Monday, November 30, 2009

With Her First NYT Byline, Liz Leyden Offers A Sparkling Refresher Course In A Fast-Fading Art Form: The Metro Feature.

To us, the slow but steady disappearance of the young, hungry NYT reporter delivering the simple, stylish metro story -- of the sort Gay Talese, Anna Quindlen, Maureen Dowd and William E. Geist specialized in before they became media stars -- has become one of the most painful public markers of the NYT's economic decline.

We miss the days -- not so long ago, really -- when a recent arrival like Andrew Jacobs stopped us cold with his hilarious, graceful take on train travelers stranded at Grand Central Station after the final departure. Or when a newly-minted metro reporter named Alessandra Stanley drolly informed us one morning of the identity of T. D'Alessandro, the faceless elevator inspector whose signature we knew so well. Or when Anna Quindlen, before she ever even dreamed of writing novels, chronicled with poetry the futile search for a homeless woman, Alma Siegel, by a volunteer worker whose heart she had once touched:

''I know this woman,'' said a police officer in the Port Authority. ''This is the woman I had sent to Bellevue. Family in New Jersey, right? Some money in it?'' But then he looked closely at the picture and saw that it was someone else he meant.

It has been many, many mornings since the last time we read an article that caught our eye as the debut of a fresh, exciting new byline. But it happened this morning, when we stumbled on the metro feature on A24 about the Waldorf School in Saratoga Springs and its "forest kindergarten," and were introduced to the soft-spoken eloquence of a new NYT byline: Liz Leyden.

As it turns out, Leyden isn't a just-off-the-bus NYT kid reporter. We haven't quite been able to piece together her biography yet, but it appears she spent much of the 1990s as a staff writer for the Washington Post, and has since written for Salon. We also found her name on the website of a Saratoga Springs elementary school where she's a class parent -- so we're assuming she has relocated away from the Manhattan media meltdown you heard tell about in this morning's David Carr column, and is freelancing for the NYT.

We'll guess that in a week or two, Leyden will get a $1,000 check from the NYT for her article today, and no promises of future assignments. We'll happily correct this if we're wrong, but we're under the distinct impression that NYT reporters are getting laid off, not hired.

It isn't that Leyden's story is so special. It's a straightforward account of a group of young schoolchildren who spend three hours outdoors each day. It delivers the requisite supply of expert quotes and anecdotes. But right away, the lede lets us know we're reading the work of a writer who appreciates the cadence of words, and the value of verbs:

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — Fat, cold droplets splashed from the sky as the students struggled into their uniforms: rain pants, boots, mittens and hats. Once buttoned and bundled, they scattered toward favorite spaces: a crab apple tree made for climbing, a cluster of bushes forming a secret nook under a willow tree, a sandbox growing muddier by the minute.

And at the end, we relished Leyden's choice not to cave to journalistic convention -- as so many reporters do -- and conclude with a summing-up quote. Instead, she meandered a bit, and left us after the last paragraph with our minds free to form a mental picture for ourselves:

Trails had been worn through the thickets. An old stone wall ran through the center of the trees toward huge tepees the children had built from sticks and vines.

Everywhere, there were things to discover. A branch balanced on a split tree trunk became a seesaw. A teacher sawed thick stumps into logs the children used to bridge bogs. A pit became a monster house, complete with boys standing in the rain shouting warnings: “You don’t want to come over here! You’ll get smushed!”

Piper Whalen, 5, turned toward her own treasure: an enormous fallen tree. She climbed on and lifted her arms. “I’m riding a roller coaster,” she said. “Come on and ride with me.”

The raindrops continued to fall until, finally, it poured, hard enough to splash though the canopy of trees. The children were delighted.

“It’s wet!” exclaimed one.

“My hair is getting a drink of water!” another said.

Piper began to laugh. She stuck out her tongue and turned her face toward the sky.

Leyden won't be winning any Pulitzers for today's story, or maybe even any more assignments. But her debut this morning reminded us of the thrill of discovery -- and of what's too often missing from the NYT these days, as its resources diminish and its supply of new arrivals drops to zero. There's no substitute for fresh perspective and restless ambition when it comes to poetry.

UPDATE: It turns out Leyden is married to the NYT's Albany bureau chief, Danny Hakim, who shared the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting for the paper's coverage of the Eliot Spitzer sex scandal. Leyden and Hakim were married on July 14, 2001.


Anonymous said...

It isn’t only Metro that highlights fresh writing from new bylines. I still remember the sparkling story Geoffrey Gray wrote in 2003 about a truck-driving boxer who was one of the few to have his license suspended but still hoped to succeed. It wasn’t Gray’s first, but he was still a rookie, and it was the one that caught my eye. He continues to show up occasionally in the NYT. A few weeks ago, he told the story of Yuri Foreman, the boxing rabbi-to-be.

Anonymous said...

Geoffrey, thanks for posting!