You may recall that the NY Times plunged to new depths of self-parodying trend baiting earlier this month when they declared the monocle was back in fashion (for the sixth time). After a minimum amount of fact-checking, it turned out there was little evidence of any such trend, let alone anyone in NYC who admitted to wearing one (although apparently a few dogs have been spotted sporting them). Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan took a closer look at the Times' increasing embrace of hacky trend stories in her column today: “When I first read it, I thought, ‘This is so Onion,’ ” Style editor Denny Lee, who worked on the monocle piece, told her.
Lee noted that he thought the language in the piece was intentionally "slightly overwrought," and felt the writer was making it clear that he "was in on the joke." Huh? So it wasn't a trend, it was just a joke masquerading as a news article without any indication that it was a joke? Do we really want the newspaper of record to be spewing out eye-rolling looks at men's hair buns or historical accounts of pubic hair?
Sullivan has been an excellent public editor for the Times (see: her recently-launched AnonyWatch, to keep track of anonymous quotes in the Times), but there's no explanation here as to how (or WHY) a team of Times writers and editors came to the conclusion that monocles were "in" and this was information people needed to know. And if it was born purely of some satirical impulse, why exactly would anyone ever want the NY Times to emulate The Onion when The Onion already exists and does it better?
Sullivan talked to Styles editor Stuart Emmrich to learn a bit more about how the trend sausage is made. Based on this, it sounds like a friend of a Times' writer may have lost a bet at a dinner party.
“I try to stay away from ‘trend’ stories in favor of what I call ‘snapshots’ — pieces, sometimes inside quick hits (usually in the Noted column) and sometimes cover stories, that give a window into the lives of some of our readers,” he told me. It’s what he likes to call “the journalism of recognition,” he says — “sometimes to the eye rolls of my staff.”
Some of the ideas come from freelance pitches, as the monocle column did.
“But most often they come from a Monday morning meeting with my staff where I open with a very specific question: What did you do, see, listen to, read or talk to friends about this weekend? Is there a story there?”
As for his reaction when articles are criticized, Mr. Emmrich rolls with the punches: “If it comes directly from a reader, I try to respond thoughtfully and respectfully. If it comes from a blog or some other site, I read it, usually chuckle (especially if it is a well-written attack) and then move on.”
Sullivan misses one very important characteristic of these trend stories: the fact that an inordinate amount of them are essentially puff lifestyle pieces about the absurdly wealthy for the absurdly wealthy. Emmrich says he wants to hear about stories that "give a window into the lives of some of our readers"—but how many New Yorkers are buying $9000 shoes? How many are building $50,000 tree houses or flying their kids to summer camp with charter planes? Is the story about must-have in-home bartenders really a reflection of most New Yorkers' lives?
While we don't totally agree with Sullivan's assessment that these types of trend pieces at their best "provoke moments of recognition," unless perhaps you identify as pubic hair-phobic plutocrat, we vehemently agree that we want the Times to keep producing these types of stories "because they occasionally provide a full day’s worth of hilarity." If it weren't for their non-existent trend reportage, we'd never have learned about Bushwick witches and dorm room chandeliers, that a bad credit score is a new form of STD and hipsters aren't cool. We'd have never gotten to read many sad odes to the most obliviously self-involved rich people in NYC.
And dear god: imagine living in a world in which we never met any "futurism consultants"? How else would we know that Brooklyn is "turning out to be the last three days of Burning Man?"