Just thirty-six hours ago, a new Lower East Side bar, the Blind Barber, hosted its opening night party -- and yesterday the establishment opened its doors to the public for the first time.
Yet as of this morning, the Blind Barber has already been the subject of three separate puff pieces in the NYT!
We know the NYT is anxious to demonstrate its hipness to young readers drifting away from the paper, but we're a bit surprised to see this blanket, fawning coverage of the bar -- an oddly-conceived attempt to merger a hipster bar and a barbershop in a neighborhood where trendy watering holes come and go every day.
The onslaught of stories kicked off at 11:45 a.m. Wednesday morning with "Vain Glorious," a post by Katie Chang on the NYT's "Moment" blog that offered readers a fawning recitation of the basic facts -- presented in a who-what-when-where-why format for easy digestion.
"Contrary to the name," Chang wrote, "the vision of the men behind the Blind Barber is crystal clear." We haven't seen the press release, but we're pretty sure that could have been the lede sentence.
Less than 24 hours later -- at 9:19 a.m. Thursday, after the launch party -- the NYT website revisited the Blind Barber in the form of a "Nocturnalist" column on the City Room blog, by Sarah Maslin Nir.
"Unlike most bars with a similar conceit," Nir wrote, "this one’s shop is not just a gimmick."
That's right, everyone -- this combination bar/barbershop isn't just a gimmick. The press release says so!
Now, this morning, comes the all-important Frank Bruni review. After only two previous Friday columns, Bruni's "Tipsy Diaries" -- a promised look at the New York drinking scene -- has already succumbed to the hook of a promotional gimmick.
By way of semi-apology for falling so quickly into the trap of chronicling an untested bar, Bruni acknowledges the lure of the release -- "Although we reporters are usually loath to admit this sort of thing, the release got my attention" he writes -- and tests the product himself.
This time, of course, Bruni is forced to shed the anonymity that served him so well as a restaurant critic, and comes away seemingly smitten with the bar's kooky concept. "Sometimes the best pairings are the most obvious ones," he concludes lovingly, in reference to the best beer to go with a mullet.
Bruni also fell for the bar's wondrous opportunities to pepper his usually witty prose with the stuff of ad copy: "Get buzzed while getting buzzed," he riffs. "Combine hygiene with high jinks." Or is he being ironic?
And this, in reference to one of the bar's cutesy drinks: "I was determined to kill two birds with one Sweeney Todd."
This promotional bonanza represents the apparent handiwork of Tracey Henry, the owner of a local PR firm called Type A Media. It represents such other Lower East Side landmarks as the Sunburnt Cow on Avenue C. We emailed Henry for comment yesterday on her NYT trifecta, and haven't heard back. She may be too busy pasting the clips into her scrapbook.
As for the NYT, we contacted Bruni yesterday to ask how he came to be the third NYT writer on the Blind Barber story, and whether it bothered him to see one place get so much fawning coverage -- especially before doing anything.
To Bruni's credit, he has answered The NYTPicker with an eloquent response, which we're printing here in full:
No hard feelings, but I have a problem with responding to an anonymous questioner. We put our names on stories, shouldn't our critics put their names to their criticism? I'd love it if you included that as part of my response.
Only because of that problem, I'm going to be more terse in my responses than I'd otherwise be: My new column will feature, as it has already, a mix of established and new places and people and rituals and drinks. Of course new places---announced, as new places typically are, in press releases---will be included, not because we shill for anything or anyone but because, as a newspaper, we constantly alert people to what's new: in movie theaters, on stages, in restaurants, in bars. This particular establishment seemed, to me, to afford the possibility of some fun for a column writer, and thus for readers. And it's emblematic of the aggressively entrepreneurial, conceit-driven nature of the city's current cocktail scene. I 'budgeted' my story on it more than a week before that story went online, and at no subsequent time learned that others within the Times's large web universe had decided to turn their attention to it. Such duplication is, I think, inevitable in a news organization as ambitious and comprehensive as ours: it's an admittedly imperfect byproduct of the newspaper's admirable energy, thoroughness, staffing level and reach. The Blind Barber's publicist, whom I contacted to set up interviews with the owners of the establishment, certainly didn't tell me that she had begun dealing with other Times contributors.
No surprise -- the publicist probably forgot to tell Nir or Chang about Bruni, either.
We don't hold any of the individual reporters responsible for this ridiculous overkill. But we'd argue strenuously with Bruni's contention that three promotional stories on a brand-new bar reflect a positive illustration of the NYT's "admirable energy, thoroughness, staffing level and reach."
The NYT should save its "ambitious and comprehensive" coverage for stories that matter.