither "standards" nor "whitney" are on the main page, the contact page or with an e-mail address accessible through the search window.

Anonymous said...

You mean there are places on the Internet which don't end in ""


Barth said...

The comment about her "tough stories" did not indicate whether any were about her employer and whether said employer would look kindly or her "tough story".

For one reporter to try to out another on behalf of the newspaper-employer is really sad.

mccxxiii said...

"You'd be calculating our biases, our backgrounds, and our experience as contributing factors in our coverage."

I think this is the point. A reader *needs* to be able to do this in order to fully judge your work. Without knowing your bias, your background and your experience, we can't really tell if you're disgruntled ex-Timesmen (Timespeople?) with an agenda or just smart folks with time to kill.

The new paradigm is going to require that kind of transparency in order to build trust.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it more important to know "your bias, your background and your experience" of the reporters and editors than of these bloggers?

Anonymous said...

nytpicker just seems like gossip girl to me.

Anonymous said...

keep posting. keep being anonymous. i sometimes wonder who you are or what your bias is, but you know what? if i focused on that it'd take away from paying attention to what you write. so stay anonymous and good humored.

Anonymous said...

I agree. The NYT is making an issue of your anonymity to distract from what you write. Don't be distracted. We love you.