How Angry NYT Editors and HBO's Bored to Death Make the Case for Media Reporting

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Well, it's media reporting day-a-palooza here, which means that seven more people are reading this blog than they are on the average day. So while we're at it, here's how to explain the relevancy and case for a great media reporter like John Koblin, which involves two angry, high-level New York Times editors and an HBO show with Ted Danson on it.

EXAMPLE 1: John Koblin writes an item about Jill Abramson, the managing editor of the New York Times, who has left her job for sixth months to go learn how the Internet works and bring her knowledge of New Digital Media back to her old position at the Times. Koblin hears that Abramson's coming back six weeks early, because, among other reasons, everyone liked her temporary replacement a lot. A lot. And let's say you're Jill Abramson, and you're gunning for the top dog position at the Times: You don't want anybody in your job being better than you. Hell no. Or as John put it:

Did Ms. Abramson, who has been long regarded at the Times as a front-runner to become the next executive editor (ahead of Mr. Baquet and Andy Rosenthal), feel the need to get back to her regular day-to-day duties as soon as possible?

Naturally, Abramson didn't comment to Koblin. But Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, certainly had some nice words for him:

Mr. Keller had a few other comments about our interest in this item. "Boy, John, do you need to get a life. Even I can't see an interesting story in this, and I live here," he wrote.

Thing is, John was spot-on. A few days later (today), this happens at New York magazine, a few hundreds words on Jill Abramson, leading with the headline "TIMES TWO: Jill Abramson, the Times' first heiress apparent." and soon after, this:

In many respects, she's more alpha than Keller, with a confidence that makes some Times people still smarting from the Raines era a little nervous. And she's not the only one in the hunt for the job. Both Baquet, a beloved former national editor who also once ran the Los Angeles Times, and editorial-page editor Andy Rosenthal are said to be contenders. Baquet's recent stint as acting managing editor was greeted warmly in the newsroom:

"I don't dwell on it," Abramson says when I ask about succession, evincing the diplomatic skill of the politicians she used to cover earlier in her career as an ace investigative reporter. "I think it would be a healthy, nice thing for the country. It is meaningful to have women in positions of leadership at important institutions in society."

So Bill Keller -- the executive editor of the New York Times -- tells John to get a life, but Jill Abramson walks right into the narrative Koblin writes, and also confirms its significance?

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EXAMPLE 2: Here's a treat for anyone who watched the season premiere of HBO's Bored to Death last night. In it, there's an exchange for three minutes between Ted Danson, who's the editor of a large magazine within a corporation that's been taking over (and is now cutting his budget), and the woman who's cutting his budget. From the HBO recap of the episode:

George faces his own trials. 'Edition NY' has been brought, and the new publisher, Katherine Joiner, lays down the law about cutting back on expenses: No more lunches at the Four Seasons, no more Orangina.

The conversation about the Orangina was a majority of the scene, which probably went on about a minute too long, anyway. Back to last summer, when McKinsey was making layoffs at iconic New York City magazine publishing house Conde Nast, as budgets were being cut in the height of the media job recession, John Koblin followed around Conde Nast brass for his cover story "The Gilded Age of Conde Nast Is Over" a classic Observer -- or media, or New York City -- story by anyone's standards, at any time. This was the closing anecdote of the piece:

"When I started, there was this little refrigerator, and it was stocked with amazing drinks," said one ad-sales source. "Pellegrino, Orangina, Red Bull. And like the water wasn't Poland Spring, it was like Fiji. I remember when I started working here, I emailed everyone I know and I was like, 'I have to tell you about the drinks!'" But then in December, a few months after Condé Nast ordered publishers and editors to cut 5 percent from their budgets, the drink supply emptied out. That Fiji water turned into Poland Spring. Worse, instead of the fridge, the water bottles were stowed in a warm closet. And then: "I just found out today that we are on our last batch of Poland Spring," said the source. "We won't have any more after this. We have to start drinking tap water."

Still, [Conde Nast CEO and President Chuck Townsend] doesn't think these lifestyle changes add up to much, even if they make Condé Nast seem, at least from the outside, less enviable. "The Red Bulls and Oranginas are maybe no longer there, but what's the difference?" he asked. "It's still the quirkiest place on the face of the earth. A lot of that quirkiness makes us special. A lot of that quirkiness makes for interesting observations. But it has absolutely nothing to do with anything, so where's the line drawn? I don't want to lose the speciality or the quirkiness, but a lot of this stuff that has been part and parcel of it is just meaningless." I asked Mr. Townsend what he meant by that. "You don't need it! You don't need the Orangina!"

Koblin's stories -- like a lot of the fun media inside baseball can be, especially when reported well -- even make great pop culture callbacks. Stories like this one and other great media tales create a compelling narrative, despite an often limited reach among more readers, which is too bad. For one thing, someone's gotta report on the reporters.

But for another, there's an old saying in politics that there are two things nobody should watch get made: sausage and laws. They might want to put "media" on that list, because reading the story is often, really, only part of it, and nuanced understandings of how they come to be? The uglier side of things? That's where media reporting comes in, and it's often met with great hostility by its subjects, who are typically the ones scrutinizing, and not being items of scrutiny. Why not?

Probably because most of this information is never entirely necessary to know for the general population -- with very, very significant exceptions -- but it is pretty interesting and fun stuff no less, and a large part of the reason, one would imagine, people do it for a job. It's also a great way to see how some things in the world are never not inextricably linked: last night, Ted Danson acts out a line about Conde Nast's failings on an HBO show pulled straight from a New York Observer piece. Today, it's revealed that his co-star, Jason Schwartzman, is shilling for Conde Nast's latest iPad app -- for The New Yorker -- in this twee instructional video, which the New York Observer wrote about, and for which Bored to Death creator Jonathan Ames, if he hasn't already, is a likely contributor to.

[fkamer@villagevoice.com]

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