Maureen Dowd and Gail Collins Have Too Much in Common

As things have gone, editors Michael Hirschorn and Kurt Andersen have been pretty quiet about their Web site venture. So far, this much is known: They have $5 million worth of investor money, they’ve spent some of it raiding other publications’ staffs, they’re building a media news site called Insidedope.com, and the company is called Powerful Media.

The choice of a company name is no small thing, and one is tempted to divine something about the nature of the enterprise from it. One might, for instance, conclude the name signifies a scheme for taking over the media world. (After all, Mr. Andersen did go on Charlie Rose to discuss the implications of the America Online-Time Warner merger.) Or, rather, one might walk away chuckling at the self-knowing, ironic poke at the fledgling firm’s real status. (On the show, Mr. Andersen didn’t have much to say and often looked a little confused.) So, we asked.

Mr. Hirschorn, what is behind the name “Powerful Media”?

“Hmm. I’ll have to think about that. I can call you back if you’d like.”

O.K., but did you just hash it out over drinks with Mr. Andersen one night?

“I’m not ducking you here, but I’m not sure I can provide appreciable color on this,” he said. “There was no ‘eureka’ moment, if that’s what you’re asking. It seemed mildly amusing at the time, and we went with it. We’re assuming that, like with all names like this, the implicit quote marks will drop off at some point and it will become just another company name.”

So, you mean you really want to be powerful?

“Well, you know, in a self-deprecating, ironic kind of way, sure.”

Asked to elaborate on that, Mr. Hirschorn said, “I’m going to consider it carefully and talk it over with Kurt, and one of us will get back to you. We’ll either jabber away or stonewall you in a Nixonian manner.”

A hour or so later, Mr. Hirschorn called back: “I’m going to respectfully decline further comment.”

CHEE PEARLMAN, EDITOR OF I.D. , is leaving the design magazine to edit a new magazine-on-line startup headed by former Wired executive publisher Dana Lyon, who herself quit her last job on Dec. 31. Ms. Pearlman gave notice on Jan. 27.

The new company, One Ventures Inc., will publish an as-yet-untitled magazine and Web site about design aimed at consumers who have made out in the Internet gold rush. “The affluent population is growing at just an unprecedented rate” said Ms. Lyon. “If you look at the statistics in Silicon Valley, it’s almost nothing to be a millionaire these days.”

In the six years Ms. Pearlman has run I.D. –which is probably best known for its annual design awards that recognize good taste in such objects of beauty as the Apple Imac, the cover of a new edition of The Communist Manifesto and Colgate toothbrushes–the magazine has won four National Magazine Awards, three for general excellence and one for design.

Ms. Pearlman has been at the magazine since 1988, when she started as an editorial assistant.

I.D. ‘s reach is limited, with just 36,000 paid subscribers. “I have always been very happy with this magazine and what we’ve been able to do here,” Ms. Pearlman said. “Now it’s time to see if I can translate that to a consumer audience.”

MILLENNIUM MADNESS IS OVER and the midwinter doldrums have set in at The New York Times . At least, executive editor Joe Lelyveld seems to think so. He chided his foreign news staff on Jan. 24 for slacking off.

In a memo e-mailed to The Times ‘ foreign correspondents, Mr. Lelyveld wrote, “The last couple of days has looked a little threadbare around the edges and we now have the shortest list of overheld foreign stories I’ve seen since I’ve been at this. It’s less than a half page long. And only has eight stories on it. Is everybody working on a special report or a feature for another section? That’s laudable, but we can’t operate with so little choice or publish only features and journals. Please take a look around at what’s actually going on in your region and give us some coverage very soon on hard news themes. We remain a daily newspaper and need to look like one. It’s why we have a foreign staff. Chechnya cannot be the only thing that’s happening in the world.”

Foreign news editor Andrew Rosenthal denied any lack of output by his staff. ” The New York Times ‘ international coverage is just fine,” he said. “We have stories on the front page. We have stories inside. Everybody is fine.” As for Mr. Lelyveld’s criticism of his section, Mr. Rosenthal said he wasn’t upset. “And if I was, I wouldn’t say so, anyway,” he said. “I seem to still be working here.”

Mr. Lelyveld did not return a call for comment.

THAT WASN’T A BRUCE MCCALL PARODY on the “Back Page” feature of the Feb. 7 issue of The New Yorker . It was an honest-to-goodness announcement of the winner of the magazine’s cartoon caption contest. It was presented, however, in so many layers of self-tortured irony that you are excused if you thought it was the sly work of Mr. McCall.

The contest winner, “Mom, Dad’s been on Ebay again!” was a perfectly good response to a picture of a man lugging a very large globe home. But here’s how The New Yorker explained the choice: “This caption was not necessarily cleverer, more ingenious, or more imaginative than every single one of the others, but in some hard-to-define way it hit closest to the bull’s-eye. It was topical, depending for its punch on the currency of an Internet fad whose power to get laughs has already begun to fade.”

And: “The ‘winner’–in distancing quotes because winning is such a vulgar concept when it comes to art, don’t you think?”

The text was written by Hendrik Hertzberg, the magazine’s senior editor. He admitted that a New Yorker reader contest–a feature more frequently found in Boy’s Life or Sassy , say–made him feel a little awkward. “We haven’t been too big on contests over the years,” he said. “But irony is our stock in trade.”

It won’t likely be the last contest, however. The New Yorker sounds pretty earnest about keeping the feature in the magazine. Cartoon editor Bob Mankoff, who came up with the idea, devised a system of databases and secure web pages to sort through and pluck the winner from the 5,000 or so entries.

“We sort of had to invent processes and devices to evaluate just the number of responses,” Mr. Mankoff said.

Mr. Mankoff narrowed things down to eight finalists, then posted them on a secure web page where the New Yorker staff voted electronically. But it wasn’t entirely democratic: Editor David Remnick selected the winner.

READERS OF MAUREEN DOWD’S Jan. 30 Op-Ed column in The New York Times were asked, “Who Am I?” The question referred to Bill Bradley, but lately it could be asked just as easily of two of the Op-Ed columnists themselves.

One of those two would be Ms. Dowd. The other would be that upstart Times Op-Ed writer Gail Collins. The two seem to be covering a lot of the same ground in their coverage of this year’s Presidential race, even sharing the same light-and-sexy tone that has served Ms. Dowd so well in campaigns past. And while it can be fairly said that there are only so many topics to be written about, even in the vast wasteland of Presidential politics, it gets a little creepy at times reading the commentary of the two smart, punchy writers.

Try to distinguish, for example, who wrote what: “In Old Politics, you tangle with your opponent. In New Politics, you tangle with yourself. O.P. is visceral. N.P. is cerebral,” one of the two wrote. Two days later on the same page: “It must be tough being the candidate for a new politics on the one day of the year when the old politics seems just fine.”

For the record, the first is Ms. Dowd and the second Ms. Collins. Weird, huh?

When pressed, insiders will admit the two are starting to sound a little bit the same. “There’s a little bit of overlap in that they both obviously love the tool of sarcasm,” a member of the Times staff said. “And on a page where a lot of the people write in a much more straightforward manner, that does strike your eye.”

What is also striking in some people’s eyes is Ms. Collins’ improvement during the months she has appeared on the Op-Ed page–even, dare we say it, at times surpassing Ms. Dowd in content as well as wit. Ms. Collins, it appears, has been doing the legwork: hitting the campaign trail, absorbing the candidates, talking to real people who help her frame her wry observations and overall themes. This, of course, is the kind of stuff that in past Presidential races made Ms. Dowd the star that she is. Yet while Ms. Collins has been hitting some nice doubles and an occasional triple in her Tuesday and Friday columns, Ms. Dowd has been bunting her Sunday and Wednesday columns. The absolute nadir–and we are not alone in this observation–came in her recent commentary on the state of female beauty, wrung out of a trip to the Saks Fifth Avenue cosmetic counters with, as she wrote, “my girlfriend Alessandra.” (As in Stanley, a Times reporter?)

Still, with a fresh Pulitzer Prize under her belt and a high-profile thanks to a year of Monicagate, Ms. Dowd is the biggest name on the Times Op-Ed page these days. As one observer of Op-Ed page politics put it, “Maureen is obviously, in Times terms, the big-cheese Pulitzer Prize winner, and Gail Collins is the new kid on the block.”

Some accuse Off the Record of drumming up a cat fight. Of pure, outright sexism for comparing the two women on the Op-Ed page while offering no similar observations of, say, newcomer Paul Krugman and Thomas Friedman. True. But one Times staff member reports that his friends regularly ask him if there is any tension between Ms. Dowd and Ms. Collins. And other calls from intrepid media reporters have apparently been made to The Times , inquiring about whether a cat fight is brewing in the Ivory Tower.

Times insiders earnestly insist that the two like each other quite a bit (when they see each other, that is–Ms. Dowd works out of the Washington bureau, while Ms. Collins has her office in New York), and that any rivalry is solely in the eyes of outsiders. That would make sense. Both women come from similar backgrounds: middle-class Irish-American families. They are five years apart in age: Ms. Collins, 53; Ms. Dowd, 48. Both paid their dues before landing in Times heaven. Ms. Collins was a U.P.I. reporter in New York before she moved on in 1985 to become a columnist at the New York Daily News and then New York Newsday ; she joined The Times ‘ editorial board in 1995. Ms. Dowd joined The Times in 1983 as a metro reporter and then was assigned to the Washington bureau, where she began writing the sort of sardonic political profiles that got her onto the Op-Ed page in 1995. Most important, they both have a reserve of venom they can unleash in their writing.

Ms. Collins is still on The Times ‘ editorial board staff, on “special assignment” to the Op-Ed page through the 2000 political season. When the elections are over, might she stay? And if so, will there be room for both her and Ms. Dowd?

“The idea that Maureen would be threatened by Gail is kind of illogical because Maureen has as secure a place on that page as anyone,” said one Times staff member. “She quite recently won a Pulitzer Prize. And she’s never been anything less than beloved by the top editors at the paper.”

Ms. Dowd and Ms. Collins were both in New Hampshire and could not be reached for comment.