Sunday, March 27, 2011

Another One Bites The Dust: After 15 Years, NYT Magazine Quietly Kills "Lives" Back-Page Feature.

After 15 years, the NYT Magazine has quietly killed yet another of its most enduring and popular features -- this time, the back-page "Lives" column.

For the last two weeks -- the second and third issues since the magazine re-launched under new editor Hugo Lindgren -- the backpage feature has been named "Read More." Last week's feature was a 395-word profile of the director of the 1971 movie, "Pink Narcissus," and this week chronicles (in 487 words) the life story of LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy.

The NYT Magazine -- under the leadership of then-editorial director Adam Moss, now editor of New York Magazine -- launched the "Lives" column on January 28, 1996, with an essay by writer Louise Rafkin about her laundry.

There followed more than 500 columns written by the famous (Shana Alexander and Steve Martin contributed in the first year), unknown, and even anonymous -- almost always recounting a small, well-told personal tale. The column grew out of the NYT Magazine's annual "Lives Well Lived" issue that offered short reminiscences of that year's notable deaths.

Lindgren -- who served under Moss at both the NYT Magazine and New York -- has been busy dismantling much of Moss's architecture in recent weeks.

Among Lindgren's moves: he replaced both Randy Cohen (The Ethicist) and Deborah Solomon ("Questions For..."), both popular columnists, and killed Virginia Heffernan's "Medium" column. Perhaps his most controversial decision to date was ending the "On Language" column after 32 years -- most of them written by legendary language expert William Safire.

Lindgren has hired a new Ethicist and "Questions For..." columnist, and launched several new features, among them a regular column by his boss, executive editor Bill Keller, and columns with labels like "You Are Here," "Look," "Riff" and "What They Were Thinking."

The loss of "Lives" will have far-reaching effects among writers, especially those who saw the column as a means to break into the NYT Magazine. In it early years, the column featured the NYT debuts of such future bestselling authors as Elizabeth Gilbert (writing about her childhood home), Mary Roach (on her elderly father) and novelist Colum McCann (on a visit to a Russian cemetery).

In the first issue of Lindgren's re-design, the "Lives" column adapted a piece first published online at Reddit -- liberally editing the language in ways that diminished the writer's original voice, as we noted at the time.

That, as it turned out, would be the column's farewell entry.

UPDATE: Does "Lives" still live? We emailed Lindgren before posting our item and he failed to respond. But a NYTPicker reader wrote to a NYT Magazine editor named John Glassie, and got this reply.

The email suggests that instead of killing "Lives," Lindgren has simply demoted it to occasional status, depending on the supply of 400-word profiles in the bank. Smooth move, Hugo!

HuffPo's Peter S. Goodman: "I Don't Get Why" NYT's Bill Keller Misrepresented Comments In Sunday Magazine Column.

In an email reponse to questions from The NYTPicker, former NYT economics writer Peter S. Goodman has questioned NYT executive editor Bill Keller's motives in mangling a quote from a recent column in the Huffington Post.

In today's NYT Magazine, Keller writes about the need for accuracy in news coverage -- but in doing so the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist innacurately quoted from a February 10 HuffPo column by Goodman.

Halfway through the column, Keller defends the NYT newsroom staff against an attack on the paper's approach to impartiality, by an unidentified critic:

My little realm, the newsroom, consists of about 1,100 people. Every one of them has opinions about a lot of things. But just as doctors and lawyers, teachers and military officers, judges and the police are expected to set aside their own politics in the performance of their duties, so are our employees. This does not mean — as one writer recently scoffed — that we “poll people at both extremes of any issue, then paint a line down the middle and point to it as reality.”

But in his haste to make a point, Keller managed to misinterpret the meaning of the quote from Goodman, who left the paper in September to join HuffPo as its business and technology editor.

Goodman's point wasn't presented either as a criticism of the NYT, or in the form of a scoff. In fact, he represents the notion quoted by Keller as a "false idea" of journalism, and nowhere does he mention the NYT. Here is the full context of Goodman's comment:

In the sort of journalism I am interested in practicing here, I want my reporters to reject the false idea that you simply poll people at both extremes of any issue, then paint a line down the middle and point to it as reality.

We emailed Goodman last night for his reaction to Keller's misrepresentation of his point. Here is the full text of his reply:

I greatly respect Bill and I still love the Times, and I'm not sure why he construed my sentence as a "scoff." I don't get why he apparently took it as being about the Times, when I was speaking much more generally about a troubling default mode in contemporary journalism. I was simply saying that I think it's crucial that journalists report impartially, insofar as we start our inquiry without being beholden to any particular interest, but equally that we then write it as we see it, without fretting over how readers will see us. I was in particular criticizing the tendency in many publications to insert mentions of bogus contentions as a means of inoculating themselves against claims that they are staking out a clear position. That doesn't help readers decide anything for themselves. It's phony centrism masquerading as impartiality. At the HuffPost, I don't allow my reporters to start out trying to buttress an ideological position, but if the reporting winds up going there, I see no value in muddying it up with dubious pseudo-facts aimed at creating a false sense of balance.

What makes Keller's misrepresentation notable is his ongoing battle with Arianna Huffington that began with his last NYT Magazine column. In that piece, Keller took strong issue with aggregation as a media business model, and his broadside against Huffington led to a brief skirmish between the two media titans.

Curiously, Keller appeared to be ignoring his own commentary about journalism and impartiality in his misquotation of Goodman's column in the Huffington Post.

"Once you proclaim an opinion," Keller wrote in today's column, "you may feel an urge to defend it, and that creates a temptation to overlook inconvenient facts when you should be searching them out."

Perhaps that explains why Keller overlooked the "inconvenient facts" of what Goodman actually wrote before making his point today.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Did NYT's Charles Isherwood Actually Sing Along At The End of "Where's Charley"? By Jove, We Think He Did.

In the last paragraph of theater critic Charles Isherwood's gushing review of "Where's Charley?" this morning came this confession:

And in the key role of Charley, Mr. McClure scampers to and fro with tireless energy, flouncing in and out of his skirts with comic verve, employing a funny, pinched falsetto when Charley is impersonating his aunt. The most famous song in Loesser’s score — really the only famous one — is “Once in Love With Amy,” credited with saving the musical’s fortunes during an uneasy out-of-town tryout, when Bolger invited the audience to sing along.

As performed (and led) by Mr. McClure, a nimble dancer and terrific singer, it naturally brings the show to a genial, mildly intoxicating climax. Normally I find the invitation to sing along about as appealing as a date with the dental surgeon. On this rare occasion, I found it almost impossible to resist.

This doesn't quite top Frank Rich's now-legendary 1987 leap onto the stage of "Starlight Express" in roller skates, but we're still impressed.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Jay Maeder Gets Editors' Note For Self-Plagiarism In City Room Blog; Columnist Tom Friedman Still At Large.

In this morning's corrections column, former New York Daily News reporter Jay Maeder got his wrist publicly slapped for committing a sin practiced by Thomas L. Friedman, its own Pulitzer prize-winning columnist: he copied from himself.

The difference, in this case, appears to be that Maeder lifted his lines from his former employer's paper, the Daily News -- while Friedman took his words from the NYT itself.

Curiously, there's a contradiction between the Editor's Note as published in the paper this morning, and the one published online. The online note cites three instances of self-plagiarism -- one in each of the City Room blog posts written by Maeder -- while the print edition refers only to two.

From the print edition:

A City Room article on Monday about renewed criticism of the “Rough Boy” statue at Queens Borough Hall included descriptions of the historical background very similar to material the same author had published in The Daily News in 2000. And a Feb. 18 City Room article by that writer, about the naming of the George Washington Bridge, also included passages similar to an account he wrote for The Daily News in 2000. Had Times editors known of the earlier articles, those passages would not have been used.

From the Edtor's Note on Maeder's February 23 City Room post -- one of three historical reflections by Maeder called the "Way Back Machine" -- on the arrival of air mail:

This post includes descriptions of the historical background similar to material the same author published in The Daily News in 1998. Had editors known of the earlier article, those passages would not have been used. Two other posts by this author also included descriptions similar to material he had previously written for The Daily News.

How many times did Maeder copy himself, guys -- two or three? Get your stories straight and report back to us in tomorrow's corrections column.

Although it's not quite the same as stealing someone else's words, the practice of self-plagiarism is considered unethical by most journalism professionals.

That's why we called attention to it way back in September of 2009, when Tom Friedman lifted an entire paragraph from a three-month-old op-ed column and put it in a new one -- a clear cut-and-paste job by one of the NYT's biggest stars.

Here's what Friedman wrote in "Can I Clean Your Clock?" published on July 4, 2009:

Well, there is one thing we know about necessity: it is the mother of invention....And when China starts to do that in a big way — when it starts to develop solar, wind, batteries, nuclear and energy efficiency technologies on its low-cost platform — watch out. You won’t just be buying your toys from China. You’ll be buying your energy future from China.

Here's essentially the same paragraph in Friedman's "The New Sputnik," published less than three months later:

What do we know about necessity? It is the mother of invention. And when China decides it has to go green out of necessity, watch out. You will not just be buying your toys from China. You will buy your next electric car, solar panels, batteries and energy-efficiency software from China.

This isn't the only instance of Friedman lifting material from other columns to fill out new ones. In December of 2008, we noted Friedman's frequent use of the Flintsones as an ongoing metaphor to apply to all situations -- most often juxtaposing them to the Jetsons, for added emphasis.

We don't excuse Maeder's apparent borrowing of language from his past work in the Daily News, and we suppose there's an added problem in using words that appeared in another newspaper.

But it doesn't seem fair to call Maeder out on his mistake, while the NYT allows Friedman's repetition of ideas and phrases to appear without reprimand. The NYT needs a policy on self-plagiarism that applies equally to all its contributors, without fear or favor.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

On Language: Hugo Lindgren's New NYT Magazine Rewrites "Lives" Column, Cuts Use Of "Fuck," "Shit" And "Dude."

On the back page of Hugo Lindgren's newly-remodeled NYT Magazine -- you know, the one that unceremoniously axed the "On Language" column after 32 years -- there's a sweet little essay in the "Lives" column from a dude named Justin Horner.

We say "dude" because Horner likes to say "dude." He said "dude" several times in his original version of the essay -- along with several other turns of phrase that made his writing distinct and wonderful and fresh.

That was before Lindgren's pencil-pushers had their way with it.

It's still a charming little yarn about a family of Mexican immigrants who stopped along the side of an Oregon road to help a man change a tire. Nothing much special about it, except the raw truth of the moment conveyed by Horner -- who isn't even a writer. He's a graphic designer. He just happens to have a terrific natural voice.

The NYT notes that the essay was "adapted from a message board posting on" So we went poking around for the original. It wasn't hard to find, because the Reddit community was abuzz with comments about the NYT's editorial process.

We're glad the NYT published the piece; it's sweet and likely to bring a tear to readers' eyes -- and not the first, probably, for regular readers who miss the multitude of staples (Randy Cohen's Ethicist, Deborah Solomon's Q-and-A, Virginia Heffernan's Medium column, Pete Wells' Cooking with Dexter) now gone to make way for columns called "Riff," "Look" and "You Are Here."

We'll leave those new features alone for the time being and let them evolve. A magazine is a living organism that needs time to breathe.

But in going through the two Justin Horner pieces carefully -- his has been referred to as "Today You, Tomorrow Me" on the web, while the NYT's version has been less effectively titled "The Tire Iron and the Tamale" -- we found ourselves disillusioned by the unnamed editor's excessive blue pencil.

The piece isn't ruined; far from it. But it sure ain't better, dude.

Here are some examples.

For instance, here's the graceful, evocative lede to the original piece that the NYT editor lopped off:

Just about every time I see someone I stop. I kind of got out of the habit in the last couple of years, moved to a big city and all that, my girlfriend wasn't too stoked on the practice. Then some shit happened to me that changed me and I am back to offering rides habitually. If you would indulge me, it is [a] long story and has almost nothing to do with hitch hiking other than happening on a road.

Okay, maybe it's not exactly on point. But we liked the way he moseyed into the topic, which he put on a Reddit thread on hitchhiking. Even without that context, there's a sort-of poetry to that line.

Then Horner wrote this:

Anyway, each of these times this shit happened I was DISGUSTED with how people would not bother to help me. I spent hours on the side of the freeway waiting, watching roadside assistance vehicles blow past me, for AAA to show. The 4 gas stations I asked for a gas can at told me that they couldn't loan them out "for my safety" but I could buy a really shitty 1-gallon one with no cap for $15. It was enough, each time, to make you say shit like "this country is going to hell in a handbasket."

But you know who came to my rescue all three times? Immigrants. Mexican immigrants. None of them spoke a lick of the language. But one of those dudes had a profound affect on me.

Which the NYT changed to this:

Each time, when these things happened, I was disgusted with the way people didn’t bother to help. I was stuck on the side of the freeway hoping my friend’s roadside service would show, just watching tow trucks cruise past me. The people at the gas stations where I asked for a gas can told me that they couldn’t lend them out “for safety reasons,” but that I could buy a really crappy one-gallon can, with no cap, for $15. It was enough to make me say stuff like “this country is going to hell in a handbasket,” which I actually said.

But you know who came to my rescue all three times? Immigrants. Mexican immigrants. None of them spoke any English.

Let's see: the editor changed "shit" to "things," "blow" to "cruise," changed the quotes -- presumably after the "fact checkers" couldn't confirm the conversations Horner had with gas-station attendants -- noted that Horner had "actually said" the line that "this country is going to hell in a handbasket," and cut the first of the piece's many reference to "dudes."

Then this became that.

This, in Horner's original prose:

I start taking the wheel off and, if you can believe it, I broke his tire iron. It was one of those collapsible ones and I wasn't careful and I snapped the head I needed clean off. Fuck.

That, in NYT-speak:

I started taking the wheel off, and then, if you can believe it, I broke his tire iron. It was one of those collapsible ones, and I wasn’t careful, and I snapped the head clean off. Damn.

Commas, small word changes, the deletion of an obscenity...small changes, true, but nonetheless altering the author's true voice and rhythms.

The rest of the edits go pretty much along those lines -- a shit here, a fuck there -- until we get to the ending. Here's where the NYT editor took one too many liberties with the language of the writer.


Dude just smiles, shakes his head and, with what looked like great concentration, tried his hardest to speak to me in English: "Today you.... tomorrow me."

Rolled up his window, drove away, his daughter waving to me in the rear view. I sat in my car eating the best fucking tamale of all time and I just cried. Like a little girl. It has been a rough year and nothing has broke my way. This was so out of left field I just couldn't deal.

In the 5 months since I have changed a couple of tires, given a few rides to gas stations and, once, went 50 miles out of my way to get a girl to an airport. I won't accept money. Every time I tell them the same thing when we are through:

"Today you.... tomorrow me."


The guy just smiled and, with what looked like great concentration, said in English: “Today you, tomorrow me.”

Then he rolled up his window and drove away, with his daughter waving to me from the back. I sat in my car eating the best tamale I’ve ever had, and I just started to cry. It had been a rough year; nothing seemed to break my way. This was so out of left field I just couldn’t handle it.

In the several months since then I’ve changed a couple of tires, given a few rides to gas stations and once drove 50 miles out of my way to get a girl to an airport. I won’t accept money. But every time I’m able to help, I feel as if I’m putting something in the bank.

No argument this time. Horner's ending was better.

We're not against editing. But we're sorry to see the NYT Magazine simultaneously drop its classic column about language, and add elements so editor-driven that Lindgren felt it necessary to add ludicrous editor "bylines" to the ends of features.

What made previous incarnations of the NYT Magazine so special -- we're thinking back through its history, when writers from Leo Tolstoy to J. Anthony Lukas graced its pages -- was its commitment to voice.

We get that the NYT is a "family newspaper" and that family newspapers don't say fuck. But isn't it time for a re-think on that policy? We've been arguing for a while against the NYT's antiquated rules against obscenity -- which only calls attention to their absence, in a world where they've become commonplace in print. It's going to happen sooner or later; why not now?

Meanwhile, we hope that the Lindgren era that began today will eventually bring with it the commitment to language and style that was the essence, and point, of the column he killed. The Horner edit isn't a very auspicious start.