Does winning a Pulitzer Prize exempt you from properly doing your job at the NYT?
That appears to be the case with Matt Richtel's bogus page-one "trend" story this morning that declares email in "decline" -- a bastion for the "old fogey" who hasn't discovered the joys of text. He emphatically states -- with no reporting to support it -- that online chats and text messaging are "threatening to eclipse email, much as they have already superseded phone calls."
Richtel "proves" his point with the following evidence:
-- Interviews with two young women -- a 17-year-old named Lena Jenny, and a 26-year-old named Katie Bird Hunter -- who say they prefer the speed and convenience of texting.
This is only the most obvious, not the most damning example of Richtel's laziness. But it's clearly not thorough or representative reporting to quote two people as proof of a trend -- especially since neither example suggests that they have given up email in favor of other means to communicate.
But since Richtel's thesis focuses largely on, as he puts it, the "Lenas of the world" -- without making it at all clear what makes Lena a trend --the lack of additional Lenas is a bit disturbing. In the story, Lena calls email "so lame" but doesn't deny using it. And Richtel ends his story on a 23-year-old who complains about the poor grammar in text messages, and continues to use email.
So where's the trend? Where's the reporting? As George Carlin would say: nowhere, mon frere.
-- A reference to a comScore study showing that unique visitors to "major email sites like Yahoo and Hotmail are in steady decline."
Steady decline? Richtel himself notes that visits "peaked" in 2009 and "have since slid." A one-year decline cannot by any stretch of the journalistic imagination be called "steady."
In any case, Richtel also points out that Gmail use is up. So what are the overall statistics that might prove -- or disprove -- his thesis? He doesn't disclose them. A search of the comScore website, with an extensive digest of press releases, didn't reveal the source of Richtel's information, and the hyperlink in the story takes the reader only to the NYT's index of comScore-related stories.
-- An interview with a professor of communications at Rutgers, James E. Katz, who has been a NYT go-to academic for quotes about technology shifts in recent years.
It turns out Katz has been quoted 70 different times by a multitude of NYT reporters in the last decade -- including in 16 different stories by Richtel since 2004. Like the famed Syracuse University quotemeister Robert Thompson, Katz helpfully delivers pithy quotes to bogus trendspotters like Richtel, on deadline.
In their first conversation in August of 2004, Katz offered Richtel the requisite expert quote he needed for a story about the possible listing of cell-phone numbers.
''People would love to be able to contact each other,'' Katz told Richtel. ''But they are very reluctant to be reached.'' Huh?
In today's story, Katz said that email is "painful" for young people. "It doesn't suit their social intensity," he says. Painful? Seriously?
Aside from the story's multiple reportorial weaknesses, Richtel's writing also suffers from laziness unbecoming of the NYT's front page. Consider this embarrassing lede:
Signs you’re an old fogey: You still watch movies on a VCR, listen to vinyl records and shoot photos on film.
And you enjoy using e-mail.
It's usually a bad sign for a trend story when the reporter can't dredge up a worthy anecdote for the lede, and instead is forced to fall back on this sort of hackneyed prose to make a point.
Richtel has worked at the NYT since 2000, and won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting this year for the 2009 series "Driven To Distraction," about the dangers of texting while driving. He has also written a mystery novel, and until recently published a regular daily cartoon strip.
We've contacted Richtel to get his comment on today's story. Based on his apparent poor effort, we wonder if maybe Richtel's a little distracted, too.